They say “You are what you eat,” but if you’re a musician then you are what you listen to. It’s always good idea to get out of your comfort zone and check out music from other cultures and styles—and not just music that has keyboards!
To start developing your own musical vocabulary, keep a notebook. Michael Brecker and Harold Danko were big proponents of this approach. As you explore and practice, when you stumble across a riff, rhythm, or bit of harmony that makes you smile, write it down. Turn it into an exercise. Develop variations on it. Practice it in all keys. Try shoehorning it into a bunch of tunes just to see how it fits. Fill notebook pages with these snippets and practice them instead of Hanon exercises.
Here are some snippets of my own that coalesced after a lifetime of listening to artists like Richard Tee, Dr. John, and Bill Evans. Combine and apply them with phrases from the artists you love and you’ll soon develop a musical language all your own.
Ex. 1a is a common way to walk up from the I chord to the IV chord in pop music.
Ex. 1b is closer to the way the late, great keyboardist Richard Tee would’ve played it. It’s got a more muscular, R&B/gospel sound. The Ab13 on the third beat is the “money chord,” as compared to the Ab dim chord in Ex. 1a. The syncopation and suspension before the IV chord are hallmarks of gospel piano, and very much a part of Tee’s sound.
Ex. 1c is the kind of thing Tee would do to build excitement when he had a little room to maneuver.
2. Chord Substitutions
Ex. 2a illustrates a few chord substitutions for the first few bars of the jazz standard “Cherokee.” (I thought to myself, “What would Bill Evans play?”) In the third bar, instead of playing the standard Fmin7-Bb7 progression, I precede it with a ii-V progression coming from a half-step below. (Emin9b5-A7#5).
Ex. 2b shows the same kind of substitution in a moving chord progression (like the seventh bar the song “You Took Advantage of Me”). In this context, it is more reminiscent of the legendary pianist Art Tatum’s harmonic sensibilities.
3. Blues Licks
Ex. 3a is a blues lick inspired by New Orleans piano master Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John) that you can try over a boogie or a shuffle like the one shown here. It works just as well going from chords I to IV as it does going from chords IV to I, and it has a nice blues crunch to it. Other variations might include Ab and E natural notes played by the right pinky finger.
Ex. 3b is a stripped-down variation that’s in some ways more powerful. These have a rich, syncopated, “across-the-bar” rhythm that’s played by many New Orleans pianists and often attributed to Caribbean and West African music. Blues generally uses a limited harmonic palette, but the rhythmic possibilities are endless.
4. Pedals and Drones
Ex. 4 is inspired by the drones and pedal tones I often hear played by fiddles, mandolins, and dulcimers. The chords indicate some of the possible settings for this right-hand figure, but they’re not intended to be an actual progression. As you can see, this figure works over a I-IV progression in the keys of D, G,and C. Over the maj7 and min7 chords it starts to take on a kind of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays sound.
“If you’re disciplined and organized, learn to transcribe and analyze your favorite bits of music. If you’re more of an “osmosis” person like me, just let them seep into your consciousness,” says keyboardist, arranger and composer Robbie Kondor who has worked with artists like Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, among others. Kondor is a frequent sideman and musical director for TV specials and concerts, like the Grammy Awards and the recent James Taylor and Carole King reunion tour. He has also composed the scores for TV shows, commercials, and indie films like Todd Solondz’ Happiness. His work can be heard on the upcoming album Keys To The City, which features pianists like Paul Shaffer, Dick Hyman, and Leon Fleisher playing New York-inspired songs. Find out more at www.kondormusic.com