The Touch of Your Lips, Part III: The Essential Touch in Jazz Piano

The Touch of Your Lips, Part III: The Essential Touch in Jazz Piano
Kurt Ellenberger By

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Miles Davis needed a painter in sound, one who could successfully bring the impressionistic sounds and modal harmonies of Debussy and Ravel into a jazz environment and do so in a way that was organic and uncontrived. For this role, he found the perfect pianist to help him realize his vision, and that pianist was Bill Evans.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

It would be nice and tidy if the development of tone color as a primary in jazz piano matched its development in the other instruments, but that is not the case. From early on in jazz's history, composers and bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and others were focused on the different tone colors that their wind players could produce. The 1930s were a time of great exploration in this area by the big band composers and arrangers, and indeed, the signature sounds of the top bands relied heavily on the unique timbres created by the individual players. This was not the case with the small groups of the time, whose focus was increasingly on improvisation, not orchestration. As bebop then emerged in the 1940s, the focus was primarily on improvisation, but, regardless of how good that was, the musicians must have found the singular focus to be missing something important.

Such was the case with Miles Davis, who played with Charlie Parker, but who did not follow the edicts of bebop for very long. From the very beginning, Davis seemed to have already moved past the bluster and bravado of bebop towards a more subdued aesthetic that prominently featured tone color. Throughout the 1950s, his aesthetic choices focused more and more on tone color, until, in 1959, he released his masterpiece of cool/modal jazz, Kind of Blue, the highest selling jazz album of all time. The album is enthralling, effortlessly combining the most sophisticated harmonic and formal elements with some of the most exciting soloists of the time (John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley) in a way that is pleasant, inviting, and emotionally riveting.

Texturally, it is unconventional; Davis focuses on creating moods and atmospheres that are consistently sustained throughout the recording. It comes across as a "concept album," which is a way of saying "it's like classical music, it has multiple 'movements' that are meant to be listened to as part of a larger narrative." In addition, the compositions and the group interplay take on a primary role as they are equally as important as the improvisations. In my opinion, calling it "cool/modal" jazz is an understatement—it finds a sweet spot between jazz and classical music (Impressionism to be precise) that is remarkably true to both genres. To accomplish this task, Davis needed a different kind of pianist, one who could create the kind of impressionistic textures that were required. He needed a painter in sound, one who could successfully bring the impressionistic sounds and modal harmonies of Debussy and Ravel into a jazz environment and do so in a way that was organic and uncontrived. For this role, he found the perfect pianist to help him realize his vision, and that pianist was Bill Evans (1929-1980).

The pianists previously discussed in this series were, for the most part, largely self-taught. A few had some formal training. Bud Powell and Teddy Wilson, for example, studied classical piano, but most of the rest did not, which is surprising given their incredible (Art Tatum!) technical prowess. With the arrival of Evans, we will often see that the jazz pianists at the top level have serious classical training. The classical background provides the pianists with an enormous and powerful set of technical and theoretical skills, which they used effectively to expand jazz's harmonic and melodic language in the 1960s and beyond. One of the important technical skills is the development of touch, and after Evans' breathtaking impressionistic revelations on Kind of Blue, touch increasingly becomes an essential part of jazz piano, as we shall see in the examples that follow.

Evans started piano lessons as a young child, and he graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University with a bachelor of music degree. He played serious literature at a professional level, as shown by his graduation recital program. (See Figure 1 in slideshow above.)

He continued on to receive an Artist Diploma in music composition from the Mannes School. Evans was a highly trained classical pianist and theorist, and he brought those considerable resources to his jazz playing and writing. Evans was keenly aware of the classical music, like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, that focused, in some cases, entirely on tone color and sound rather than melody, harmony, and rhythm. From his playing, I think it is obvious that tone color was, to Evans, of the utmost artistic concern. From his earliest recordings, we find him asserting his impressionistic tendencies without reserve. Here is "Piece Peace" from Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958):

Evans brings the full weight of his classical training to this musical rumination, and his touch and the sound it produces is a primary musical element in this piece, as it is in all of his work. The piece is simply awash in color and coloristic effects, and with its long stretches of static harmony, it also foreshadows the arrival in the 1960s of Minimalism, which was heavily influenced by jazz.

On the cover of Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Davis give his endorsement, saying: "I learned a lot from Bill Evans. He plays the piano the way it should be played." After working with the finest bebop pianists, what else could Davis be referring to here other than his focus on touch and tone color? Davis was even more explicit, describing Evans' playing in coloristic terms as being like "sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall." From Davis' recordings throughout his career, we can see the clear focus on tone color from the very beginning, however it is in the late 1950s and early '60s, on Porgy and Bess, Kind of Blue, and Sketches of Spain that he elevates it to a primary status at the fore of his aesthetic. According to jazz historian Keith Waters:

Timbral control and nuance were key features of Davis' sound. "If you don't add something to a note," [Davis] claimed, "it dies." 1

It seems clear that Davis would require the same attention to tone color from the other instrumentalists in his band. Evans' touch and his classical approach are an important part of what attracted Davis to him. Evans' contributions to the recording are many, but I do not think it is unreasonable to say that his touch and approach are the wellsprings at the core of Kind of Blue, a transformative recording that redefined and expanded the expressive capabilities of jazz.

