A lesson from the March 2012 KEYBOARD Archives.
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OTIS SPANN MAY HAVE BEEN FROM JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI, BUT HE MADE HIS name as a Chicago bluesman, and was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. On Muddy Waters tracks like “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” his piano playing has phrasing and feel that seems to defy musical notation. Psychotherapy, acupuncture, and yoga all may have their uses, but listening to Spann just might be the best prescription for the blues. Here are six of his musical signatures in the context of a slow 12/8 blues in his style. To preserve the flow of the piece, the concepts described below don’t appear in exact numerical order in the sheet music.

Ex. 1 demonstrates how Otis often approaches a chord by first playing the chord a half-step below it. This occurs on the eighth-note that precedes the downbeat to bars 3, 4, 5, and 8. You can’t actually bend notes on the piano, but this makes it sound like you can.

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Ex. 2 illustrates chords and octaves with tremolo, or what some blues players call shaking the notes. Ex. 2a does this for a full bar in the right hand, and sounds great behind a solo or vocal. Ex. 2b uses the tremolo for one beat with an octave, creating a faux sustain. This brings a quality to the piano more traditionally associated with stringed instruments like the guitar.

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Otis Spann often plays four against three: groups of four or eight notes in the duration of a dotted quarter-note. He freely goes in and out of stating 4/4 against the eighth-note triplet feel inherent in 12/8 time. Exs. 3a and 3b have eight notes per beat over dotted quarter-notes, while Ex. 3c has four notes per beat. Spann had a strong ‘inner clock’ that let him move between these two feels regardless of what other rhythm section musicians were playing.

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As is often the case in blues and jazz, Spann sometimes plays major and minor thirds at the same time. In Ex 4, the chord in bar 3 is A7, which has C# as its major third. But the right-hand improv over that chord employs the minor third: C natural. Try improvising with minor thirds when playing dominant chords in this style. It’s a great way to add harmonic flavor to your solos.

Ex. 5 illustrates how Spann often plays groups of notes in a given beat that are not divisible by two. Notice how beat 3 of bar 9 has nine notes over a dotted quarter-note. This is an example of a blues lick that the player just feels, and one that doesn’t truly correspond to a given time signature. Again, Spann’s inner clock is the conductor here.

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In Ex. 6, I approach the E7 chord on the downbeat of bar 11 with three eighth-notes (D, D#, and E) played in octaves on beat 4 of bar 10. Th is is a way that Otis often leads into the turnaround—defined as the ninth bar of a 12-bar blues. He also uses it to approach the E7 on the third beat of the last bar.

To wrap up with some general observations, notice the absence of upper chord extensions such as ninths, 11ths, and 13ths—they’re generally not part of the harmonic identity of this style of blues. Also, Spann sometimes plays fills (between vocal phrases or during a solo) in the bass clef range. This seems simple, but it’s extremely significant stylistically.


“We often talk about ‘not overplaying’ when accompanying, but in the Chicago blues style, you can get away with ‘notey’ phrases throughout vocal or instrumental choruses,” says Clifford Carter, who has appeared with artists such as James Taylor, Betty Buckley, and Harry Connick Jr. “You still need to be sensitive to the phrasing of the singer or soloist, but there is indeed a license to respond with ample rhythmic and melodic activity. In other words, let it rip!”

***Watch Otis Spann play “T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do.”