Learning a New Song from the Real Book

High school student Conner recently returned from the UNC Greeley Jazz Festival in April, where he was very impressed with vibraphonist Gary Burton and pianist Chick Corea.  Although Conner performed on trumpet, he is also a talented pianist, and wants to become a more proficient jazz player on both instruments.  I thought giving him a relatively easy Chick Corea tune like “Crystal Silence” would be a great step to help him achieve his goals on both fronts.

Fake books can be a wonderful source of jazz repertoire, but a pianist has to arrange the music…there are usually no written notes beyond the basic melody.  After entering the tune into Finale (an application for music notation), I added another stave so there would be room to spell out the chords, and then we began by playing the melody.  Conner’s personal musical background gives him a distinct advantage over other trumpet students just beginning to learn their way around the instrument, and as a trumpet player his experience with using the airstream to support a singing, expressive melodic line helps him translate that concept to the piano.  Once he had the melody singing on the piano he then had a higher standard to hold himself to when he adds the other voices.  If the music can’t sing and have a sense of rhythmic flow, adding anything more to the arrangement won’t do much to save the day.

The next part we added was the bass…essentially just playing the root of each chord underneath the melody, and yet he could see the challenge of keeping the music singing and the two parts balanced. Conner wondered which octave to play the bass in, but I suggested that he decide after careful listening and experimentation.  The knowledge a teacher provides can only take one to the threshold of learning, but expanding one’s awareness helps to experience and internalize the knowledge, and awaken and refine the power of artistic choice.  He also tried just playing the basic chords in root position, although it was harder to keep the tempo and singing quality under control.  That step also made strong suggestions about the range of his left hand, so the lower parts would not collide with the melody on top. We also started to discuss the need to give some of the chording responsibility to the right hand in order to have more control over the voicing’s intervals and the number of notes involved.

Next up will be to study the theory that suggests the scale(s) which would most accurately reflect the sound of each chord in the context of the progression.  The notes in these applied scales will also serve as a basis for improvisation, and will also be the candidates to fill out his chord voicings.  I’m looking forward to hearing where Conner goes with all of this!

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