The world lost a tremendous musician, mentor, and
evangelist when the pianist, composer, and radio personality Marian
McPartland passed away in August 2013. Born Margaret Marian Turner in
Slough, England in 1918, she married Jimmy McPartland, an American
soldier and cornetist. After World War II, the McPartlands moved first
to Chicago and then to New York City where in 1952, Marian began her
residency at the storied Hickory House on 52nd Street. Later, her famed
program Piano Jazz was launched in 1979.
Marian’s piano style is
very eclectic and nearly impossible to categorize. Here are five
concepts gleaned in Marian’s playing that you can practice and add to
Click the sheet music images to enlarge. Scroll down the page for audio examples.
1. Triplets and Pentatonics
Ex. 1 is a typical McPartland 12-bar blues device
of the left hand keeping a triplet figure while the right hand
improvises using mostly pentatonic material with chromatic
embellishments. When practicing this, try to get the bass line under
your hands first so you don’t need to think about it. Then start adding
right hand lines. You can also try building ideas using the A minor and C minor
pentatonic scales. (Note that the minor pentatonic scale contains scale
degrees 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 from the natural minor scale.)
2. Arpeggios and Slash Chords
Ex. 2 is influenced by “Kaleidoscope,” the theme song to McPartland’s long-running NPR radio show Piano Jazz.
Here, the right hand arpeggiates simple triads with fifths in the bass.
The interesting thing about these shapes when used together is the
harmony that they imply. The first slash chord C/F suggests an Fmaj7 tonality. The Eb/C slash chord in bar 2 suggests a C minor
tonality. Try creating your own chordal combinations and also try
switching the direction of the triad arpeggios for new sounds of your
3. Chord Scale Relationships
The lush piano chords in Ex. 3 are influenced by
Marian’s beautiful ballad playing. Here, the right hand delineates a
decisive harmonic motion while the left hand comps and plays light fills
in the middle of the chords. Notice how the majority of the musical
material is coming from chord-to-scale relationships. The left-hand part in bar 2 is derived from the Eb Major
scale. (Also notice a clever right-hand “diminished trick” often used
on major seventh chords on beat 2 of bar 2.) In bar 3, the right-hand
chords come from the A Dorian mode. The key to developing this kind of harmonic fluidity is to master ii-V-I
progressions and basic major and minor scales in all 12 keys. Doing so
allows you to see and hear your way through the chord changes without
having to think about them.
4. Melodic Harmonization
Ex. 4 is another technique found in Marian’s often
playful piano work: harmonizing a quarter-note melody. Bar 1 begins with
“drop 2” chord voicings (where the second note from the top is
“dropped” down to the left hand). It also features a scalar bass line. Bar 2, beat 1 starts with the famed b13b9#11 chord and is then followed by modal “planing,” (moving fourth voicings
while keeping their shapes intact). Bar 3 demonstrates right hand
fourth voicings over left hand “shells” (basic voicings that form the
building blocks of chords). The last bar illustrates how even smallest
of melodic movements can impart huge harmonic contrast.
5. Thirds and Octaves
Ex. 5 shows how Marian McPartland often creates
compelling “chordal illusions” using just thirds and octaves. Over a
simple “cowboy” bass line, here we play chromatically around the third
of the G and D chords. Notice the right hand shape—the
third in the middle of the octave line gives the illusion of a much
bigger chord. The octaves on the outside and the bass line furnish the
listener with the harmony. The listener’s ears then fill in the rest.
“I was lucky in my late teens to study piano with Ellen
Rowe, who was working with Marian McPartland at the time. The chord
voicings and other techniques I learned from Ellen’s transcriptions of
Marian had a profound impact on my musical development,” says
keyboardist and composer Brian Charette, who has performed and
recorded with artists like Joni Mitchell, Michael Bublé, and Rufus
Wainwright, in addition to leading his own jazz groups. His latest album
is Music for Organ Sextette, on SteepleChase Records. Find out more at kungfugue.com.