No matter what you say or write about music, its ultimate test is how it sounds when you listen to it and/or dance to it ("the proof is in the pudding" mp3 samples at Dance Video). Nevertheless, I would like to verbally draw your attention to a few noteworthy features of Bill's jazz piano style which I particularly like.
A Dance-Based Piano Style
Bill's jazz piano style is a dance-based piano style. I met Bill on the dance floor, and he was an active dancer for many years before he developed as a jazz pianist and recorded. The tempos he plays at are dance tempos - which also happen to be foot-tappin' tempos. Dance tempos were firmly embedded in him by the time he began to play jazz piano so his piano style grew up around them.
This is in sharp contrast to many jazz musicians who pick tempos to accommodate their improvising style. For example, a jazz saxophonist who wants to play a fast eighth-note-based improvised line will have the bassist play a fast quarter-note bass line, with the result being a tempo way too fast for swing dancing or even for tapping your foot to. On the other hand, if she wants to play a sixteenth-note-based improvised line (a "double-time" line), she will have the bassist play a much slower quarter-note bass line (i.e., so she can play four notes to one of the bass); the result will be a tempo that is too slow for swing dancing. In the Bill's jazz development, the dance tempos were a given, and he developed his jazz piano style to accommodate them rather than the other way around.
Rich arrangements of the original melody (the "head")
Bill's jazz rendition of a tune starts with a rich arrangement of the original melody (i.e., the tune or theme on which you are basing your improvisations; it is usually called the "head" by jazz musicians). His arrangements favor the rich lower-middle range of the grand piano, a range which is underutilized by many jazz pianists today, who employ a more treble-oriented style.
Playing a rich arrangement of the "head" may not seem like much. After all, it doesn't entail any improvising, and one might think that since jazz pianists have improvising skills, it would be easy for them to work out a good arrangement of the original melody -which even "pop" pianists can do. However, it is remarkable how many highly regarded jazz pianists (e.g., Keith Jarrett, Ellis Marsalis, Brad Mehldau, and Lynne Arriale) play "head" arrangements that consist of little more than a single-line melody in the right hand and a chord in the left hand. Possibly they feel that since they are "improvisers," they shouldn't be spending their time on something so pedestrian as arranging the melody of the "head."
A factor that has contributed significantly to Bill's rich arrangements of the "head" is that he starts the development of each tune in his jazz repertoire with the original sheet music, not a "fake book."* This has enabled him to really learn the composer's intention, to see his or her rudimentary arrangement, and probably most importantly to learn the composer's bass line. The importance of the latter cannot be over-stated since many composers of classic American popular music, e.g., George Gershwin and Jimmy Van Heusen, made heavy use of the bass line in composing. Jazz pianists who learn tunes from original sheet music are undoubtedly a small minority today.
(* "Fake" books are collections - sometimes illegal - of hundreds of tunes with just the single-line melody and the chord symbols. They do not have the composer's bass line.)
A Melodic Improvising Style
Bill's jazz improvisations are melodies in themselves which reflect the form of the tune on which they are based. Form is an important attribute of melody, and melodic form is often based on theme (motif) and variation. Melodic form is a very important means of retaining the listener's attention, and this method of musical composition pervades European classical music and classic American popular music. Patterns and symmetries appeal to listeners and help them to remember a melody. Because jazz makes less use of melodic form than these other kinds of music, some listeners use adjectives such as "rambling" and "random" to describe jazz and say that jazz improvisation "all sounds alike."
For example, a recipient of Bill's demo tape wrote,
"Sorry I missed you today because I wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying your tape. I must tell you that I love classical music and have never been much of a fan of jazz. However, I find your jazz style very pleasant on the ear. The melodies are discernible. Sometimes jazz tunes all sound the same." (See Testimonials)
Bill's gift for melodic creation probably goes back to his childhood when he assimilated many melodies of classic American popular music and European classical music from hearing his mother Anne play them on the home's grand piano. Melody is a top priority for Bill in his jazz improvisations. He believes that the goal of jazz improvisation should be the creation of new jazz melodies based on the original tune (i.e., the theme) you are using. Improvisation is the means toward the end of melodic creation, not an end in itself. The outcome of jazz improvisation should be good music, of which melody is an essential element. As Duke Ellington said, there are two kinds of music: good and bad.
A type of note which Bill uses imaginatively in creating his improvised jazz melodies is eighth-note triplets (e.g., on Satin Doll and On Green Dolphin Street). This is noteworthy because eighth-note triplets are under-utilized by most jazz pianists. One of a handful of other jazz pianists today who make significant use of eighth-note triplets is Billy Taylor.
