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The Touch of Your Lips, Part II: Touch and Tone Color in Jazz Piano

The Touch of Your Lips, Part II: Touch and Tone Color in Jazz Piano
Kurt Ellenberger By

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With Monk, however, we find, for the first time, tone color coming to the fore as a defining feature of the music. Whereas most pianists then (and today) work incredibly hard to mitigate the percussive nature of the instrument as much as possible, Monk revels in it, proudly emphasizing its percussive nature.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

As mentioned in Part I, tone color took on a prominent role in classical music in the 19C. The Romantic composers like Wagner, Strauss, Berlioz, Chopin and many others were, I think it is fair to say, somewhat obsessed with it. The composers before them were certainly aware of tone color, but it was not a primary concern; in the Baroque era, they were exploring counterpoint and harmony (Bach) and in the Classical period, they were interested in the beauty and simplicity of homophonic music. The Romantics had a different vision, a vision filled with emotion and drama, and for that, they focused on the extremes in all areas—dynamic range, pitch range, timbre, and tone colors. 

Jazz shows a similar progression: Dixieland is the Baroque era of jazz, with a focus on polyphony, Big Band/Swing is the Classical era, with its turn to homophony and orchestration, and then bebop quickly leads to the Romantic era—Cool Jazz, which is where tone color became a prominent and defining feature. There seems to be a general rule in artistic development that the initial style periods are more focused on one or more of the primary elements of music, namely melody, rhythm, and harmony. After a period of time, however, they need to move on to the more esoteric aspects, like tone color, to successfully develop and expand the expressive range into more nuanced areas. This is precisely what happened in jazz and in jazz piano.

The predecessor to the first jazz piano styles is Ragtime, which was an enormously popular style of music from the late 1800s into the first decades of the 20C. It spread throughout the country using the new recording technologies (records and piano rolls) and through the sale of printed sheet music. Here is Scott Joplin (1868-1917), recorded on a piano roll, playing one of his biggest Ragtime hits, the Maple Leaf Rag:


Piano rolls are certainly somewhat crude recording devices, but they do record all elements of the player's performance, including dynamics and pedaling. Assuming that this recording is a fairly accurate representation, we can hear that Ragtime focuses primarily on a driving rhythm with lots of syncopation, and, of course, some impressive finger work, especially in the right hand. It's fun music, but it has a very limited expressive range. In terms of tone color, it is largely monochromatic and without a great deal of variation in touch or articulation. (This is not a criticism of the style—it seems quite typical of a new genre, whose attention is on the foundational and defining aspects of its style.)

As the first jazz pianists, who were rooted in Ragtime, emerged, they loosen the reins a bit and introduce some improvisation. Here is Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) playing "Fingerbreaker," one of his big hits from the early 20C:


This is not Ragtime anymore, it's stride piano, a name given by the "striding" quality of the left hand as it plays a bass note in the lower register, then "strides" up to the middle register and plays a chord, and in doing so provides a powerful rhythmic pulse. Ragtime's squarer rhythms give way to a more fluid and flexible rhythmic feel that foreshadows the swing rhythms of the 1930s. As with its predecessor, this music focuses on the powerful rhythms and exciting melodic and improvisatory figures in the right hand. In terms of tone color, there is not much variation here at all. 

And why should there be? Or perhaps a better question would be, how could there be? Jazz, in the early years, was not music played in concert halls for enraptured audiences sitting quietly like they do at classical piano concerts; it was played in bars, restaurants, and hotels where people were enjoying the music and partying. This music needed to be loud enough to project above the crowd noise and fill the room. Variations in touch would be completely lost in this environment, where power, projection, and excitement required a muscular approach from the pianists that left little room for a softer touch. (My guess is that a performer during this period using a softer touch would be seen as too delicate and too effete, and would not be effective or successful.)

As jazz piano moves into the 1920s and 1930s, we begin to hear more coloristic effects and more dramatic dynamics that shape the right hand improvisations and melodies. These recordings of Earl Hines (1903-1983) and Teddy Wilson (1912-1986), from 1928 and 1934 respectively, are markedly different from the previous pieces. The left hand is subdued—they are both using a different touch than in the right hand, thereby creating a different tone color than that of the right hand. The right hand features exquisite dynamic shaping, and they use octaves and tremolos to produce a variety of different colors as well. (While not related to tone color, it is impossible not to mention the incredibly nuanced rhythmic sensibilities—the left hand provides the pulse, and the right hand soars in and out and around that pulse, creating a delightful swing feel that is irresistible!)



