Keeping on the Pulse

John Kember
From the Faber magazine, 'Pianofforte', Summer 2005

On helping aspiring jazz pianists to develop a ‘comping’ style and strong sense of pulse

Most instrumentalists will have some experience of playing with others, whether with a piano accompaniment, CD backing or small ensemble – but most pianists spend much of their time playing on their own. And when starting to play jazz styles or tackling improvisation for the first time, playing solo is a rather artificial way to learn; after all, most jazz pianists will find themselves playing with, at the very least, a combo of bass and/or drums. John Kember, author of Jazz Piano Studies, talks about his new book Jazz Piano Plus One, which helps pianists play in jazz styles and eases them towards improvisation.

I am a firm believer in the value of duet-playing for pianists. In my experience, teachers tend to use them in the initial stages of a pupil’s learning to give them added confidence and to encourage a sense of pulse and fluency. After that, whether from lack of suitable material or time constraints, we tend to use them less frequently. When embarking on a new area of study such as jazz styles however, I have found that some form of support and accompaniment is invaluable. Other instrumentalists benefit from an accompaniment or additional line much of the time, but pianists tend to be left to maintain a pulse on their own.

As playing jazz or ‘jazzy’ pieces relies heavily on a constant beat or pulse, our students need any extra help that we can give them. In fact when teaching I often find myself playing along – from whichever side of the piano I happen to be sitting – in order to encourage the student to keep going, and to enhance their enjoyment. It occurred to me that a piece that sounds complete on its own but also has an additional part written for the teacher could be really helpful.

After a period of ‘experimenting’ with pupils, the idea for Jazz Piano Plus One began to take shape – original jazz pieces with a difference! Aimed at intermediate players of grades 3 - 5 standard and above, the pieces work well as solos but also include an optional part for the teacher or friend, to add an extra dimension. When sharing these ideas with interested colleagues, many commented ‘It’s what a good teacher would do anyway’. For example, using a bass line as the added part is not only the best way to give a sense of momentum and style, but it also frees up the student’s left hand from having to play a bass line or the root of each chord. This then opens the door to introducing rootless chords, which give a more idiomatic and biting sound to the harmonies, and furthermore, the chords need not be limited to the first beat of the bar. This leads on easily to the style of left-hand chord-playing known as ‘comping’. In this the chords can be played both on and off the beat in rhythmic patterns or at intervals to punctuate the right-hand melodic or improvised line. When you listen to the great jazz pianists this is exactly what their left hands are doing. Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner were exceptional in their independence of hands, and the rhythms they developed are well worth studying.

I’ve always encouraged pupils interested in jazz piano playing to listen to all the great exponents of the art, both past and present. It’s a part of the repertoire that, if it is to be played with any authenticity, needs to be absorbed thoroughly by example. Only this way will they develop that vital ‘feel’ for the music and be able to go on and be successful in the further art of stylistic improvisation. It also needs to be remembered that this is after all American music, and therefore needs to be played with an American accent! The roots of the style, its development and many of its finest exponents are from the Americas, and its playing needs the steady but relaxed ‘cool’ feel that they do so well. (You can liken the difference between American and European attitudes to rhythm by comparing their soldiers’ marching!) A strong sense of pulse is of course essential. I have been known to give prospective jazz students a ‘test’ before taking them on. I ask them to sit and listen to a recording of say: Ellington’s It don’t mean a thing … and see if they move! Anyone with a feel for jazz should not be able to keep still and should feel the need to move with the music. An (inaudible) foot/leg/head/shoulder movement should be seen as a positive sign!

Jazz Piano Plus One does provide opportunities for improvisation in the later pieces, but this is not the main idea of the collection. My approach is rather to ease students into the feel of improvisation, encouraging them to make small rhythmic or melodic changes first rather than to dive straight into the void of a completely blank and open 8 bars. Once a piece is really familiar the student can then gradually break away from having to play ‘precisely’ what is on the page and only then begin to explore their own ideas and experiment with small changes.

I hope that Jazz Piano Plus One will bridge the gap between playing ‘jazzy’ pieces and helping students find their feet as freer, more skilled players, able to play in a more rhythmic and authentic style. This in turn will lead to a more versatile and valuable pianist, able to interact with small jazz groups and understand their role as accompanist with vocalists and in the larger Big Band format too.

This article appeared in the Summer 2005 edition of the Faber magazine, 'Pianofforte'.

What they say

“beautifully crafted arrangements of jazz and pop standards ... a gift to anyone who wants to entertain” “John Kember has produced some more beautifully crafted arrangements of jazz and pop standards ... a gift to anyone who wants to entertain, either alone or with others. ... Each is then turned into a characterful piano piece, with plenty of rhythmic variation and syncopation, and some fine examples of bass and inner-part melodies.”
Nancy Litten, 'Piano Professional', Summer 2011

“arrangements true to the originals and compositions beautiful, stylish and delightfully pianistic” “I always send up a quick cheer when I see anything by John Kember, as his arrangements are true to the originals and his compositions beautiful, stylish and delightfully pianistic.”
Fiona Lau, 'Music Teacher', March 2010

“Presented with style, care and panache” “Presented with style, care and panache ... ideal for ensemble work, in school or teaching studio ... an arrangement with real pianistic flair for performace and private indulgance.”
John York, 'Piano' Dec 2009/ Jan 2010

