Remembering Michael Brecker

Remembering Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker

My Highschool had was a music ‘listening room’ with a bunch of tapedecks, record players, reel-to-reels and library of jazz records and tapes. It was a hidden and underutilized place. Only me and a few other megamusicnerds ever used it and I was usually in there completely alone. I used to hide out in there to wearing headphones in the dark to avoid the wrestling unit in gym and anything else I thought was uncivilized and humiliating. One of my favorites discoveries from these secret escapes was Brecker Bothers self-titled 1975 album. What was this? Jazz? funk? I’d never heard anything like but I felt it was crazy cool music. I clearly needed to get to know these Brecker brothers. I was trying to figure out not only how jazz ‘worked’ as a language and, like any teenager. I was also trying to figure out what kinds of music I was into. I trusted my newfound Jazz idols to help steer me through the miasma. If a jazz musician that I liked was credited as a session player on a record, [ANY record] that was generally a good reason to buy it used and check it out. Michael Brecker was one my favorites for this game of musical treasure hunting. I would spend a lot of time at used record stores looking for stuff that he played on. It didn’t matter what the artist was – I was looking at the sideman credits. I found some great pop music this way – following the Brecker trail. Franz Zappa, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, the list is endless. I also discovered Steps. Steps served as proof to me that it was possible to create something like fusion that has some balls and didn’t sound like hotel lobby background music. I wore those records out. My adult relationship with Michael Brecker has been more focused on his own recordings. The quality of these records is almost universally phenomenal. If you have not any Michael Brecker albums, you really should pick one up. Start with this one and proceed. There is one final album coming out in a few months that Michael managed to record last summer even though he was pretty sick. Based on the little snippet I was fortunate enough to hear it is a thrilling and moving final performance and I am looking forward to hearing the rest.

Naturally – Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Naturally - Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Naturally

I have had this CD lying around for a while and finally listened to it. What a refreshing blast. This Brooklyn band is really doing oldschool soul/funk right. The band is as relaxed-tight and Tower of Power. There is neither ensemble overplaying nor any gratuitous displays of individual instrumental virtuosity. Sharon Jones is a powerfully musical soul singer who has not bought into the post-Maria Carey vocal ‘stylings’ that has made a whole generation of female R&B singers sound like they got signed out of the same wedding band. This CD is recorded warm and analog dirty – just like the old records. I am going to check out more of the stuff on the Daptone label because this is the real deal.

Making Friends with the Whole Tone Scale

Making Friends with the Whole Tone Scale
Whole tone scales

This is an interesting scale that can be both used and abused in jazz and can create an ethereal ‘dreamy/spacey’ quality in soundtrack compositions. Key properties:

  • Six note and Symmetrical (equal degrees between notes)
  • Only two them cover all of the keys. (WT0 and WT1)
  • Impossible to construct either a major or a minor triad with the scale.
  • Can be seen as containing two overlapping augmented triads. (See example)

The most common improvisational usage is over the dominant seventh chord because the whole tone contains both the sharp and flat fifths of the chord. Some find it so tempting to travel from a dominant flat fifth to the tonic via the whole tone scale that it is done to wanton excess and becomes an improvisational ‘rat run’ so be careful. On the piano, it is difficult to pull off multi-octave whole tone scale runs without sounding like a Monk hack but it is still fun and good practice to be able to finger the scales correctly. I generally use 121234 on WT0 starting on C and the same fingering on WT1 starting on F but there are probably other RH fingerings that work as well. A lot of interesting WT patterns can be created over 2-5-1s because of the above properties so enjoy experimenting.

Red Garland Block Chords

Red Garland Block Chords
Block chord voicings

Red Garland’s block chords are arguably his most famous stylistic contribution to jazz piano. While overuse tends to make you sound a bit on the loungy side of things and can make you sound like a Garland wannabe (for better or worse), judicious use of this trick can come in handy in a number of band configurations. It obviously sounds great on the Workin/Cookin/Steamin/Relaxin session where Garland’s understated playing provides contrast to the Horn solos and offers space to let the Philly Joe and Paul Chambers push. On a practical level, this particular block chord style is relatively easy to implement and can get you a big sound without banging when you are on a lousy upright and feel like you are fading into the curtains. Here is the recipe:

  1. Right Hand: Octaves with ‘locked 5ths’ above bottom note. (Maintain a perfect fith from the bottom note of the octave at all times)
  2. Left Hand: Rootless voicings (see this entry) sounding on every note that the right hand plays.

This produces some weird dissonances at times (see the fifth above the third on the C7 in the simple example) but don’t let that stop you. It is part of the style.

