Jazz Counterpoint – Improvising Melodies & Bass Lines at the Piano

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When musicians think about counterpoint, most likely they think about traditional fugues and “Bach” counterpoint.  In some cases, they may also think about renaissance counterpoint, species writing and the music of Palestrina.

When you listen to improvising pianists like Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, and Egberto Gismonti, you will hear lots of interesting hand independence and a certain flair of counterpoint. You also hear how classical music influenced them in some way.  Personally, it seemed logical to study the music of Bach and practice species exercises to improve my counterpoint and expand my improvisational abilities.  So that’s what I did.

Eventually, I realized that species exercises and playing Bach don’t provide good frameworks for the kind of practice needed to improve improvisation.  Sure, playing fugues and chorales may help inspire hand independence and counterpoint while improvising.  You may even take this a step further, breaking down and arranging a jazz standard in two or four voices, in a chorale-like fashion.  But these are very macro, high-level approaches to the problem of how to improvise more contrapuntally.  I believe they need to be complemented with micro, note-to-note, repetitive practice with a foundation in physical gestures and relationships at the piano.

This article is my attempt to integrate the idea of “counterpoint” with physical relationships in an improvisatory practice.  There are countless was to approach this, so I chose a style that is very relevant to playing jazz piano: improvising melodies & bass lines. 

I’ve divided the article into these sections:

  • Introduction (400 words)
  • Transcription Analysis (1700 words)
  • Designing a Practice Strategy (1400 words)
  • Problem Solving – Integrating Bass Lines with Physical Relationships (1200 words)
  • Examples of Bass Lines Over ii-V-I (600 words)
  • Adding Right Hand, Simple Exercises (1100 words)
  • Adding Right Hand, Advanced Exercises (1200 words)
  • Meter, Rhythm and Time Feel (2000 words)
  • New Directions: Extremely Advanced Exercises  (2500 words)

There’s lots of information in this article, admittedly, probably too much.  That’s because this article is more than just a collection of exercises.  It’s a framework for practice.  My hope is to help other pianists design their own exercises and structure their own practice, no matter the style.  To achieve this, I believe it’s necessary to reflect as thoroughly as possible on everything from how to practice, improvisational hierarchies, cultivating active/passive relationships, and integrating the idea of a note with actual movement. That being said, if you’re a pianist simply looking for some exercises, you might want to skip to Examples of Bass Lines, Over ii-V-I.

Lastly, apologies for all my spelling and grammar mistakes. Feedback is welcome and thanks for reading!

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Jazz Counterpoint – Improvising Melodies & Bass Lines at the Piano

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I want this!