A Pianist's Basic Responsibilities
as a member of a rhythm section.

A Jazz Pianist's Basic Responsibilities - Introduction

As a member of a rhythm section, a pianist is expected to supply the sound of the harmony of a piece that is used for improvisation. The style or manner in which the chords are played may vary greatly depending on the music being played and the artist being accompanied! So it is important for a pianist to be prepared with a large vocabulary of chord voicings for all types of chords. Also, a solid background in listening to have an awareness of appropriate types of accompaniment will be very helpful. Finally, he or she should be able to recognize specific variations (alterations) by ear to be flexible with the written page.

A Jazz Pianist's Basic Responsibilities - Playing the written chords

You should have a varied vocabulary of ways that you can play common chords and progressions. You shouldn¹t be limited by only being able to play your favorite altered dominant voicing, for instance. If the chord is unaltered, you should be able to play a good, idiomatic voicing that is free of alterations. Likewise, you should be able to play voicings that supply either an altered 5th, altered 9th or a combination of the two. Polychords may be useful in playing specific kinds of altered dominant 7th chords. Here are some common formulas: (all these examples are for C7. Observe the relationship between the two chords and transpose for other keys)

C 13 = D/C7, C7#9 = Eb/C7, C7#9#11 = Ebmi/C7, C7b5b9 = Gb/C7

C13b5b9 = F#mi/C7, C7#5b9 = C#mi/C7, C7#5#9 = Ab/C7, C13b9 = A/C7

A Jazz Pianist's Basic Responsibilities - Playing the “sound”

As an enhancement to a basic dominant 7th chord, a soloist may be playing a melodic idea based on a diminished scale, for example. The accompanist needs to be listening, be able to recognize this unique color and be able to react to it with an appropriate voicing. In this case, a 13b9 chord is implied and that should be the sound reinforced by the voicing (C13b9 = A/C7). Major and minor chords have relatively few alterations that may occur. A major 7th chord may have a b5, #5 or #11 and a minor chord may have a #7. The majority of major 7th and minor 7th chords are free of alterations.

To develop the ear, practice listening to recordings and try to identify the chord qualities and specific alterations. It may help if you play a particular scale and then play the chord that relates to that sound. Always try to hear the root of the chord and relate other notes to it. Everyone can hear the difference between a major triad and a minor triad. Those are very familiar sounds! There are not actually that many different chord sounds that commonly occur. There are only a half dozen or so different dominant 7th chords that we see over and over again! So, the more you listen to various chord sounds, the more familiar they will become until you’ll wonder why it was ever hard to recognize them!

A Jazz Pianist's Basic Responsibilities - Don’t solo when comping!  

Be careful not to become too melodically or rhythmically active when comping (accompanying). You may inject a melodic/rhythmic idea that continues or completes the soloist's thought but it shouldn't compete with the solo or distract the listener. Remember, a strong soloist doesn't require any accompaniment at all! So, when in doubt, don't play. Adopt an economical attitude wherein "Less is more!" Also, remember that every time you play a chord, you lock the soloist into a certain version of the sound that may restrict him or her or make the soloist sound wrong!

A Jazz Pianist's Basic Responsibilities - The rhythm section

Surrender yourself to the rhythm section. A pianist is only one cog in the wheel of the rhythm section. There should be an attempt on the part of everyone in the rhythm section to establish a "hook-up" or ongoing communication with each other. No one ego should dominate but all should strive for the goal of elevating the music to some higher condition musically and emotionally. When a lead instrument or vocalist is accompanied by piano, bass and drums, it is really a quartet solo. True, one voice is generally prominent and the others supportive but it is primarily a conversation among the members of the group. It is that spontaneous interaction that makes jazz unique and really fun to play!

Since the piano is a percussion instrument, there is a natural relationship to the drums. There are many opportunities for piano and drums to catch the same accents and to interact with the soloist. Also, since piano is a harmonic instrument, there is a close relationship with the bass. The pianist may play a chord that suggests a different bass note or the bassist may substitute an unexpected bass note that affects the choice of a chord voicing. Though accompanying the soloist well is extremely important, it is also important for the rhythm section to have a good rapport so as to create a good feeling and sound for the soloist. Think of the rhythm section as being the canvas for the soloist to paint on!

A pianist accompanies someone singing or playing the melody, accompanies one or more improvised solos and only gets to solo a very small percentage of the time. Since a pianist is an accompanist most of the time, it is important that he or she accept that role and the challenge of providing good accompaniment! If you don’t enjoy accompanying others, you should probably perform as a solo pianist or switch to a different instrument! But once you experience the musical high of being part of a good rhythm section, you will realize a lot of satisfaction. It is a great example of the saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts!”

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