5 Ways to Play Like Shirley Horn

December 22, 2016

Singer and pianist Shirley Horn grew up in a musical household in Washington, D.C., and was introduced to music by her parents. Horn was drawn to classical music early (particularly the music of Rachmaninoff and Debussy), but after listening to pianists such as Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, she developed a deep interest in jazz. In 1960, Horn’s first recording, Embers and Ashes made an impression on Miles Davis, who invited her to open for him at New York City’s famed Village Vanguard. That performance raised awareness of Horn’s great talent and helped launch her prolific career. Let’s examine the musical stylings of Shirley Horn in more detail.

1. High-Octane Octaves

Horn often used the piano to mimic the sound of a big band. In swinging sections, she would sometimes play octave melodies in her right hand supported by left hand “shell” voicings. In Ex. 1, the right hand riffs in the first two bars come from the Bb Blues scale (Bb, Db, Eb, E, F, Ab, Bb) and the G Minor Pentatonic scale (G, Bb, C, D, F, G). The octaves are played with the thumb on the lower note and the pinky on top. (For extra effect, you can smear the notes in the middle of the octave for a sloppy sound.) The last two bars in the right hand come from the Bb Mixolydian mode (Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb). The left hand voicings are versions of what most jazz pianists call the A and B form voicings; bars 3 and 4 in the left hand part are versions of these chords in second inversion. Try learning these voicings in all 12 keys to become familiar with where to raise or lower certain notes to form chord alterations such as the #5 or #9.

2. The Pedaled Intro

Horn sometimes set up jazz standards with a pedaled intro, as seen in Ex. 2. All of the notes come from the C Mixolydian mode (C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C). After deciding on a melody for the top voice, it’s easy to fill in colorful notes below by just picking some from the scale. You don’t have to be overly concerned with which notes you hit. Just stay in the mode at hand and all the notes will sound good! These right hand shapes function much like a sax section would in a big band, and the left hand part provides the pedal in octaves with an eighth note syncopation that propels the time.

3. Latin Grooves

On tender Latin ballads, Horn often plays repetitive figures that accentuate the off-beats, like those in Ex. 3. This sounds great against seductive Bossa Nova rhythms. The voicings here are a combination of the shells we saw in the previous examples, and fourth voicings on the top, here starting on the third scale degree. The combinations of these two shapes together makes for great sounding chords. These chords stay relatively still, save for a chromatic embellishment of a half step below every note on the “and” of beat 4 in bar 2. On your own, try putting fourth voicings above your left hand shells to discover interesting chords with great alterations. For example, over an EbMaj7 shell in the left hand (see the last bar of Ex.1), play right hand fourths on D, F, and A to get cool sounding chords.

4. Altered Chording

Let’s try combining a few of these concepts over a standard ii-V progression. Ex. 4 starts with stacked seventh chords. By placing a root position Gmin7 chord above an EbMaj7 chord, we get a great Cmin11 sound reminiscent of a Basie Big Band shout. At the end of the bar, we come upon some funky chord alterations. Notice that the notes in the right hand are changing more frequently that those in the left hand part. While this may seem technically incorrect, this style is not about perfection. It’s all about swing, and as such can be played somewhat sloppy.

5. More Tips and Tricks

Ex. 5 illustrates a few more pianistic tricks inspired by Horn’s playing. In bar 1, we see interesting symmetrical chord color by placing third inversion triads over a flatted ninth note. The lowest notes are played by the left hand and come from a Cdim7 chord. The triads have roots a half step below each of these notes. Notice that all the notes are from the B diminished scale (B, C#, D, E, F, G, Ab, Bb, B). Bar 2 is called a “piano harp” and is meant to be played very quickly. The hands cross over each other rapidly, which imitates the sound of a harp. Bar 3 expands on the symmetry of diminished harmony, with chords that have the top note raised by a whole step for a modern sound. The left hand plays a diminished chord a half step below each root to get a variation on what is called a double diminished chord. The last bar has a McCoy Tyner-ish exercise with fourth chords that work great over Cmin, EbMaj7, F13, and Am7b5 chords.

Listening List Essential Shirley Horn Albums

Close Enough for Love


I Thought About You


Here’s to Life


You Won’t Forget Me

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