A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Icarus” is a beautiful piece from the early 1970s by the acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner. Towner recorded it in 1971 when he was a member of The Paul Winter Consort, and then again on his solo album Diary and as a duet with jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton.

Towner, along with Paul Winter and others in their circle, pioneered an “open” acoustic sound that combined folk music with classical and jazz elements. The resulting style is one of the forerunners of both “world music” and “New Age.” He was one of the founders of the group Oregon which to my mind must have been a big influence on the young Pat Metheny, since his early music followed in their footsteps to some degree.

Listening to Towner’s fingerstyle guitar work will help you hear voicings and musical textures differently, which may give you a fresh perspective on your piano playing.

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.)

Ralph Towner/ Gary Burton: Matchbook

Paul Winter Consort: Road

Oregon: Live in Portland, 1979 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Since it’s so strongly associated with the acoustic guitar, “Icarus” isn’t played on piano as much as it deserves to be. It’s a wonderful, energetic tune that will give you a good challenge when playing it on piano.

Yes, it’s a bit of a challenge, but in a fun way. For starters, the melody and chords don’t dictate the rhythm in the way that a bebop tune like “Confirmation” does. Even if you just played the melody to “Confirmation,” the groove would automatically be there. Not so with “Icarus.” We pianists have to create the rhythmic impulse and keep it going, especially on those long, held-out notes in the melody.

So what can you play while those notes are held out for 2 or 4 measures at a time? There are lots of options. For one thing, you can really “get into” the rhythm, playing rhythmic chords under the melody. You can also practice rhythmic interplay between the hands in those places. (Just be sure to keep the overall beat clear.) Countermelodies also sound great in these places. Think of a beautiful mid-range instrument like French Horn or Cello and imagine what they’d play there. This will help you come up with some melodic lines in those places. And if you’re really adventurous, you may even wish to experiment with moving bass lines at those points. (Listen to Jaco Pastorius of the group Weather Report for some inspiration with this.)

Even though pianist Lyle Mays never recorded “Icarus,” he loved to play music like this. Check out his solo on the song “Ozark” by The Pat Metheny Group and listen to how his hands work together. His 2-handed rhythmic interplay seems to have been inspired by the fingerstyle guitar and banjo playing of traditional country music and bluegrass. This type of playing works well in a piece like “Icarus” as well. Have fun exploring these ideas and some of your own as well!

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

Further links and resources:
Ralph Towner: Wikipedia

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