by George Colligan
Kenny Kirkland was a true keyboard phenomenon. From his
post-bop piano proddings with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, to his
famed, genre-defying keyboard work with Sting and his own small
groups, Kirkland’s singular sound changed the landscape of modern
music. The collective keyboard community was shocked and saddened
by his untimely passing in 1998 at the age of 44.
Kenny Kirkland was truly one of my piano heroes. Hearing his
unique harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary on Wynton Marsalis’
seminal album Black Codes from the Underground was a revelation for
me. His playing had historical and technical depth, but also a tremendous
wellspring of invention and funkiness to it. Listen closely to
Kirkland in action and you’ll hear everything from Bud Powell to Bela
Bartok to James Brown. Let’s look into the rhythmic and harmonic
hallmarks of Kenny Kirkland’s playing.
Click the sheet music icons for larger images. Lesson follows after these web extras:
Kirkland, like most of my favorite jazz pianists, has a unique way of swinging his eighth-notes. My theory is that there’s always an
implied triplet feel in his playing, even when he plays only eighth- or quarter-notes. Also, some of the eighth-notes are almost ghosted,
i.e., more felt than heard. The best way to capture this kind of swing feel is to listen and try to internalize it. A tune like Kirkland’s
own “Steepian Faith” has passages similar to this example that illustrate his buoyant phrasing.
2. Triplet Feel.
Kirkland might play something like Ex. 2a, where he plays two triplet eighth-notes in the right hand, and the chord on the third triplet
in the left. He might do this diatonically, pentatonially, or even more chromatically in nature to build tension. Ex. 2b is a Kirkland-esque
fourth pattern that resembles something you might normally hear a saxophonist or other horn soloist play.
If you saw my “5 Ways To Play Like McCoy Tyner” lesson in the June ’10 issue, you’ll remember that voicings in fourths are a common
sound in the modern jazz piano language. But Kirkland uses them in a surprising way—while Tyner might play a voicing with a
tritone and a perfect fourth (with the fourth on top), Kirkland will invert it and put the tritone on top (Ex. 3a). He also might keep the
top note constant and move the inner voices (Ex. 3b). Kirkland also might play polychords as in Ex. 3c, where the F#/E could be
played over an EMaj7#11 or an E7#11. The Edim7/Fdim7 could be used, believe it or not, over a G7 chord. This harmony is derived
from the G diminished scale: G, Ab, Bb, B, Db, D, E, and F.
Again, whether he was comping for Wynton Marsalis, Michael Brecker, or Sting, Kirkland had an outstanding rhythmic feel. Ex. 4a is
typical of Kirkland’s comping with someone like saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Often times, he alternates between two fourth voicings
on the same chord. Ex. 4b shows how he might play those voicings polyrhythmically to create tension—a Kirkland trademark.
5. Signature Phrases.
Every musician has their own signature phrases which makes their sound identifiable, and Kirkland is no exception. Ex. 5a is a typical
Kirkland phrase with a bebop shape to it. Ex. 5b has a mixture of pentatonics, bebop, and chromaticism. Ex. 5c uses that diminished
scale again. This is a good one to work through all keys, and to sequence in minor thirds.
George Colligan has worked with
Cassandra Wilson, Buster Williams,
Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane, and many
others. Most recently, he joined drummer
Jack DeJohnette’s new quintet. His
latest release is Come Together on the
Sunnyside label. Colligan is Assistant
Professor of Jazz Piano at the
University of Manitoba. Find out more
at georgecolligan.com. Jon Regen