It’s turned into a great Autumn for players and students of jazz piano! Already this week I have reviewed Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Jazz Piano Solos (Alfred Music) and Tim Richards’ Jazz, Latin and Modern Collection (Schott Music): both outstanding.
Now let’s see whether Pam Wedgwood’s How to Play Jazz Piano, published by Faber Music this week, can make it a hat-trick.
The book aims to provide a solid introduction to jazz playing and claims to be “ideal for young players with a basic knowledge of how to play the piano (approximately Grade 2 standard)”.
As a standalone course suitable for players at this level, there is little competition – perhaps the nearest comparison would be with the (excellent) support materials for the ABRSM Jazz Piano syllabus. So far, so interesting, so let’s take a closer look …
How to Play Jazz Piano
Like so many, I first came across the music of Pam Wedgwood through her original Jazzin’ About series of books some 25 years ago. It was a series which kick-started an interest in jazz piano for many at that time.
Since then, the catalogue of Pam’s published works has grown to include the popular Upgrade! series, After Hours, and many more. More recently, her Jazzin’ About the Year not only received a positive review here but has now become an established favourite with many of my students. And her last collection, Piano Gallery, is already proving popular with adult players.
Now she’s back with How to play Jazz Piano – which promises “a fun and simple introduction to playing jazz piano”.
While previous collections provided catchy pieces in jazzy styles, this new publication promises to get right to the heart of jazz playing, including (according to publishers Faber Music) :
- an introduction to improvisation;
- how to play in swing time;
- syncopated rhythms;
- an invaluable guide to basic chords and chord symbols;
- how to use scales and modes in jazz;
- suggested listening ideas.
How to Play Jazz Piano is a 64-page book, housed within an attractive, glossy card cover:
Unlike most of Pam’s previous books, it is clear straight away that this is designed as a method book rather than simply another repertoire collection, although there is plenty of music throughout.
Overall, the look and feel of the book is a model of clarity. The content is attractively and clearly presented, and unlike some method materials the pages are never too crowded.
Music notation, too, is nicely engraved (by Donald Thomson), crystal clear and suitably sized for players of all ages. Fingering is excellent when included, although occasionally doesn’t take account of smaller hands. In some of the music, however, fingering is absent.
Audio content for the book is accessed either by scanning a QR code or simply by downloading it as a 66.9MB zip file from the Faber Music website. This includes a massive 78 audio tracks, all linking to the exercises and performance pieces in the book.
Though seemingly MIDI generated, the audio tracks are fine for getting an idea of how pieces sound, or for a literal interpretation of swung quavers, and some offer backings which are great fun to improvise along with. And as such they serve their purpose well.
However, with their quantised timing and limited dynamics, they are rather lacking in jazz inflection and nuance; as a comparison, the ABRSM jazz syllabus recordings (featuring top jazz players) convey far more of the groove and feel that is so central to good jazz playing.
Digging the Content
The book is divided into 15 chapters, or as they appear here, “Sessions”. These Sessions each cover a specific topic, and range in length from three to six pages.
The overall scope of the book is revealed by reading the list of 15 Sessions that make up its content:
- Syncopation and ragtime
- Learning to swing
- Memory and ears
- The importance of intervals
- Starting to improvise
- Sing, sing, sing!
- Making friends with scales
- Understanding chords
- Chords with a seventh
- Introducing the blues scale
- Understanding musical form
- The 12-bar blues
- Getting started with modes
- Walking bass lines
- A taste of Latin styles
Sessions include text explanations of key concepts, written out exercises covering aural, theory and technique, performance pieces, and a “listening post” box with suggested recordings to check out. The author doesn’t slavishly follow a set pattern however; each Session includes whichever of these elements is most appropriate in order to fulfil its present objective.
To give an idea of how this works, let’s dive into a couple of contrasting Sessions to find out what’s on offer.
Session 2: Learning to swing
I have to admit that over the years it has always frustrated me when educational publications present dotted rhythms where in fact swung quavers are required. So I am particularly pleased to see Pam Wedgwood include swing timing right near the start, introducing it with admirable ease and clarity.
First she gives a brief word on the historical background, then explains what swing quavers are, and includes a useful “Listening post” box of suggested recordings from the heyday of the 1930-40s swing era.
Next there’s a four bar phrase, which is included among the audio clips, firstly played straight and then swung. This might be useful for teachers new to jazz, but in better circumstances I would think the teacher would demonstrate without recourse to the audio files. An eight-bar piece follows, which the player can try out with swing rhythm.
The next page includes five ‘call and response’ clapping exercises, each with its own accompanying audio file. The printed bars are played on a tom, but there’s no hi-hat, so the pupil response bars are silent, meaning that a strong sense of inner pulse will be essential.
Finally in this Session, there’s a catchy Performance Piece: “Hot potato”.
Session 5: Starting to improvise
This session offers an interesting contrast, showing how the flexible approach of the book succeeds. Here, there are six pages which predominantly offer up techniques and suggestions to get the player improvising away from the page.
Pam explains the major pentatonic scale, and gives suggestions for improvisation on the black keys only (including some backing tracks in the audio materials). The “Listening post” here lists some well-known songs that use the pentatonic scale.
Next, Pam provides notation for C, G, F and B flat major pentatonic scales, followed by a few short pentatonic pieces in which the player must add notes in the empty bars – a great encouragement for players taking first steps in improvising.
Minor pentatonic scales appear next, this time in A, E, D and G minors, and again followed by pieces where the player must fill in the gaps. Again, the provided backing tracks are a real bonus here.
What about pieces? Session 5 is one of a few to not include “Performance pieces”, but across the book as a whole I counted 14, plus several other pieces which could have been given that title. There’s really no shortage of good music included throughout.
I am certain that an intermediate pianist could use this book as a complete course. Whether this is entirely “ideal for young players with a basic knowledge of how to play the piano” at Grade 2 level is another matter.
Certainly I wouldn’t consider this book for students younger than about 12 years old. On the other hand, the book is surely ideal for teens and adults of all ages.
As to difficulty, my view is that a player at around Grade 3 would quite comfortably cope with the technical and musical aspects of the book, although I am less sure that they would meet the expectations for absorbing jazz theory, which in some Sessions becomes fairly advanced.
I’ve been messing around with jazz piano playing for donkey’s years, but my core education and expertise is as a classical player. I really wish that this publication had been around when I was first noodling and exploring jazz. And how many students, too, would have benefitted from such a concise and well-thought book over the years.
It’s long been clear to me that there is a significant space in the market for a book offering a simple Plain-English introduction to jazz piano playing. Most of the existing publications are Very Long and full of Specialist Lingo.
How to play jazz piano seems intent on filling this gap, offering an introduction which is clear, concise, and written in language that non-jazzers will hopefully comprehend.
Of course there’s a danger in simplifying a thing too much that it can cease to be true and authentic. Indeed, I was reminded a few times when looking through the book that it is written by and for classically trained musicians.
But in so many ways that’s really the whole point here: Pam was no doubt mindful, in writing this book, of the many teachers and players whose background is traditional, mainstream, broadly classical, and for whom jazz remains something of a foreign tongue. By illuminating the core elements of jazz language and playing, she has provided a huge service, and I am unaware of any better introduction to jazz for such players than the one this book gives.
In succeeding to make jazz playing accessible to that far wider audience of broadly literate musicians, How to Play Jazz Piano is a game-changer and a genuine triumph.
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