“I love these books. They eclipse any others I have examined because they work. Nothing thin or weak, nothing merely derivative” “two fabulous volumes ... The reason these work so well where others often fall short of expectation is the sheer quality of the arrangements by John Kember. ... I love these books. They eclipse any others I have examined because they work. Nothing thin or weak, nothing merely derivative”
John York, 'Piano' Spring 2009

“practical and original gems that could easily be prepared as part of a concert” “The solos with piano accompaniment that are included at the end of each chapter are practical and original gems that could easily be prepared as part of a concert program. ... This text would be of particular interest to adult players who wish to brush up on their sight-reading skills, and is an excellent resource for teachers who would like to reinforce the reading ability of their students and are looking for a clear and systematic method to accomplish this task.”
Brenda Brenner, 'Strings, October 2007 (USA)

“John Kember is truly one of our finest composers who incorporates the interests of the student as well as the pedagogical needs of the teacher in his works.” “John Kember is truly one of our finest composers who incorporates the interests of the student as well as the pedagogical needs of the teacher in his works.”
Julia Amada Kruger, Vice-President of the American College of Musicians

“Here is a composer and teacher who understands the jazz piano idiom and how to train it positively, thoroughly and progressively” “Here is a composer and teacher who understands the jazz piano idiom and how to train it positively, thoroughly and progressively, starting at about the grade 3 level. His music always feels and sounds great and the 'Plus One' volume also encourages ensemble work, improvisation and a wider experience for the pupil. All styles are covered within the books, big band, gospel, ballad, blues etc and, again, presentation is brilliant.”
John York in 'Piano', July/August 2005

“A brilliant and original collection” “A brilliant and original collection which covers all standard jazz techniques and idioms-swing rhythm, anticipation, syncopation, walking bass-line in blues, rag, jazz waltz and dreamy reflective styles.”
'Piano Journal' (EPTA)

Collections from John Kember

American Song Book (Self)
All-new arrangements of the classic hits of the 20th century by John Kember
Easy Jazz Pieces (Music Sales)
Short pieces to make this popular genre available to relative beginners, and for those at primary and intermediate levels.
Easy Piano Duets (Schott)
Designed to be played by teacher and pupil, or by two players of equal ability.
Jazz masterclasses (Schott)
John has worked with Jiggs Whigham, internationally acclaimed trombone virtuoso, to produce this fine in-depth guide for aspiring jazz trombonists.
Jazz Piano Studies (Faber)
John Kember's love of jazz and latin styles is well illustrated by the volumes in this collection, which includes material for everyone from the beginner up to more advanced players with a wealth of pieces to help develop a true jazz style.
Keyboards (Schott)
The Keyboards series provides simple but interesting arrangements of well-known pieces.
On the Lighter Side (Schott)
Although the pieces in this collection are on the lighter side, they are by no means trivial and offer pianists of all levels something interesting and challenging. The series contains both piano solo and piano duet volumes, some with CD recordings of the pieces.
Original Jazz Ballads (Music Sales)
Pieces for the solo player that evoke the atmosphere and styles of popular songs from the periods when melody, lyrics and harmonies reached their peak.
Play Ballads (Faber)
'The joy of ballad playing is indulgence pure and simple: performing the smoothest and most expressive of melodies'. The melodies are similar in style and are attractive, providing opportunities for developing tonal quality, phrasing and legato playing. Play Ballads offers the Grade 4-6 (intermediate) instrumentalist the inspirations of some of the greatest exponents of the form.
Play Broadway (Faber)
Each volume in the Play Broadway series features 10 of the best shows from across the decades. Available for six seperate instruments, each volume includes a CD with backing tracks and piano accompaniments.
Sight Reading (Schott)
Sight-reading is a vital accomplishment for any musician. This series provides a new approach and includes introductory introductory and more advanced volumes for instrumentalists (the Sight-Reading volumes) and vocalists (the Sight-Singing volumes).
Starting Out (Schott)
Short, tuneful pieces to help new players of all ages gradually widen their range of notes and rhythmic patterns. Although these pieces are broadly progressnve in range of notes and rhythmic figures used, they are intended as a source of material from which the teacher can select to suit the needs of individual pupils rather than needing to work from cover to cover.
String Quartet Arrangements (Schott)
John Kember provides in this series a variety of pieces from classical, romantic, baroque and modern periods in score and parts for the string quartet.
The Ensemble Collection (Schott)
These original compositions, presented in a variety of styles, offer each player an equal share of the melodic interest and are aimed at students of similar playing experience and standards. The minimum teacher assistance should be required.
The Jazz Piano Player (Faber)
The books in this series are based on well-known songs from the Great American Songbook by great American songwriters such as Cole Porter, George Gerwin and Harold Arlen. The purpose of these books is to help pianists to understand chords, chord symbols and voicings. Each song is shown in two forms - firstly with melody, words, chord symbols and notation; and secondly an intermediate standard solo arrangement.
The Pop Piano Player (Faber)
Designed for pianist wanting to make the transition into playing pop piano, as well as those keen to develop their own style.
The Simply Series (Self)
The books in this series each take a genre of music: Latin, Jazz, Swing and provide a series of original pieces by John Kember that fir perfectly into any repertoire.