Here is "So What" from Kind of Blue:

Evans' introduction, his comping, and his solo all demonstrate his use of touch as source of musical variation. In particular, his solo (starting at 7:05) is particularly unusual—he avoids the typical "right-hand solo/left-hand comp" conventions and mostly plays chords in various different voicings that function more as a transition to the melody than they do as a traditional jazz piano solo. As Monk did, Evans similarly asserts that tone color is a primary; unlike Monk, Evans utilizes touch on the softer and gentler side of the spectrum—his pianistic temperament is that of a 19C romantic; he is Chopin reborn in the jazz age. And like Chopin, every pianist that followed had to acknowledge (and come to terms with) his artistic statement.

Herbie Hancock followed Evans a few years later when he joined Miles Davis' group in 1963 at the age of 23, where he remained for the next five years. In an interview with David Yaffe from The Daily Beast, he cites Evans and Ravel as major influences:

I was definitely influenced by Bill Evans, and one of the reasons is because I had been listening to Ravel since before I had even heard of Bill Evans. I was already influenced by Ravel. Some pianists sound like Bill Evans, but I don't. I think I sound like me. It was obvious to me that Bill Evans was influenced by Ravel, too. So I started off with two influences: Ravel, directly, and also Bill Evans.

Hancock was a child prodigy, starting classical lessons at the age of seven. Remarkably, a scant four years later, he played Mozart's Piano Concerto #26 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He brought his prodigious classical technique and his knowledge of classical music to his jazz, and as with Evans, tone color was part of his "tool kit." According to Hancock, his touch is one of the reasons that Davis chose him for his group at that pivotal juncture between hard bop and the avant-garde.

He liked my touch. I think he felt I could be molded into something better than I was...I had a really good grasp of harmony and...you know...chordal textures and that kind of thing. And I was adventurous.2

In the same interview from The Daily Beast, Hancock talks explicitly about color as a primary element in his music:

David Yaffe: I'm thinking in particular of the marvelous solo recording of "Round Midnight" on The Other Side of Round Midnight. There's a moment there that's as way out as anything you ever did.

HH: I remember practicing that lick years ago, learning how to do that cascade effect. That was something that I worked on because I liked it, and I thought it could lead to some other expressions that would be an offshoot of that. I thought it was cool when I did it, which was long before what you just played for me. That's kind of an effect, among other effects that I have done that have grown out of that. It became part of my tool set.

DY: And it was a radical part of your tool set, throwing it into a ballad, which was also a canonized jazz standard. You suddenly turned it into...free jazz, then back again.

HH: It was like a color I threw in there.

DY: But it's a color that departed from the structure of the song. There were no longer any chord changes, and it was no longer a ballad.

HH: Right. It was almost like holding on to that last chord I played before I did that, and then it was like waterfalls, except that it was going up and going down.

DY: More like a typhoon.

The part referenced in the interview begins at approximately 5:38 in Hancock's solo version of 'Round Midnight from the album "The Other Side of Round Midnight" released in 1986:

This is a very different effect with very different colors than what Evans generally used. Hancock's sound is rich but pointed, no more so than in the glassy shards of tone that emanate from his hands in the example above. As Yaffe points out, this is a coloristic effect found in free jazz, a style which is very much concerned with tone color and sound, as opposed to traditional melodies and harmony. Here's Jaki Byard from 1965, live in Berlin:

Byard's music is all color and effect; however, unlike Evans' 19C romanticism, this is on the opposite side of the spectrum; here we find expressionistic jazz in full display.

McCoy Tyner was another classically trained pianist who emerged in the 1960s, and his influence on the jazz pianists who followed him was so profound, that it is not hyperbole to suggest that he almost singlehandedly changed the sound of jazz piano forever. A big part of that was his sound and his touch. Tyner's technical skills rivaled those of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. In particular, his right-hand articulation is otherworldly—shimmering and pearly, each note slightly detached even at blistering speeds for ultimate clarity, and a left- hand that is so refined, it functions as an orchestra unto itself. According to the great American pianist, Richie Beirach:

McCoy has one of THE most personal recognizable touches in the business. His amazing clarity of technique allows him to project his unusual and brilliant linear ideas right through the sound of the powerful drummers he played with like Elvin Jones, Billy Hart, and Jack Dejohnette. Even though his lines are etched so clearly and with diamond like clarity, he never overplays or pushes his right hand beyond the percussive point of stridency or ugliness. Of course his right hand is legendary, in terms of speed and projection and he does it all while retaining a light and pearly sound, reminiscent of Walter Gieseking, Vladimir Horowitz, and Maurizio Pollini.

