How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 2: Analytical Listening)

In the first part of this series on how to play jazz piano (How To Play Jazz Piano: Part 1: Immersion Through LIstening), I examined the importance of listening to jazz on a regular basis. This post explores another kind of listening:

2. Analytical Listening

This is a more intellectual activity than immersion listening and is equally important. In fact, the two types of listening I’m describing are complementary to each other. One supports the other.

Try this exercise to get started:

Choose a short (4-8 min.) recording of a small jazz group. It’s best if there are a few horns or guitar in addition to the rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. (Miles Davis’ mid-1950s recordings work well for this.) First, listen to the recording once to get the general feeling of it. Then listen to it again, while mentally focusing on the melodic instrument(s) throughout. In other words, you’ll listen to the melody, then each soloist, and then the final statement of the melody, while trying to ‘tune out’ the rhythm section. Then listen again, this time focusing on the comping instrument, which is usually the piano or guitar. Then the bass; then the drums. As a pianist, I find it fascinating to hear what the drummer is doing!

Once you’ve gone through each instrument individually, take a short break. Your ears have been working hard!

Now focus on combinations: bass & drums, melody & piano comping, etc. Listen for the relationship between each duo. I love hearing the harmonic and rhythmic correspondence between the soloist & bass player. Or what about the rhythms that the pianist is playing against the drummer’s snare drum accents? After all this, take in the overall sound once again, just like you did at the beginning.

I’m always amazed by how much I learn by doing this exercise, and by how enjoyable it is. Focusing on the bass alone, for example, both helps my feeling of the jazz ‘pulse’ and also sensitizes my ears to the sound of the bass player when I’m performing with a group. It also gives me some good insights into walking bass lines, or the rhythmic variety some bassists use, such as Scott LaFaro. And since as a pianist I’m focused on the chords that I play behind soloists, it’s refreshing to listen to a trumpet player improvise over a walking bass line, which provides a different listening experience.

This analytical listening exercise can also be an aid to learning new songs. Before you know it, you’ve listened to the tune 8-10 times and really have it in your ears. You’ll be able to memorize the song easier because your ear now knows how the song unfolds.

If you can, set aside an hour each week to do this exercise. It’s very different to actually do it, as opposed to just ‘thinking about it!’ Have a good time listening and then go on to Part 3 of this series: How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 3: Gradually Work Through a Beginning Jazz Piano Book)

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