5 Ways to Play Like Hank Jones

Alex Minasian shows how to play like his favorite pianist and mentor

My favorite pianist and mentor, Hank Jones, spent many hours sharing his knowledge with me when I first moved to New York City. By the time he passed away in 2010 at the age of 91, Jones had performed with nearly every major jazz figure from the past 75 years, from Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis to contemporary artists such as Joe Lovano. His numerous recordings showcase the sumptuous touch and tone he was able to elicit from the piano.

Jones told me that, as a young pianist in Pontiac, Michigan, he was most influenced by Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Jones arrived in New York in 1944 at the infancy of the bebop movement, and while it heavily influenced him, he never called himself a bebop pianist. Instead, his playing encompassed many different styles, from swing-era players such as Teddy Wilson, all the way up to modernists like Bill Evans. But Hank Jones never stopped practicing or learning, so his playing was constantly evolving.

This month, we’ll examine Jones’ elegant sense of harmony and his use of smooth, single-note lines.

1. Autumn Lines

I’ll start by looking at Jones’ work on the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves,” from Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 album Somethin’ Else. (That recording also features Miles Davis, who Jones told me came up with all of the arrangements and concepts for the album). Ex. 1a shows a typical Jones solo line over a minor ii-V7-i progression in the key of G minor. I really love the line he plays over the D7alt chord, where he utilizes the D altered scale resolving into Gmin6. Here in classic “Hank Jones form,” he plays an F#, imparting a minor-major sound that he frequently uses over minor chords. Let’s take that line and transpose it in the keys of F minor (Ex. 1b) and C minor (Ex. 1c).

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2. 16th Notes and Altered Scales

Other musical devices favored by Jones can be heard on “Autumn Leaves.” Ex. 2a illustrates a solo line he plays starting on the third of Cmin7 (the Eb), with a line of 16th notes that resolves to the root (F) of the F7 chord in the next measure. Next, he plays a 16th-note line based off of the F altered scale to resolve to the third (D) in the Bb Maj7 chord in the next bar. This is a typical sound for Jones, with flowing lines that outline the standard ii-V7-I (Cmin7/F7/BbMaj7) progression. Let’s also try this solo line in the key of C (Ex. 2b).

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3. Rhythm Changes Workout

Let’s examine a Hank Jones solo line over the chord changes to “I’ve Got Rhythm,” known in jazz circles as “Rhythm Changes.” (You can hear this kind of playing on Jones’ 1977 album, Bop Redux). It’s always interesting to see how different pianists play over these chord changes, as they are such an important part of the jazz lexicon. Ex. 3a begins at the start of this second “A section” of the song form, and it’s a good example of rhythmic displacement, as Jones is placing his eighth notes on the off-beats of the first measure of the figure. In the next bar, Jones outlines the harmony of the ii-V7 progression (Cmin7-F7) clearly and seemingly effortlessly. Let’s take this line and play it up a whole step in Ex. 3b (Dmin7-G7), and up a perfect fourth in Ex 3c (Fmin7-Bb7).

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4. Chord Outlines and Triplets

Ex. 4a shows Jones’ elegant work on the chords to the bebop classic “Yardbird Suite.” At the start of his second chorus, Jones’ solo lines elegantly outline the chord changes and include eighth-note triplets in the second bar over the Fmin7 to Bb7 sequence. Let’s play this phrase in the key of F (Ex. 4b) and the key of D (Ex. 4c).

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5. Classical Warm-Ups

Here is Jones’ nod to the ubiquitous Hanon and Czerny piano exercises, which he practiced every day when he sat at the piano. (I know this for a fact, as sometimes I would watch him warm-up!) The phrase he plays in Ex. 5a over the Fmin7 to Bb7 is reminiscent of those exercises. Play Ex. 5b to get the phrase under your fingers in a few different keys.

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Alex Minasian is a New York-based jazz pianist who has performed with Little Jimmy Scott, Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordan, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Billy Vera. Minasian is currently recording his debut album with his trio. Find out more at alexminasian.com.

Listening List
Essential Hank Jones Recordings

Cannonball Adderley
Somethin’ Else

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Hank Jones
Bop Redux

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