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As a pianist I want to excel at playing solo as well as in a jazz ensemble. When playing solo one has to play the base tone oneself, while in an ensemble the bass player covers that. How does one approach these two diametrically different ways of playing?

I'm a newbie at piano so my left hand can play tight block chords that includes the base tone. In a jazz ensemble (I occasionally jam at a club here in Gothenburg) I hence collide with the bass player. Not wrong, but harmonically it's uninteresting.

The Swedish jazz book by Nolgård (2004) comments on this and says that when practicing alone one has to "imagine" the base tone when playing alone and voice rootless accordingly. I don't succeed at that, at least not these days. I find it difficult to follow the harmonies when the base tone isn't there.

How does one learn these "both" roles? How do you approach this?

  • Can you give some examples? If you're playing just the F from F/G, it might be a bit hard to imagine it being a V chord, but a lot of other chords don't need a bass so much. If you make it F-5, then it's a working dominant going into C. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 22:00
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica, I think he probably needs the bass notes to hear the correct harmony when playing any rootless voicings. – jdjazz Mar 27 at 0:14
  • It is way too soon to consider any answer as the accepted one. – Tim Mar 27 at 10:26
  • piiperi, Tim, thanks for your comments. Maybe I used the interface wrong, but I considered both answers of relevance and interest and help me advance and disentangle. By no means am I "done" with them, I will think and incorporate the suggestions and thoughts over a long period. I'll wait with accepting next time. – Frans Mar 27 at 13:14
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    Usually a question like this gets new answers at least for a few days, sometimes weeks. :) – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 13:18
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When you learn a rootless voicing, start out by playing it in your right hand while playing the bass note in your left hand. This will train your ear to recognize the bass note when you hear the rootless voicing. Additionally, it's really helpful to practice these rootless voicings over common progressions like the ii-V-I. Practicing over this progression will prepare your ear for tons of songs that are built on the ii-V-I. Additionally, repetition is key to training your ear, so take your ii-V-I rootless voicings through all 12 keys. This will give your ear tons of repetition, while still providing an interesting technical challenge that will keep your interest.

After finishing this in all 12 keys, switch roles: play the rootless voicing in your left hand, and play the root in your right hand. Or if you're ready for more of a challenge, do this: as you play the rootless voicings in your left hand, try playing arpeggios built off the root with your right hand. Once you can do this, try improvising lines with your right hand.

If there are specific songs you are playing with your ensemble, then practice your rootless voicings in those songs in the manner I've described above. For general-purpose practice, use ii-V-I's.

All of the suggestions I've described will help train your ear to hear the bass notes while you play rootless voicings. To that end, these techniques won't be extremely helpful to your solo chops. Ultimately, those two things are pretty different, and each requires its own practice time on skill sets that may not transfer from one setting to the other.

(Although, it is worth mentioning that, as you get better with rootless voicings, you'll find them making more and more appearance in your solo arrangements. This is a good thing! Our solo piano playing would be quite constricted and could become bland if we required every chord to contain the root.)

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From a simplistic point of view, the two techniques are separate.

When there's no bass playing, you provide that with l.h., and put the harmonies in with the r.h. You're in charge of both.

When you play with a bassist, he'll be putting in what your l.h. would otherwise do, give or take. So listen to what he's playing, and use r.h. again for the chords. You could even not use l.h. for a while. When that does come back in, it'll be playing parts of chords, or certainly something different from whatever bassline is already there - unless it's unison.

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    Are you saying that Nolgård's book is incorrect and it's impossible to "imagine" a bass, and it just has to be played? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 9:04
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - certainly not. I'm saying if there's no bass player, then play it on piano, if there is, then let him play the bass part. Surely there's a need for a bass part, and that will be played either by l.h. piano or bass. Yes, it can be imagined - but then why leave it all to the imagination? And, at the risk of something, just because it's in a book/ on the net etc, doesn't necessarily mean it's right. Today's metronome question proves that! – Tim Mar 27 at 9:07
  • I think the OP can hear their voicings clash with the bass because they are both playing the root. So I think the OP does hear the bass notes when playing in a group--my understanding is that the OP is trying to address a different problem: how to practice rootless voicings--specifically, how to hear those bass notes during such practice when there's no bass player around to actually play the root. Of course, your advice to listen to the bass is an outstanding thing to focus on. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how to approach rootless voicing practice in an effective way. – jdjazz Mar 27 at 16:52
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica does have a good point. There will be lots of times in solo piano and ensemble work when rootless voicings are played without a bass note. Even during ensemble play, the bassist won't always play the root during a given measure or over a given chord. (Go Scott LaFaro!!!) Being able to hear the root when it's not being played is an important skill. It's understandable that a new pianist might, upon playing a rootless Dmin voicing (F-A-C-E), always hear the chord as FMaj. This would be something to correct through specific practice routines. – jdjazz Mar 27 at 17:02
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We are not only making music for performing. My purpose the is to understand what I play and have pleasure.

That’s why I see more different approaches:

  • R.h. Melody or soling, l.h. Bass
  • R.h. Melody, l.h. Rhythm
  • R.h. Chords and rhythm, l.h. Bass
  • Both hands chords and rhythm

So if we have the elements or parts 1) tune, 2. harmony rhythmic chords and 3. Bass you can always combine 2 of them and sing or mind mentally the 3rd part. This means knowing a piece through and through and makes you free for improvising. I tell you, this is not wasted time.

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I think the OP is really asking how one can move from playing solo piano to ensemble style piano. Some good advice above but in my younger years something that really helped me was to play along with recordings of the pieces I wanted to learn - there is a ready made bass player and it makes it easier to play both a) in time and b) to hear the correct harmonies.

I believe there are some good practice apps and backing tracks the days for jazz standards that might be helpful where you get a backing drummer, bass player etc which might help you to learn to give the bass notes back to the bass player.

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This is about more than chord voicing. Lacking a bass player, you need to provide a bass LINE. This will take precedence over the chord voicings you might otherwise have played when your only criterion was to keep out of the bass player's way!

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A couple of techniques I've used that I haven't seen mentioned yet.

  • Sing the root (or whichever note you're going to defer to the bass player) while playing the rest of the chord on the piano.
  • Practice playing solo in stride style (bass - chord - bass - chord). Hearing the bass note, but separately from the rest of the chord, will help transition between hearing both simultaneously and not hearing the bass note at all. Also great practice for locating chords efficiently.
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