While pianistic effects and dynamic shaping and tiering were clearly important to Hines, those elements are more about creating an overall texture than they are the focus of his playing. Tone color is there, but it serves in a supporting role rather than as a defining feature.

These piano stylings became the template for the jazz pianists that followed. The rhythmic play between the two hands became more intense, as demonstrated by this performance from Erroll Garner:


We find similar stylistic features—a subdued left hand, pianistic effects in the right hand, but the right hand is so rhythmically free, toying with the left hand's pulse in a way that is simply breathtaking. So, once again, tone color is found, but the defining feature here is the improvisatory inventiveness and the intoxicating swing feel. 

Others, like Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) and Art Tatum (1909-1956), brought different skill sets and sensibilities. Tatum's almost superhuman technical skills made him the envy of all the rest, while Williams explored register and was more interested in accessing tone colors, especially in the lower registers. Here's Tatum from 1943 and Williams from 1946: 



We should also remember that recording technology was advancing quickly during the pre-and post-WWII period, and the ability to capture these subtleties increased with it. In the recording studio at least, pianists could play with as much variety of touch as they wished, knowing it would not be lost in the din of the restaurant or bar. It was also during these years that jazz moved into concert halls where the acoustics were good and audiences were silent, creating an environment that allowed for deeper exploration of texture and tone color than was previously possible. Additionally, microphone technology made it possible for instrumentalists and singers to project the softest sounds by amplifying them, something that Miles Davis used to significant effect. Even in the jazz clubs, it was now possible to use a much larger array of tone colors and timbres than ever before.

The bebop pianists who followed had to develop a new approach that fit the new style that was developing. Tempos were faster, and the pianists developed a more linear style that mimicked the lines played by the horns. And bebop was exclusively small group format, where the pianist is an accompanist and a soloist, and where the bassist plays the bass lines—there was no place for the striding left hand, and thus pianists had to develop new left and right hand techniques in the bebop landscape. 

Bud Powell (1924-1966), Red Garland (1923-1984), Wynton Kelly (1931-1971), and Thelonius Monk (1917-1982) rose to that challenge with incredible creativity. Powell developed a two-handed chordal approach for accompaniment that worked in tandem with the drummer to provide a rhythmically rich harmonic background for the ensemble and the soloists. He also developed intricate improvisations that brought the new bebop language to the piano, which is not an easy task. The left hand is drastically subdued, almost a whisper at times, and the right hand is bright and sparkly. So, there is attention to tone color, but as before, it does not play a defining role—the focus is on group interplay and improvisation. Here's Powell from 1949 playing "Bouncing with Bud" with jazz luminaries Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes:

 
Wynton Kelly and Red Garland, Miles Davis' sidemen on many recordings, were fellow travelers whose blues-inflected bebop put them at the pinnacle of hard swinging bebop piano in the 1950s. Their exquisite articulation and sophisticated jazz phrasing became the standard for this style of playing, and it remains so to this day. 



These players utilized a wide range of touch. They also refined the pianistic effects, like the octaves and tremolos of the earlier stride players, making them both more delicate and powerful, which results in some delightfully colorful piano playing. As before, however, the goal of the tone color here is to shape the melodic line and make it as expressive and varied as that of a saxophonist or a singer. Color is once again a servant to the melodic shapes, the rather than a primary element.

With Thelonius Monk, however, we find, for the first time, tone color coming to the fore as a defining feature of the music. Whereas most pianists then (and today) work incredibly hard to mitigate the percussive nature of the instrument as much as possible, Monk revels in it, proudly emphasizing its percussive nature. What is astonishing to me is how Monk, a stride player who worked at Minton's Playhouse as the house pianist, was able to leave that behind and so confidently forge a stunningly different approach, seemingly overnight. The stylistic shift is seismic and curiously inimitable, a profound artistic statement that resonates as powerfully today as it did then. 


Here we find a pianist who is focused on the sounds and textures he is creating on an equal footing with the melodic lines, harmonies, and rhythms. All elements work together in a unified whole that features jagged melodies, jarring rhythms, dissonant chords, and a punchy and almost strident touch (in comparison to his increasingly mellifluous contemporaries). In Monk's music, these provocative musical elements become, somehow, beautiful; his postmodern aesthetic is internally coherent and logical, and a major component of that is his touch and the tone color it produces.

From this point forward, touch and tone color become essential in jazz piano. After Monk's assertion of tone color as a primary musical component, we find a stunning array of colors and textures that continue to flower in the present day, where the range of those colors and textures is simply extraordinary. This will be the topic for Part III, the final installment of this series.

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