5 Ways to Play Like Keith Jarrett - KeyboardMag
A masterclass form the January 2012 issue of KEYBOARD

KEITH JARRETT IS ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL JAZZ PIANISTS AND improvisers in the history of modern music. Emerging from his predecessors and influences (including Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Cecil Taylor), Jarrett forged a style that’s immediately identifiable to this day. Long flowing lines and a prodigious technique are just two of his trademarks, as is a style that’s at once precise and loose, tonal and atonal, reserved and explosive. These dichotomies have come to define his playing, which appears in formats from acclaimed solo concerts and jazz trios to classical fare and beyond. Sprinkle some of Keith’s inspired musical magic into your own playing with these exercises.

1. Right Hand Lines

Keith’s single-note right hand lines are probably his best-known trademark. This Keith-inspired melodic line is built over the first eight measures of “Rhythm Changes,” a jazz staple in turn built on the chords of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Jarrett’s own bebop-derived language is seen here in what I call “neo-bop,” which employs eight-note bebop scales, chromatic approach notes, upper and lower neighbor tones, as well as diatonic and chromatic passing tones. The left hand voicings also demonstrate Keith’s frequent use of dominant seventh sus4 chords in place of minor chords. Note that Keith sometimes lets his left hand crawl like a spider, using common tones between chords. Tip: Play the right hand alone at a fast clip to capture more of Keith’s sound in these lines.

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2. Country, Gospel, and Reggae

Keith fashioned a funky rhythmic style that at times seems to cunningly combine these three musical genres. This passage leans in the reggae and Gospel directions, with a nod towards country. Note the sixteenth-note triplets before the last chord. The left hand octaves and four-note voiced chords are other essential components of this sound.

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3. Polyphony

Keith can improvise poignant contrapuntal and polyphonic vignettes, evidencing his time spent playing the music of Bach and other Baroque composers. Ex. 3a has a Baroque flavor with modern harmonies, inner voice movements, and unusual cadences and resolutions. Ex. 3b highlights Keith’s atonal explorations, which often erupt in dissonant and free sounding flurries. Keith’s immersion in 20th-century classical composers such as Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Webern has informed his approach to this type of improvisation.

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4. Ostinatos and Vamps

Keith often employs a simple left hand repeated figure (known as an ostinato or vamp), while using his right hand to explore rhythms and tonalities that may or may not coincide with it. This takes a great deal of hand independence. Here, the right hand remains scalar and diatonic, over the left hand ostinato. The use of eighth-note triplets is a Jarrett hallmark as well. The left hand remains anchored on F, which can be seen as a pedal point, another one of Keith’s trademark devices. These ostinatos and vamps are sometimes used as intros or endings, while other times they stand as pieces on their own.

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5. Endings

Unlike many jazz musicians who end solos and tunes with dramatic flourishes of arpeggios and big chords, Keith often takes a minimalistic approach to many of his endings. This type of progression shown here is usually found at the end of standards, which ends quietly on the root of the I chord without fanfare. It’s not a staccato ending, but rather a soft landing, which sounds only as long as the given eighth-note value indicates. The left hand rootless fragments are typical Jarrett sonorities, as is the added chromatic II-V of F#min7 to B7. This surprising ending has a drama all its own—just like all of Keith Jarrett’s music!

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YIN AND YANG

“Keith Jarrett’s playing often seems to present a set of contradictions,” observes longtime contributor Andy LaVerne, a professor of jazz piano at the Hartt School of Music who himself has played with such artists as Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Chick Corea. “It’s at once consonant and dissonant, calm and chaotic, monophonic and polyphonic, intuitive and intellectual. His music is truly transcendent.”