Jazz Hands is a series of original jazz pieces for piano by Mark Tanner, which covers all standards from grade one through to red hot. Although the player may feel free to indulge in a spot of improvisation in response to the printed music, there is no expectation to do so in any of the books. Nor are there any chord symbols or other bespoke abbreviations, the like of which presuppose a degree of familiarity with the genre, which may not actually be the case. Rather, the idea is that the player will become gradually more confident and adept at playing in a jazz style as he/she works through the books. It may well be that a classically-trained pianist has reached, say, grade 5, but feels currently at a more modest stage when tackling jazz. This is absolutely not a problem, and indeed is all the more reason for the 'straight' player to extend their jazz skills to match.
The title of this series, 'Jazz Hands', derives from the familiar exuberant gesturing seen in music theatre – fingers spread and extended, with palms facing upwards, an effect frequently amplified by a convulsive shivering of the hands. Cheerleaders have tended to make widespread use of jazz hands, while the concept has also found its way into revues, Broadway shows and films, as well as contemporary dance. In the current context I am of course referring to the jazz pianist's hands, which in only the most ambitiously spaced Art Tatum chord would require the player to stretch the digits to such an extent as in the aforementioned theatrical sense.
The term 'jazz' has been adopted and adapted in a multiplicity of ways (not unlike 'classical', indeed), so that it no longer tells us very much about the music itself. Aficionados immediately recognise the better-known subgenres, such as 'bebop' or 'New Orleans' styles, and may even be able to distinguish 'smooth' from 'groove', or 'fusion/crossover' from 'postmodern'. And yet these are just labels, not music. In an understandable bid to define all that we hear using such terminology, we may inadvertently place a straightjacket around the music itself, and hence close the door to the possibility of encountering new, innovative musical styles. Furthermore, the inescapably hefty contribution made by jazz forms to the music of Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and Kapustin, to spotlight just a few, clouds the picture irretrievably.
Thankfully, nonetheless there are 'givens' aplenty in jazz – 'syncopations', 'back-beats', 'stabs', 'licks' and 'riffs'. In conjunction with these, we cannot fail to notice the presence of 'colour-notes' within the harmonies, alongside the ubiquitous use of jazz modes, typically the blues and diminished scales. The trouble is, that attempts to crystallise the essential flavour of jazz in manuscript turns out to be rather challenging – every bit as hard as when notating 'straight' styles. After all, good jazz playing, just like good Mozart playing, comes down to 'feel', not mere note regurgitation. While the character and impact of jazz music frequently depends upon a tempo which really 'sits' comfortably, it is its rhythmic lifeblood which resists the conventions of notation most stubbornly.
This explains, for example, why jazz composers often find themselves torn between writing dotted rhythms in 4/4 or crotchet/quaver patterns in 12/8. In truth, neither of these is the ideal solution, which is why the simple 'swing' marking, applied to pairs of plain quavers, is probably as good as any method. In practice, such couplets often appear 'semi-dotted', to achieve a wantonly lazy effect, assisted by a subtle emphasis on the second, rather than the first of each pair.
Another conundrum for jazz composers is to do with the 'spelling' of the fruitier chords (i.e. whether to mix 'n match sharps and flats, or endeavour to be more systematically 'correct'), not to mention the difficulties in pointing out which note in any given chord is the most important, given its fleeting context within a piece. Ultimately, compromises need to be made, so a certain amount of reading between the lines becomes inevitable. Take grace notes, for example, a fairly indispensable expressive device for any jazz player. It may be that, initially at least, these seem to get in the way of crisp, rhythmic playing, but I would encourage the player to thread these in at the outset and allocate the most appropriate fingerings, rather than attempt to bolt them on at some later stage. This way, they will more likely appear natural and spontaneous. In both this and other matters the performer needs to be patient in fathoming what the composer was after, and should aim at all costs to avoid a prosaic, literal presentation. Ultimately, the music will only come to life when both composer and performer see eye to eye.
Most jazz pianists know their 'standards' – 'My Funny Valentine' etc. These familiar melodies and chord structures provide the canvas upon which embryonic improvisation can begin. But these are hard-won skills, not garnered overnight, so at first it may well be advisable to learn set pieces which are 'jazzy', as opposed to 'pure jazz'. Many of the pieces in the first few books of this series aim to do just that, but before long you should find it hard to resist adding your own ideas to keep things fresh and interesting. That said, there are no direct expectations to improvise in these books – everything has been written out for you.
There are limits to notation, however – take a look at some of the more elaborate transcriptions of Oscar Peterson's improvisations and you'll quickly wish you'd never bothered! Indeed, some of the pieces in these books may at first appear a little harder to pull off than their classical equivalents for the grades in question, and yet I have always maintained that it is the quality of the playing that governs how impressive the music will sound, not the level of complexity apparent from the page. For this reason, even a classically-trained grade 8 pianist may have to work hard to render a grade 3 jazz piece with the confidence and élan it invites.
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