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The Perils of a Jazz Pianist’s Left-Hand

For the modern jazz pianist, the risk of developing disparities between the right and left hand is well-known and rarely discussed. It’s our secret shame. To understand this, try to imagine the role of the pianist in small group (trio, quartet, etc.). Here the pianist either comps or plays a solo. Comping has no significant technical demands for either hand, while soloing is typically a right-hand concern. I doubt that most pianists are even aware of what their left-hand is doing most of the time, other than clumsily pecking out chordal counterpoint.

Now contrast that with the what a classical pianist deals with daily. Any repertoire of significance requires technical equivalence and their practice routines reflect that. For the lopsided jazz player, being confronted with basic scale and arpeggio exercises can be fairly humiliating, like having two very different pianists dangling off your arms. Sadly many jazz players accept this fate.

The problem with “shedding” jazz is that the art form itself often dominates the practice routine. For pianists this means focusing on issues that bias the right-hand. Of course, it’s fun building your hipster cache, that arsenal of clever licks, obscure tunes, and rhythmic tricks that you hope will elevate your stature as a jazz player. But doing so at the exclusion of fundamentals will sap those tricks of any potency.

This article serves as my confession. I’m guilty of these sins. As such, I’ve been compiling a list of practice ideas to help remedy the imbalance. From a pure technical perspective, nothing works better than basic technical exercises. The trick is finding ways to take the improved left-hand power and incorporate it into the jazz trio setting. To that end, here are ten methods, thoughts, techniques, etc:

  1. Chordal melodies. Stop pecking out single-note melody lines with the right-hand. Use a fuller two-handed chordal technique. This means working it out ahead of time! Listen to Mulgrew Miller playing “I Hear The Rhapsody” for a great example of this. What a masterful player.
  2. Learn to solo with block-chords. Check out the drop-2 school of chording. Learn to play chordal scales (particularly the be-bop scale, major + raised 5, minor + raised 7), alternating minor 6ths and diminished 7ths.
  3. Play more unison RH/LH solos. Also try doing this in sixths or thirds. Practicing scales in these intervals will help considerably.
  4. Share the solo burden with both hands. Try starting your solo with the left-hand. Or finishing a line with the left that you started with the right. Or experiment with counterpoint.
  5. Develop a consistent left-hand comping pattern. Red Garland was famous for his “and of two”, “and of four” punches throughout the solo. Doing this through an entire chorus is so much harder than you think. But practice it. Doing so will ground your rhythmic feel.
  6. Practice walking basslines. I know, most jazz pianists scoff at this style of playing but that’s probably because they can’t do it. An organist has to learn it, so should you. It’s particularly difficult on uptempo tunes.
  7. Practice stride and ragtime. Listen to more solo piano recordings too. I hate to say it, but skip Art Tatum. He wasn’t human and you’ll never sound like him. Listen instead to Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans. And also extract elements of the masters. For example, listen to Keith Jarrett’s intros, or Chick’s left-hand rhythmic clarity.
  8. Develop trio arrangements that feature strong left-hand counterpoint (doubled with the bass player) during the intros and melodies.
  9. Work on classical piano solo material. Bach inventions and preludes demand equivalence from a pianist’s ten fingers, as do Chopin Etudes and Mozart Sonatas.
  10. Practice scales and arpeggios daily. For example, two-handed v7 arpeggios (e.g., g-d-b-f), scales in thirds and sixths (with the correct fingering!). Hanon should be high on that list too. The more technique you have, the more you will use.

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