Jazz pianists: Beware musical stereotypes

The world of music is vast, and one of the exciting aspects of learning music is the process of discovering all the great musicians in the world, both now and of the past. When we hear a musician for the first time, we tend to immediately put them into a category, whether we realize it or not:

“They sound folksy like a young Bob Dylan.” “This pianist combines gospel with jazz like Keith Jarrett.” “She plays traditional blues.” “This is pop with classical influences.”

Right? We all do this. In fact, it’s how we make sense of the whole thing. We know the basic musical genres and see how each performer fits into the “big picture.”

BUT, at the same time…. don’t be too rigid about this.

That folk singer who sounds like Bob Dylan may also like rock music. In fact, this is exactly what happened to the young Bob Dylan. He played rock in high school but became famous as a folk artist. His audience was so passionate about his folk identity that they couldn’t accept it when he went back to playing rock. (They boo’ed him at Newport!)

I did the same thing in the world of jazz. Like most other jazz pianists, I was taught to associate the great Bill Evans with the “rootless A and B” chord voicings that everybody learns these days. These voicings have become so strongly associated with Bill Evans that I just assumed he used them all the time. When I practiced solo piano, I would play these voicings and think I was doing what Bill Evans did.

And then one day…. I actually listened closely to Evans’ left hand on one of his solo piano recordings. Imagine my surprise when I heard that he wasn’t playing these voicings at all! Instead of A and B voicings, with their colorful 9ths and 13s, he was using basic left hand voicings containing just the root, 3rd, and 7ths. Hardly the colorful harmonies we usually associate with Evans!

Lesson learned: Beware musical stereotypes. While it’s fine to put an artist into a stylistic category in order to make sense of the world, don’t be too rigid about this. Keep listening to them with fresh ears, so our intellectual conceptions and preconceptions) don’t get in the way. Listen to what they actually play instead of what we think they play!

Check out this transcription of Bill Evans solo piano version of “All The Things You Are”. You’ll see that while there is an occasional rootless voicing in there, the overwhelming majority of left hand voicings are as basic as you can get: just the root, 3rd, and 7th.

Good luck with your playing, and keep your ears open!

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