Tim Richards: Beginning Jazz Piano

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Tim Richards is well established as one of the UK’s leading jazz educators, having burst onto the scene with his best-selling book Improvising Blues Piano, which set a new standard in jazz education publishing upon its first release back in 1997.

Since then Richards has produced a steady flow of publications in partnership with Schott Music, including the excellent Exploring Jazz Piano volumes 1 and 2, and more recent Blues, Boogie and Gospel Collection, which I described in my 2016 Pianodao review,

“…not simply as the best “jazz piano” publication of the year, but probably the best of the decade so far.”

Now he’s back with two chunky new books. Beginning Jazz Piano Parts 1 and 2 are billed as a new jazz method for players who already have some piano experience and a basic technique, and claim to offer “an introduction to swing, blues, latin and funk”.

Let’s find out whether these handsome publications live up to the sky-high standards of Richards’ previous work…

Beginning: An Overview

The two books in this new method arrive with study matt covers sporting the same image as Richards’ previous Schott publications, again recoloured to distinguish them:

The books have a solid spine but are flexible and easily stay open. The first comprises 108 black-and-white pages on bleached white paper (without the luxury sheen of previous books in this series), while the second volume has 128, feeling tangibly thicker.

Both books are superbly presented within, with generous music size and spacing and a beautiful overall design. They very much retain the text-book vibe of Richards’ previous work, and taken together the two books deliver a course that would keep an adult learner busy for quite a long time indeed. In-depth explanations, exercises and examples make up the bulk of the material, with a relatively modest number of actual pieces included.

As ever, Richards includes discursive introductions to the great players of the genre, with photographs and biographies appearing throughout both books. Each chapter also includes suggested listening sections focusing on tunes with one, two or three chords only. These lists are surprisingly extensive, offering a feast of relevant and inspiring listening.

The included audio and interactive elements are also significant; downloadable audio files are provided for every piece, featuring examples of the improvised solos, along with backing tracks featuring bass and drums only, which you can play along with once ready. These are reassuringly large files to download (114 and 138 MB respectively), so it was no surprise to find that the audio is excellent.

And there’s more: the books include a code for using the REPLAY practice tool. This runs directly within a web browser, and offers scrollable digital sheet music along with the option for the user to slow down, speed up and loop bars within the backing tracks. These features are undoubtedly useful, but my initial impression of the software was mixed. The time-stretch didn’t impress when changing the tempo, and (in Safari) the loop points didn’t snap correctly to the bar, causing frustrating idiosyncrasies.

I should mention that the MusicGurus website also offers a video course based on the book content (as a separate purchase) which may interest those who prefer learning alone, or cannot find a suitable teacher to guide them through the material.

Beginning Jazz Piano 1

And so to the content itself. Here is Tim’s introduction:

Part One, the first of the two books, bills itself as “Everything you need to get started”, and includes three chunky chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Using Your Ears
  • Chapter 2: Two-Chord Vamps
  • Chapter 3: The Three-Chord Trick

Chapter 1 begins with this statement of intent:

“In this chapter we’ll look at some of the chords found in jazz and explore a variety of approaches for improvising over them. Improvisation is at the heart of jazz: it’s about playing ideas that you hear, rather than reading them from notated music.”

This fairly irrefutable statement immediately sets Beginning Jazz Piano apart from so many other beginner jazz methods. The Chapter unfolds to introduce the cycle of fifths, triad chords and inversions, pentatonic scales, swing rhythms, groove, and seventh chords. There are listening and singing activities, and actual piano playing includes jamming along and improvising to the backing tracks.

Chapter 2 places more of an emphasis on the left hand, introducing two-chord vamps in a range of grooves, and by the final chapter the player will be riffing around three-chord patterns, playing music that sounds great.

By the end of the book the player will have hopefully progressed to mastering the 16 included pieces, which span a range of jazz styles and are all composed by Richards himself. They will also have learnt about basic jazz harmony, improvisation techniques, scales and left-hand shapes.

Richards’ musical content here is as memorable and engaging as ever, and as you’ll have gathered from watching his video, he superbly channels the playing styles of some of Jazz’s greatest piano legends along the way.

Beginning Jazz Piano 2

Part Two aims to provide deeper insight into the core elements of jazz piano playing, and is again designed around three extensive Chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Harmony and Improvisation
  • Chapter 2: Accompaniment Skills
  • Chapter 3: Reading from Lead Sheets

Chapter 1 builds on the concepts covered in the previous book, introducing 32-bar chord sequences, common cadence points, jazz waltz grooves, modal scales, broken chords, vertical and horizontal improvisation.

The second chapter deals with accompanying, noting that this is an essential skill for anyone playing in a duo or jazz combo, and for vocalists who wish to accompany their own singing. The section schools the player in building their own bass lines to vamp in a range of styles from funk to bossa nova, adding chords in the right hand and learning how to ‘comp’ in the style of the jazz greats.

The final Chapter covers the vital topic of interpreting lead sheets, in other words playing with just the melody line and chord symbol notation. At just 20 pages, this is easily the shortest Chapter in either of the two books, its brevity made possible by the thorough foundation in comping that has been introduced prior to this stage.

Richards again flexes his creative muscles to contribute the ten original new titled pieces. The book also includes exercises which themselves can be counted as complete pieces once mastered, including vamping based on the classic standards All of Me and One Note Samba.

Who is this for?

When reviewing any music I try to define a suitable audience to whom I can recommend it. In the case of Tim Richards’ books that is harder than most, because his work is proper jazz education, following its own different set of rules.

If the jazzy pieces of Mike Cornick, Pam Wedgwood et al offer a gateway into the sound of jazz, and the ABRSM Jazz Grades deliver a half-way house that includes improvisation within written pieces, well then this is the real deal, providing a full-on jazz education from scratch.

At the same time, Richards has clear expectations that the student working through this material can already play quite competently, and no quarter is given to those who are less advanced. The notation, too, requires a level of reading that wouldn’t exist until the late intermediate level for traditional learners. And when it comes to jazz music theory, the cognitive and conceptual expectations are fairly advanced.

In all I feel that the book would best suit a player who is at least into their mid-teens if not an adult, and who has already reached around Grade 5 level in terms of their technique, musicianship and understanding.

We are further told that the books are “perfect for piano lessons or self-study”; teachers are encouraged to contribute the bass lines for the music in the first of the two books.

As a teacher, though, my heart doesn’t leap at the prospect of including this as core lesson material. Richards is very clearly the expert, and the course is fully and brilliantly mapped out without much need for my input. The simple truth is that Richards has produced a superb learning resource that asks for little in the way of teacher input.

Better, perhaps, for teachers ourselves to work through this material and then adapt it for our own and our students’ needs!

Closing Thoughts

Tim Richards has yet again outdone himself with these two amazing books. Anyone who is ready to commit themselves to this level of proper jazz instruction will undoubtedly find that his is absolutely the course to use.

The pedagogic development is brilliantly paced, carefully leaving no stone unturned, while systematically developing, consolidating and building on acquired skills.

Richards’ expertise in this field, demonstrated throughout his successful career as a world-class performer and recording artist, is beyond any doubt; that he can communicate with such ease, supportive precision and clarity imparts true confidence for those using these books to learn.

The presentation, too, is just superb. Hats off to Schott Music for investing in this exemplary series. They have another well-deserved winner on their hands, and if you haven’t already decided to buy a copy, now’s your chance:

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.