Phil DeGreg – Jazz Keyboard Harmony

I mentioned in my last post that I would discuss some materials that don’t require a full blown commitment to a program of study and yet still provide a very effective direction to pursue. The first I want to discuss is a book by pianist Phil DeGreg titled “Jazz Keyboard Harmony” and published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz.

You can check it out on Aebersold’s website and I’ve seen a couple of copies from sellers on Amazon. Phil also has a very nice site and is a fabulous player! Google it.

Two things: First, is that I am coming at this after going through Dick Grove’s courses, so I am judging these resources in the light of how they fit into the big picture created by Dick. Second, when I say you don’t have to commit to a course of study, keep in mind that all of these resources can absorb as much time as you are willing to invest in them. They are not magic bullets; just highly effective materials which you can work on at your own pace and keep coming back to, and still make satisfactory progress with your sound.

A note about me. I buy books with the idea they might have something in them I like. To me, if a book has one idea I can use, it is worth the price. If it has more than one idea, it is priceless. Needless to say, I have lots of books! This book fits into the priceless category. There are some other excellent  harmony and voicing books and I might talk about a few, but I have carefully thought about it and tried to distill everything down into which two or three books I would recommend to someone wanting to learn jazz piano. I’m looking for something that if you just work on these two or three things you will achieve a “good” sound.

The first I would recommend (we’ll get to the others in a future article) is Phil DeGreg’s Jazz Keyboard Harmony. Even after having gone through Dick Grove, I still enjoy working from Phil’s book. And make no mistake, I and others use these voicings on gigs. I have used them backing a small choir, accompanying myself playing solo and singing, and backing other instrumental soloists and singers.

Phil starts off in the beginning by saying that the book is primarily for beginning jazz pianists and non-pianist musicians who want to play some piano.  While this is the book that I would use with beginning students, it also has the material in it to take you all the way to getting a solid professional sound; like you know what you are doing. That says a lot.

I’ll let you go look up the table of contents on the Internet, but I will say that Phil introduces basic harmonic theory, takes the development of voicings through all the chapters in a very logical and step by step way, and provides a very comprehensive set of practice exercises to help you get the voicings “under your fingers.” He covers a wide variety of voicings from two note shell voicings, 7-3 voicings, 4 note open, 4 note block, 5 note, all the way up through a good introduction to upper structure triads. Those are just some of the voicings in the book. There is also an excellent CD with a group playing the exercises. Just about the time you think you are getting the voicings down, you put on the CD and try to play and find out there’s still a lot of work to do! At least with me.

Phil also presents some very valuable insights into how to practice.  On Aebersold’s site is a nice set of MIDI and PDF files with some good samples from the book.

I’m going to get more into voicings later. These posts just get longer and longer!

Suffice it to say that if you or I could fully execute all the ideas in the book flexibly, spontaneously, and intermixing techniques in a natural ear kind of way, we would be well on our way to sounding like the kind jazz player we want. By most people’s standards we’d already be there. What I like to do is get my fake books out and practice applying what voicing technique I am working on. Some work well in a solo piano context, some in either a solo or group context, and some work better in a group context where you have the support of a bass player.

For the latter, I fire up Band In A Box, type in the changes, set a Bill Evans style, turn everything off but bass and drums (the Real Drum sounds are best), and start playing! And lately I am getting better and better at mixing the various voicing techniques spontaneously according to what I want to hear at any given time and it’s usually different each time through. That’s particularly satisfying.

I highly recommend DeGreg’s Jazz Keyboard Harmony as your first chord voicing method, or as a reference even if you already have voicing experience.

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