4-note 3/7 rootless voicings

Voicing will go a long way toward defining your sound as a pianist much like a sax player gets known for a certain tone or a vocalist has a certain quality. The 3/7 4-note rootless voicings are an essential mainstay and go a long way in achieving a framework for basic improvisation and other more complex voicings. It is the family of chord voicings that is probably the most important thing to get down in order to start to be able to comp over lead sheets. Once you start to play them you will recognize them everywhere from Bud Powell to Bill Evans.

These voicings follow a rule: avoid the root and outline the 3rd and 7th adding other necessary notes that are implied by the melody. In the simplest form this is generally a 3 5 7 9 or a 7 9 3 5. A good way to begin to get these voicings in your hands and see how they work with each other is to use the circle of fifths to cycle the ii-V7-I progression through all keys using one of the two voicings above as the starting point and rotating the voicings keeping either the third or seventh on the bottom:

Example : ii-V7-I in C
D-7 G7 Cmaj7
3 5 7 9 [F,A,C,E] 7 9 3 6 [F,A,B,E] 3 5 7 9 [E,G,B,D]
7 9 3 6 [C,E,F,A] 3 5 7 9 [B,D,F,A] 7 9 3 6 [B,D,E,A]

The first thing you notice when playing these voicings through the circle of fifths is that you are not moving around much. This economy of movement frees you to think about the rhythm of your comping and your improvisational lines. These voicing combinations also create very strong voice leading (the perception of a “horizontal” connection between the chords) and emphasize the resolution of cadences within the progression. In other words, this is why these voicings sound good.

There are many possible mutations of the 3/7 voicings. Play with them and see how it is simple to create augmented, half diminished, b9, #9, when necessary. You should practice playing these in the right hand with “shell voicings” in the left or playing them in the left hand while playing the melody in the right. For simple two hand comping, pull the 5th out of this voicing and play it in octaves above the left hand or add other missing chord tones or simply the root in octaves.

Piano Finger Technique

In order to play piano musically, you need to train your fingers to use the little muscles within the fingers and not the big muscles that run up and down your arm. You want to develop a sense that gravity is working with you to push down a key from the knuckles rather than feeling like you are pushing buttons using your arm muscles. This is counter to what the brain naturally wants to do so you have to get a little Zen about things. It is sort of like setting up a “trust fall” for your hands. Once your brain trusts that the finger muscles are safely supporting your hand, your arm and shoulder muscles will relax and you achieve a gravity-based down stroke of the finger that works with the action of a piano to optimally hit the string. You will notice that your technique is far faster, more expressive and less tiring. My piano teacher, had a good exercise for focusing on this that I still use today:

  1. Relax arms and shoulders.
  2. With both hands form the chord E, F#, G#, A#, C one octave apart.
  3. Hold down all of the notes.
  4. In slow/no tempo, one at a time lift up a finger and release it back to the held chord making sure that arms are relaxed and you are not “pushing” the note down but releasing the weight of your arm into the note.
  5. Listen carefully to the notes and try and achieve a uniform volume. Pay real attention to how your arms and hands feel. Do not just mindlessly play the notes.

It is a lot harder than it sounds.

Chords 101

People often ask me how to begin to learn to play jazz piano. Unfortunately, even if you are (or were once) a fairly skilled classical player there is no one semester class or latenight video infomercial lesson series that is going to work for this. You need to become somewhat obsessed – listening to a lot of jazz and also spending significant time at the piano learning chords, voicings and theory. Both of these will feed into your playing in a noticeable way if you keep the intensity up. To get started learning ‘jazz chords’ I recommend first learning to play all root chords by their notation symbol in all keys. You really can’t begin to tackle a leadsheet and understand jazz piano voicings and harmonies until you can bang these chords out on demand, picture them in your head when you see the symbol and hear them when they are played to you. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I will point you to places that convey these concepts well.

Chord construction/shortand

Mike Titlebaum’s Java Applet Ear Trainer

Chord Visualizer

If you feel you have this down you should be able to answer the questions below without much thinking and you are ready to think about how to voice these chords for piano.

What notes are in the following chords?
Ab major



PZM live piano miking

PZM live piano miking

I decided a while back that it would be fun to record my steady piano gig. I thought it would be good for my playing to listen to what I was doing after the fact and I also hoped that I just might capture the odd moment. I have a nice portable DAT machine but the problem was figuring out how to set up a couple of mikes. This is a pretty suboptimal recording situation to say the least. The room can be pretty loud. I came to the conclusion that the best way to deal with this was the trusty Realistic PZM. These were inexpensive mikes made by Crown for Radio Shack in the 80s that have maintained a loyal cult following because they sound amazingly good. I had one lying around from when I was in High School and just grabbed another one on eBay. They really do an amazing job isolating the piano if i record with these guys taped onto the lid and the lid closed. Things do sound a little “boxy” but the stereo separation is good and I think I can do some postproduction to make it sound a little less like I am playing in a coffin. Apparently you can convert these things to run on Phantom Power but I haven’t done that yet.