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By Ben Finane
On 15 Etudes for Jazz Piano by Dick Hyman
When most people think of Études, they think of Chopin, or they think of Rachmaninoff, of the great European classical composers. What’s interesting about these set of Études, they cover 15 different styles of 15 different pianists. It starts with Scott Joplin and ends will Bill Evans. And there’s a common thread through all of these études, and that’s a steady rhythmic pulse, and Dick Hyman talks about that. This is something that is very unique to jazz, the idea of a steady rhythmic syncopation that occurs from start to finish.
So the challenges in these pieces occur in the different ways rhythm is utilized. You have the ragtime rhythm, which is a bit more straight; through the more syncopated elements of someone like Earl Hines; the more rhapsodic and fantasy-like runs of Art Tatum; Someone like Dave Brubeck, who was known for his odd time signatures. So Dick Hyman really does a great job of covering all the styles, or all the idiosyncrasies of these specific jazz pianists. And even though they’re not necessarily as virtuosic, certainly, as the Chopin Étude, it remains very challenging to play in these styles while maintaining the rhythmic integrity.
These pieces can be played in isolation. Bill Charlap introduced me to these set of Études, because we played four different Études as part of a dedication to Dick Hyman at the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony. So we played four Études in no particular order, but you can play them back-to-back from start to finish. It’s a nice set of pieces, in that you can play them in isolation, and you can play them in a complete set. It's very challenging, I find, to play them in a complete set, because you’re really going from one approach to another, back to back. Your mind has to shift in just a split-second from one piece to another.
It’s great if you can play the Études in a complete run and just experience that challenge, and understanding sort of that common thread between: Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Art Tatum. There's one called South Side Boogie that is dedicated to Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey and Albert Ammons; those are three great boogie-woogie pianists, and so that’s all dones as one piece called “South Side Boogie.” Number eight, I believe, is dedicated to Duke Ellington. I missed Teddy Wilson. I can’t even keep track of all of the pianists. But the last three are George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, and, finally, Bill Evans. The Bill Evans one is called “Passage.” I think it's the most difficult, because it’s a very lyrical ballad-like piece, but you still have to keep the time going, it metrically still has to continue. There a lot of little subtleties and voices that you have to bring out, that make piano playing so challenging and fun.
These aren’t playing something note for note, like transcriptions. They’re more of an exercise. I see these pieces as having the potential to be embellished. I don’t play everything note-for-note; there are maybe a few discrepancies. And even in the recording that Dick Hyman made, there are several differences between the written score, which was published I 1982, and then the record, which I think was released later. So I think a good exercise is to learn the music from the score, to understand the language of each pianist. And Hyman is really a great master at getting to all of the details of the language of a specific musician. And then, from there, you can embellish and, I feel, do whatever you’d like. Well, maybe not whatever you’d like, but as long it’s in the spirit of the piece, you can make embellishments and some slight changes. I certainly think it's a good starting point, however, to stick with the score — just to understand the sort of idiosyncrasies of each pianist.
On jazz and classical
I get a lot of questions from classical pianists about how they could learn more about jazz piano playing, about the genre. Of course I always recommend listening to records and doing transcriptions. But the Hyman Études are a good introduction to the language of certain pianists, and you’re not forced to improvise, but simply understand the nature of the subtleties and the nuances, especially with rhythm, that are present in each style. And that’s the greatest challenge, I think, in playing any musical language, is to understand the rhythmic language and how to play correctly inside of the rhythm. I feel like that’s probably 70 to 80% of the battle in playing jazz music. Improvisation is something, over time, that can be acquired. But to have a feel, the proper feel, that's something that you really have to live, and you have to continuously edit and revise and work on evolving and improving.
I wouldn't call myself a classical musician. I studied classical music and I love classical music dearly. I think it's easy to paint a broad picture of genres, classical, jazz, whatever. I feel like someone spends their life playing and absorbing the music of J.S. Bach, they’re going to play J.S. Bach very well, and it’s going to be a part of them. Same if someone's playing the music of Monk or Ellington or whatever. I think the key for any artist is figure out how to absorb their influences to a degree that they’re able to distill that in a way that creates a unique sound for them, individual sound for them. Certainly, classical music informs the way I play, my approach to playing, and informs the style of music that I play. But I wouldn’t put myself in the category of someone who spends their life dedicated to Brahms or Rachmaninoff.
With Steinways, there’s a standard of excellence that is always present with the pianos. What I love is that each individual instrument has very specific characteristics that differ from instrument to instrument. And it’s nice to have an opportunity to spend some time finding out all of the little nooks and crannies and details of an instrument, and how to sort of bring the best qualities out of each piano. I’ve had the privilege of being a Steinway Artist for a few years, and trying out all kinds of pianos, and it’s really exciting to see the range, and see the whole gamut of qualities, whether it's a more mellow instrument with a certain singing quality to it, if it’s a brighter instrument.
I think that the great challenge in playing different instruments every time — we don't have the luxury, as pianists, to take our instruments on the road — is seeing what kind of traits can be emphasized through the instrument, and using the qualities of the instrument along with the space that I’m performing in. So it could be a big concert hall or a small recital hall. It could be outdoors, which is always challenging. But one thing that I love Steinway is that there is a certain standard of excellence that is consistent across the board. And it’s just a matter of understanding, usually within a short period of time, all of the beautiful qualities that each instrument presents.
Action is very important to me. I typically like a moderate action, not too heavy, not too light, but one where I really feel like I have complete control over the instrument. I’m not expecting too many surprises in terms of evenness. The treble, I can feel exactly how my touch is going to resonate with the bottom of the keybed. Same with the bass. And I think that's important in gaging what kind of tone quality is going to come out of the piano.
On Steinway & Sons Spirio
A big luxury with Spirio that a performer can play, it’s recorded on Spirio, and then he or she can listen to the actual performance in the room. And that’s a very different experience than listening to a recording, because you really get a sense of how the instrument sounds in the natural acoustic setting. I think anybody would love to have one of these in their home. They’re playing their program, or they’re playing something, and then they actually hear how it sounds in the space. Or maybe they’re playing in a concert hall, and they want to see if they’re projecting. Or maybe they're playing too bombastically. And they go to the back of a hall, they play Spirio, and they can hear the performance. That’s a major luxury that can’t really be duplicated on recording.
When I hear myself played back, it certainly informs me about how I'm playing. When I recorded the Hyman Études on Spirio, I played it back, just to get a sense of how I’m touching the piano, and making sure it’s just the right dynamic level where I want it, the right kind of tone and production. And then from there, I can tweak things as necessary to get the result I want.
Steinway Dolce Soft Pedal
The soft pedal, or left pedal, on a traditional upright piano rotates the hammer assembly toward the strings — reducing their travel distance, which results in a lower volume and softer tone. Since only the hammers are raised, a gap in the action is introduced, resulting in the feeling of lost motion when a key is depressed.
Steinway’s new patented Dolce soft pedals raise hammers closer to the strings and move the lower action components and keys in tandem, preventing lost-motion gap. When the Dolce pedals are depressed, hammers are lifted, and Steinway’s new patented lifting rail raises both the keys and lower action components. This produces a shorter key stroke with more sensitive control of the pianissimo dynamic range, resulting in a similar feeling to the una corda “shift” pedal on a Steinway grand.
The left Dolce pedal allows you to play at piano dynamics, while the middle Mezzo Dolce pedal offers the most pianissimo dynamics, and can be locked in position for playing in environments where quiet is required.