by Gjermund Sivertsen

Piano Jazz Big Band Lesson

How to play piano in a jazz big band. To play in a jazz big band is something I’ve done for some time, and I find it both very fun (if it is a good big band) and sometimes very challenging. This subject is quite big and there could be a ton of other things I could add to the list. However, I selected to focus on just 7 things that I have found essential for us as piano players when we play with a big band. Have a look at the video I made about this topic here:

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1. Prepare a lot!

I cannot stress this enough. The reason is that I’ve experienced several times that I came to rehearsals for Big Bands and the conductor hands out a ton of sheets on the rehearsal. That’s a given, you might think: That I should definitely not go to a rehearsal without having the sheets first. But the truth is that in a busy musicians life, there is never enough time so it is not always easy to cope with things like getting the sheets and putting off time to prepare for the rehearsals. Also, in my experience most conductors don’t bother sending out the sheets unless you ask them to.

So when you get the sheets, try to get the music as well. If it is a new arrangement, you might get the midi file or mp3 file of a recording. It will save you a lot of time to have this first before you go to the first rehearsal. Also, imagine if every person in the band got the midi or mp3 file before the first rehearsal and spent a couple of hours to actually practice the material before they get there. In my experience, most people don’t bother – so why should you, right? No. Wrong! That’s the reason why we should do it.

To be the good example for the rest. Other things to prepare before the rehearsal is that you should definitely put a mic on your piano. If not, you’ll drown in the noise from the rest of the band. Also, you’ll destroy your fine- touch technique since you’ll have to play in FFF all the time. That can be exhausting as well as damaging for your hands/arms. (Been there done that).

2. Play the right chords!

This is also self-explanatory you might say, and I totally agree! However: Even it is true, it is not a 100% rule. If we want to keep alive the dynamic feeling of our role as piano players in a big band, we’d rather listen and get to know the arrangement than checking off the list of how many chords you did «right». If I know the arrangement I’m playing, then I also know what will work an what will not work.

So if you know that you cannot play a G13 with a 9 when the chord in the sheet is written as a G7(b9b13), then you’ll play the chord and voicing that you know will fit with the rest of the band. As jazz pianists we’re used to think that a dominant 7 chord could be played as a 7 with a b5,#5,b9,#9 etc. You can still do that, as long as you know what will work over what the rest of the band is playing.

3. Play upper-structure voicings.

Do you want to support the rest of the band? You should play upper structure voicings. In most cases, the composer or arranger doesn’t write exactly how you should play your chords. If you stick to the idea that you should play the chords and voicings the best way to support the rest and create the right amount of tension, then I find the upper-structure voicings as the best solution. The reason is that you would drown in all the sound from the brass section and the drummer if you stick with other chords. So the best solution to get heard (and be able to support the others) is to combine upper structure voicings with your right hand together with rootless voicings for your left hand.

For example a G7 could be played like this:

4. When there is a solo – Support the soloist and drop out.

There is a lot going on in most big band tunes, and one of the most essential things is to support each other. Especially the soloists. And there are lots of solos when you play in big bands. For example if there is a saxophone solo, then you should support him the best way you can. Specifically I think you should listen a lot to what he is playing, combined with what the guitarist, drummer and the bassist is playing. If you manage to listen the «right» way, the music will show you what to play and how much.

Many times the best thing you could do is to let the guitarist play all the chords, at least for awhile. Then you could come back in later in the ongoing solo. – When you have a solo: I’ve experienced a lot on what I think is the optimal solution to WOW the audience in a solo where you know how long the solo will be. In most cases when you work with a big band, you know that you’ve got for example 32 bars to «show off».

A secret receipt that seem to work all the time:

Here is an idea that I’ve found out can work almost all the times:

  1. Start at the lower register (or middle) at your piano. Play un-defined lines
  2. Then move up a little bit
  3. Then go back down
  4. Then go even higher, now with a lot more clarity and intensity
  5. Then play even louder (shift to the next gear) and with even more clarity. (Hint: Play in octaves)
  6. End the «show» by falling down to the area you started. This model gives a feeling of continuity and wholeness.

5. Prepare for three types of fills.

When you play with a jazz big band, some times the composer or arranger has written some fills for you to play. In my experience you need to practice these to make them come out nice and with clarity. Have a repertoire of fills ready. Sometimes the composer just write something like «fill around the melody» or «fill ad-lib» or similar.

Here, it is smart to have a set of pre-practiced fills ready. However: Improvise what you play and where you add the fills. That makes it more lively in my experience. Free improvised fills: Yes, you could do that. So you could actually play fills even it is not written in the sheet of the tune you’re playing. I do that, but not often. Only do this if you think that will lift the music even more. Also, you should keep an eye on the conductor. If he thinks you’re over-playing, listen to what he says. He’s got the last call!

6. Listen, listen, listen and then listen!

If you have prepared a lot, it should not be a problem to listen to the band and «get out» of the sheets. If everyone is listening to the whole band, magic could happen! If you’re un prepared, so much of your attention is about how to play the syncopations, chords, voicings etc. If you (and the rest of the band) is prepared, you’ll all crush it! I always like to say that the music should tell you what voicings you should play, and where you should put the syncopations. This is easy, but you’ve got to be open for the idea that the music can show you what to do.

7. Learn the arrangements!

This last tip is something that is close to what I’ve mentioned before. If you take the time to learn the arrangement so well that you just need to glance at the sheets from time to time, then you have so much more freedom. I always recommend that you learn the part where you’re going to take a solo so well that you don’t need to have your eyes on the notes (sheet music) at all. When you combine all of these tips, you’ll do an amazing job as a jazz pianist for big bands! I hope some of this made sense and wish you the best!