Pianoless Jazz Groups

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The Blue Gnus is a pianoless jazz group that I’ve been doing school concerts with for almost twenty years.

Living Rhythms – Adventures in Pianoless Jazz

I’m not famous, so most people would never think of my career as having stages and developmental periods because my career hasn’t been studied the way the famous players are studied. But I guess that’s true for 99% of all musicians. Yes, I have had full fledged style periods and my career has developed in new directions over the past three decades. One of my earlier stages on the jazz side of my career was a period of an intense love for pianoless groups.

My jazz group, Living Rhythms, started off as a pianoless ensemble. What some people may find interesting is that this ensemble wasn’t inspired by the likes of Gerry Mulligan (on the one end of the spectrum) or Ornette Coleman (on the other end). My decision to go pianoless was inspired by Houston’s own jazz “Prof”, Conrad Johnson. (If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because there is a recent documentary movie about him called Thunder Soul.)

My first jam sessions in Houston were at Club LaVeek on Blodget street. One night when I was sitting in at Club LaVeek, Conrad Johnson invited me to be in his house band for a jam session he was starting at another club down the street called The Ritzy. When I showed up to the first night of the new jam session, I heard that the guitar player had canceled on us so I figured we were probably going to have to cancel the jam session. The idea of improvising without a chord instrument was beyond my comprehension.

When Conrad Johnson found out that the guitar player wasn’t going to make it, he just shrugged his shoulders and started the jam without him. That was my first experience performing with a pianoless group and I was hooked! I loved the way it sounded. I loved the way it felt. And I especially enjoyed the fact that what I played suddenly made sense in ways that it never did before.

Melody and Accompaniment vs. Counterpoint

I think that was in 1988 or 1989. I formed Living Rhythms about a year later and the group remained pianoless for the first ten years of its existence. Since then, I have had plenty of time to analyze what makes the pianoless ensembles so different from the standard jazz groups. I believe the biggest difference is that jazz is primarily “melody and accompaniment” in texture. In contrast, pianoless groups are primarily contrapuntal in texture.

What this means is that the roles of the different instruments has changed. This change effects the bass more than the other instruments. You know, sometimes I think the bass players in pianoless ensembles feel like it’s their job to now “make up” for the missing piano, as if it is his job to fill the piano player’s role as well as his own traditional role. In my opinion, this approach to pianoless jazz groups doesn’t work. When you make the switch to a more contrapuntal texture, there is no more need for any sort of accompaniment. At that point, the bass becomes a melodic instrument, no longer performing the rhythmic and harmonic accompanimental role of the traditional instrumentation.

Pros and Cons

In some ways, this is still my favorite format for jazz improvisation. I enjoy the melodic and harmonic freedom. I enjoy the sound of the acoustic bass contrasting with the horns. But over the years I have also grown to appreciate more harmonic improvisation. I like that when I play a A flat over a G7 chord it sounds like a flat nine. I like that when I play bebop licks in the key of Bb over chords in the key of C it sounds entirely different from when I play those exact same lines in the key of C. I have also grown to appreciate the lush textures that a good piano or guitar player can add to the atmosphere of a tune.

The two are not better or worse than each other. They are just different. Both sound wonderful when performed well. I think the most important point I wanted to make here is that they are indeed two different kinds of music. You cannot play the same way in both musical environments. You must adjust your approach or else people will think something is “missing” when you go pianoless.

One of the things I work on with the more advanced jazz improvisation students is learning how to shift roles based on context. While we don’t really ever work on pianoless playing specifically, I do work with all of the students on being able to open their ears and hear what needs to be different in their playing from one group of musicians to the next. When you get that straight, you can work well with just about any group.

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