A "Modern" and Supportive Left Hand
When Bill is improvising in the mode of single-line melody in the right hand and chord in the left hand, he effectively melds his Bill Evans-style left-hand voicings into his jazz melody lines, thus adding body to the single-note line. His strong left-hand accompaniment also helps him to be comfortable with "space" in his improvised jazz lines. Because his right-hand lines are cradled in his rich left-hand accompaniment, he doesn't have to keep the right hand busy all the time with a steady stream of notes.
Early "Bop" pianists, such as Bud Powell, Al Haig, Elmo Hope, and George Wallington, mainly used a root position "shell" style of left hand. It was played relatively down low on the piano, was used sparingly, and was not melded into the right-hand line. Later jazz pianists, such Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly, and Red Garland, pioneered a different style of left-hand chords to accompany their single-line right-hand improvisations. Evans, in particular, developed "cluster" style left-hand voicings that often did not include the root of the chord, which was picked up by the bassist. He played these voicings higher up on the piano than the earlier Bop pianists had played their left-hand chords and melded them into his single-note right-hand lines.
A variety of modes; broad differences in color
In addition to the sine qua non of jazz piano of a single-line melody in the right hand and chord in the left hand, Bill uses a variety of modes to develop his rendition of a jazz tune and strives for broad differences in color between these modes. These distinct differences in sound between modes help to retain the listener's interest and are analogous to the "movements" of European classical music. These modes include:
Hands-in-unison mode: This technique, which exploits the power of octaves, was perfected by Wes Montgomery on the guitar (i.e., playing in octaves) and Phineas Newborn Jr. on the piano. In this mode, the improvised jazz line is doubled in the left and right hands, usually one octave apart, but sometimes two. Before getting into this mode, Bill typically has played a few choruses during which the listener explicitly hears the harmony (i.e., the chords) of the tune. When Bill changes to hands-in-unison mode, the listener suddenly no longer explicitly hears the chords, but has to hear the harmony in the piano and bass lines. This makes the listener "perk up" and mentally supply the chords. The hands-in-unison mode was used heavily by composers of European classical music, but is not utilized nearly enough in jazz piano today.
Locked-hands mode: This "block chord" technique was pioneered by Milt Buckner and perfected by George Shearing. It also exploits the power of octaves, with the chord being played within an octave and the jazz melody being doubled on the octave notes that enclose the chord. Usually, the left hand plays only the bottom octave note of the chord, with the right hand playing most of the chord as well as the top octave note. It is called the locked-hands mode because the hands are literally locked together when playing in this mode. This mode is particularly well suited for the rich lower-middle range of the grand piano, a range Bill is especially fond of.
Full-piano mode: This "block chord" technique is often associated with Red Garland, but other jazz pianists such as Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris were also masters of it. When Miles Davis used to tell Red Garland to play "block chords," he was referring to this piano mode. Compared to the locked-hands style, this is an open style, with the hands well separated. The left hand plays a chord, and the right hand plays an octave with fill. This mode physically occupies much of the piano keyboard and has a big sound; Bill usually saves it for his last chorus of jazz improvisation. Contrary to what I had thought, Bill has showed me that these big "block chords" of the open style are actually much easier to play than the smaller "block chords" of the locked-hands style.
Ballad mode: On ballads, Bill typically starts the jazz improvisation choruses with small melodies, characterized by considerable space. He builds these melodies from eighth-notes and eighth-note triplets, which unfurl slowly at ballad tempos. Then for contrast, Bill shifts to the classic "double time" (i.e., 16th note) mode. Even at relatively slow ballad tempos, 16th notes unfurl rapidly.
A Melodic Accompanying Style
When Bill accompanies bassist Terry or drummer Ron, he doesn't just play chords, but also plays melodies that link the chords. These melodies are anchored on the essential notes of the original melody and reflect its patterns and symmetries. Terry says that Bill's accompanying style is characterized by counter-melodies that enhance the melodies of his bass solos.
Making the Piano Sing
Bill and I love the sound of the grand piano. The piano (short for pianoforte, from piano e forte which means soft and loud in Italian) is a very touch sensitive instrument on which one can produce very fine shadings of loudness and softness, i.e., a wide range of dynamics. Dynamics are critical in European classical piano music. Bill greatly admired the late pianist Vladimir Horowitz for his control of dynamics and his ability to "make the piano sing." To make the piano sing like Horowitz did, one must develop the technique necessary to do this. And developing technique entails a lot of practicing.
Bill has worked long and hard to develop the technique needed to have control over piano dynamics and to make the piano sing. I believe he has achieved his goal and that you will agree with me when you hear the music of the Bill Jackman Trio.