Tyner was an unsurpassed master of jazz standards, but his innovations in the use of quartal harmony, pentatonic scales, and advanced chromaticism are perhaps his most important and noteworthy contributions. In lesser hands, the dense textures created by these devices could easily become impenetrable. Tyner's touch, however, tames these difficult textures, bestowing even the most thunderous chords with remarkable clarity and transparency.

Keith Jarrett was also a child prodigy who began formal training as a young child. He has had a stellar career as a jazz pianist, but Jarrett is unique; he is one of the few jazz pianists who performed and recorded classical music regularly as well. And, his Köln Concert recording (an improvised live concert) is the most successful solo piano recording (in any genre) of all time. Here he is playing Mozart's Piano Concerto #10 for Two Pianos with fellow Miles Davis alumni, Chick Corea:

Corea also had formal training from a young age, and for both pianists, touch played a major role in defining their jazz piano styles. Their touches, however, are completely different.

Jarrett's touch produces a rich and lush tone, and that is accentuated by his impossibly smooth legato phrasing and his exquisite pedal control. He accesses such a wide array of tone colors, constantly shifting the spectrum from one hue to another. It's a gorgeous sound that is more in line with Evans' approach, but with his superhuman technical skills, he takes those romantic sensibilities and textures to an entirely different level.

Corea's touch, on the other hand, is quite different. The resultant sound is always warm and pleasant, but he has a lighter touch that is more percussive and explosive. His rapid-fire articulation is particularly incredible—each note is perfectly sculpted and separated from each other. He is not exploring the same romantic territory as Evans and Jarrett, his is a more postmodern style that is cooler in temperament, more emotionally detached.

I have focused on a few of the pianists from the mid-to late-20C, whose touch is a prominent and defining feature of their style.3 I believe that this is when tone color was emancipated from its role as servant to melody and harmony, and took its place beside those elements as an equal. The most successful pianists, informed by the aesthetics and the techniques of classical piano, crafted more than an improvisatory voice, they created their own sound on the instrument, which is remarkable given the truncated dynamic range of the piano.

Since then, manipulation of tone color through touch has become an essential tool for all jazz pianists who aspire to artistry in the genre. Touch and tone color in jazz piano have flowered in the last 25 years, likely aided by constantly improving recording and sound reinforcement technologies that have made it possible for players to reliably utilize touch both in studio and live concert settings. Manfred Eicher's ECM label, in particular, is an example of an entire record label whose obsession with timbre and tone color helped to make it wildly successful and instantly recognizable.

To end this final part of the series, I will present several contemporary pianists from the United States and Europe whose exquisite touch is a primary feature of their artistry:

The Americans

Richie Beirach
Brad Mehldau

Joey Calderazzo

The Europeans

Tord Gustavsen

Marcin Wasilewski

In each of these players, we hear a rich and constantly shifting array of tone colors. This occurs within the right-hand melodies but is also omnipresent in the stunning contrasts in sound between the left and right hand. These players all treat the piano as an orchestra, with the pianist as the conductor who brings out the different sections as desired—bells, harps, clarinets, trombones, cellos and violins— all lovingly and painstakingly teased out of an instrument that is loathe to release its limited palette of colors.

The concept of touch in both classical and jazz piano developed in a similar manner and over similar time periods. In each genre, the addition of timbral subtleties and coloristic nuance vastly increased the expressive range, to the point where both jazz piano and classical piano have no limits to the range of emotional expression available to them. As we have seen, in jazz as in classical music, touch truly does "reveal the soul of the artist." 4


  • 1 Feather, L. (2007). "Miles Davis: Miles and the Fifties" in The Miles Davis Reader. (p. 18) New York: Hal Leonard. Originally publ. in Down Beat 31/20 (July 2, 1964) (pp. 44-48). Quoted in Waters, K. (2011). The studio recordings of the miles davis quintet, 1965-68 (p. 15). Retrieved from ebookcentral-proquest-com.
  • 2 Coolman, T. (197), The Miles Davis Quintet of the Mid-1960s: Synthesis of Improvisation and Compositional Elements. (p. 14) Ph.D. diss., New York University Quoted in Waters, K. (2011). The studio recordings of the miles davis quintet, 1965-68 (p. 19). Retrieved from ebookcentral-proquest- com. gvsu.edu
  • 3 There are dozens of pianists that I could have written about here, but in the interest of keeping this at a reasonable length, I chose those whose tone color would be easily recognizable to the reader. The omission of so many great players is regrettable, but unavoidable given both my intentions and the format. My hope is that the interested reader will revisit his/her favorite pianists with an ear for touch, and will therein find new musical satisfaction, and even more reasons to admire and respect these wonderful artists.
  • Gabrilowitsch, O. (1917) "Essentials of Touch." Great Pianists on Piano Playing; Godowsky, Hofmann, Lhévinne, Paderewski and 24 Other Legendary Performers, by James Francis Cooke. (pp. 122-130) Philadelphia: Theo. Presser.



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