A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Equipoise” is a tune composed by pianist Stanley Cowell. Cowell is one of those wonderful jazz pianists who isn’t a huge innovator, but has forged a distinctive style all of his own. In this sense, he’s similar to earlier jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Red Garland, and Wynton Kelly.

“Equipoise” isn’t a “must know” tune, but learning it will expand your musical range quite a bit! Although the tune has a Latin rhythm, it isn’t a true Latin-style piece that emulates South or Central American music, like “Blue Bossa” does. Rather, it’s a jazz composition with Latin-influenced straight 8th notes. A lot of jazz from the late 1960s was like this, such as Miles Davis’ “Filles de Kilimanjaro” and Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” When I hear Stanley Cowell’s recording of “Equipoise,” I hear the beginnings the later “ECM sound” of The Pat Metheny Group and much of the other jazz-rock of the 1970s.

If you meet with other musicians for regular jam sessions, try playing it once a week for a couple of months. You may be surprised at how natural this style becomes, even if you usually play bebop, bossas, and ballads.

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Max Roach: Members, Don’t Git Weary

Stanley Cowell: Equipoise

Stanley Cowell: Musa - Ancestral Streams

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The word “equipoise” means “balance of forces,” there are certainly a few musical balancing acts here, although I don’t know exactly what Stanley Cowell had in mind when he was naming the piece. There’s the balance of jazz harmony to the underlying straight 8th note pulse. There’s the way that the angular melody and chord voicings can fit together, instead of competing against each other. Finally, there’s the balance between the repeating pairs of chords and the occasional harmonic variety.

One trick to learning “Equipoise” is to work out the exact voicings you want to play under the melody. The tune has a lot of repetition and if you practice your chord voicings in a few spots, you’ll sound great during the whole piece. The texture is very pianistic and, once you learn it, the tune “fits like a glove” on the piano!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Equipoise: Critical Analysis Of Covers

A piano transcription of Equipoise

Equipoise: Journey Through The Real Book #111

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