The New, Improved Microjazz

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

It has been four decades since Christopher Norton’s remarkable Microjazz series practically reinvented piano education in this country and beyond with its infectious cocktail of classical technique and popular contemporary stylings.

Microjazz quickly won recognition the world over as a landmark series, sold over a million copies, and spawned a plethora of spin offs that included More Microjazz, Microstyles, Improvise Microjazz, Microjazz Duets and collections for a wider range of instruments.

The repackaging of the piano solo materials as the Microjazz Collections in 1997 simplified the brand, and made the progression through levels more obvious. Those Collections were again rebranded in 2011, and are receiving another facelift from this year. This time, the Microjazz Collections are also joined by two wholly new, more advanced music books.

In this review I will introduce these new stars in the Microjazz galaxy, and consider the latest updates to the existing books.

But first, let’s celebrate this incredible publishing phenomenon by recapping its extraordinary history…

Micro Origins

In the three Microjazz Collections published in 1997, Norton brought together his popular pieces from the original Microjazz and More Microjazz, adding fresh new additions, and organising the pieces roughly in order of difficulty to deliver all the Microjazz you needed in one easy-to-follow series.

Christopher Norton composer
Christopher Norton

An interesting distinctive of the first of these books, Collection 1, was the inclusion of Microstudies preceding each piece, introducing the rhythms and techniques required for playing them. And this wasn’t the only overtly pedagogic element in the series…

Norton added Microjazz for Absolute Beginners and Microjazz for Beginners, in effect a two-book method series introducing the basics of reading music and playing the piano, with the added twist of his unique musical personality. As an introductory method these two books hardly compete with the behemoths of the method-book world, but certainly offer a simple alternative which I have used successfully with teenagers.

Together with the Microjazz Collections, the five publications thus add up to a comprehensive resource taking the player from complete beginner right through to the upper end of Intermediate level, around UK Grade 5.

According to publishers Boosey & Hawkes,

Microjazz helps you develop musicianship and technique through the familiar sounds and styles of popular music. It is this unique combination of modern genres with traditional technique that has made Microjazz an international success with teachers and players, and one of the most widely used educational series ever published.”

And it is no wonder at all that, with such a ready resource of great pieces in contemporary styles, exam boards around the world have cherry-picked pieces from the Microjazz Collections for the last three decades.

Audio Update, 2011

Norton’s music has certainly not grown old over the years; many of the pieces in the Microjazz Collections sound as fresh today as when they first appeared. However, audio technology and graphic design have moved on at pace in recent years, justifying a complete refresh of the series in 2011.

Updated editions of the three Collections and two Beginners books sported snappy new covers and included CD recordings of full performances featuring Norton on piano, with backing tracks courtesy of Frank Mizen.

The pieces themselves (and supporting pedagogic content) remained unchanged, although performance tips were added before each piece.

As you will spot from the image above, the series was joined by Christopher Norton’s Guide to Microjazz, co-written with Scott McBride Smith, offering teaching suggestions for a selection of favourite pieces from the Microjazz series. The Guide includes a range of useful lesson activities such as rhythm exercises and finger patterns, all supported by insightful stylistic and technical tips from both authors.

The Next Leap Forward

For the 2022 update, the headline news is undoubtedly the two new additions to the series, which I will explore in a moment.

First though, behold the snazzy new covers for the series, which I am told will be introduced in the coming months. It is important to note, however, that the content within is identical to that of the 2011 range. So all the established favourites are here and teachers who already own the existing series will have no need to upgrade.

Also new with this update, the previously included CD has been replaced by downloadable audio, which can also (and immediately, regardless of purchase) now be streamed on all the usual platforms (or from the publisher’s website using the QR code or web address printed inside the books).

The eye-catching visuals and updated audio will undoubtedly be welcomed by students and adult enthusiasts, but as ever the key to Microjazz’s immense success lies in Norton’s gift for writing catchy pieces that combine solid pedagogic content with contemporary music that is easy to engage with.

In other words, this welcome refresh updates a series that is already, and quite rightly, a global hit.

Two Higher Levels

Turning to the two new titles in the series, the publisher’s descriptions again specify that each book comprises,

“…a set of progressive easy pieces in popular styles such as jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll and reggae. Helpful teaching notes and online audio resources containing both full demonstration and backing tracks are provided to enthuse and enhance both your practice and performance.”

In addition to the recordings provided by Norton, Dan Wheeler (guitars) and Dan Mizen (production), Norton has shared his own piano solo recordings on YouTube.

Here’s the 20 new pieces from Microjazz 4 in his solo recordings:

And for good measure, here’s the 14 pieces that make up Microjazz 5:

In terms of level, these impressive-sounding pieces range in difficulty through the early advanced level from around UK Grades 6-7.

As such they provide the perfect bridge between the established Microjazz Collections and Norton’s outstanding Preludes Collections series, including Eastern Preludes, Pacific Preludes, Jazz and Latin Preludes (click titles for the Pianodao reviews) which are a superb resource for the advanced player at around Grades 7-8.

Listening through the recordings leaves no doubt that Norton remains on top form, composing music which has both instant appeal for the listener, and the ongoing depth which makes its study so rewarding for the player.

Which are your favourites? Feel free to leave a comment below!

As for the books themselves, these are the first to appear with the striking new series apparel, and refreshed internal design. They are a clear improvement in my view, with notation that seem clearer than the 2011 range. The removal of CD icons before each piece has contributed to the sense that there is more space on the page, while the teaching tip for each piece has been reduced to a rather small but perfectly legible font.

In just a few places, there are page turns which I wish had been avoided (in Microjazz 5 for example there are four pieces requiring page turns for a single line of music). Nevertheless, these books are superbly presented.

Closing Thoughts

Boosey & Hawkes tell us,

“Christopher Norton’s acclaimed Microjazz series has won worldwide popularity with teachers and students alike for its stimulating blend of contemporary genres and classical values. Two beginners’ books and five collections of repertoire pieces form seven clearly defined levels of achievement, making Microjazz the ideal basis for progressive learning and teaching.”

While Norton has self-published his alternative Connections Series which is similarly comprehensive in its overall pedagogic design, Microjazz remains for me the higher watermark. The gap at early advanced level between these books and the Preludes Collections was a problematic one that I am thrilled to now see so brilliantly filled.

It is the near-universal accessibility of the popular, jazz and latin styles featured throughout the Microjazz series which has always been the key to its appeal, and will undoubtedly remain so for another generation.

I should mention that the present refreshed presentation of the Microjazz Collections is just the start, with updated versions of all these other books in the pipeline:

  • Microballads
  • Microstyles
  • Microlatin
  • Microrock
  • Microswing
  • Microjazz Christmas Collections 1 & 2
  • Microjazz Duet Collections 1-5

As we congratulate Christopher Norton on his 40-year achievement with the Microjazz series, he shows no sign of slowing down, even though he has surely already given us several lifetimes of music to enjoy.

The Microjazz Collections really are a treasure trove. Let’s indeed enjoy it…

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Published by

Andrew Eales

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