The Transcendent Aesthetics of the Block Chord Language

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 edition of Downbeat Magazine. It was my first time to be published as a writer, and I’m happy to share it with you today. 

Before I was a Jazz musician I was a Jazz fan; I have been listening to this music my entire life and have always been fascinated by the piano trio format.  One of my favorite pianists is Red Garland, and from his music I have learned to love and appreciate block chords.  Much has been said about the technique of block chords, including various voicings particular to certain players etc., but here I will discuss several of my favorite innovators in the block chord language, their unique contribution, and the impact block chords have on the audience.

The use of block chords (defined as both hands striking the keyboard simultaneously) by Jazz pianists spans the history of the music and transcends all styles of Jazz.  It is used by traditional early pianists as well as players in the avant garde as a way of engaging the audience with strong rhythm and melody.  One of the first pianists in Jazz to use block chords impressively was Milt Buckner.  On his 1943 recording of “Evil Gal Blues” from Dinah Washington’s Keynote Single, Buckner plays in a locked-hand style with both hands moving together over the keyboard to accommodate the melody note (the top voice of his right hand).  While he is playing eighth-notes at times, the solo is melodic and similar to an ensemble passage in a big band chart.  Buckner plays rhythmic phrases and leaves space for the rhythm section to complement him as he sets up the tune for Washington.  Another of my favorite Buckner solos comes from his 1974 recording with saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, “Leapin’ on Lenox.”  The intense rhythm of his block chord solo makes this example particularly swinging.  Buckner’s locked-hand style has been emulated by many, including Nat King Cole, George Shearing, Barry Harris, and Oscar Peterson.

Erroll Garner took a different approach to block chords.  Garner maintained a steady rhythm in his left hand (four beats to a bar) while playing a block chord, or sometimes a single note line, in his right hand.  I find this style to be challenging because of the rhythmic and creative independence required in both hands.  On his recording of “Robbin’s Nest” (Encores In Hi Fi 1956), Garner uses block chords to play the melody, then switches to a single-note technique for his solo, switching back to block chords for a shout chorus section, before heading back to the melody.  In this performance we see the similarity of block chords to a big band; they allow the pianist to simulate an entire ensemble for the listener, engaging them through the use of rhythmic melody as opposed to intellectual linear ideas.  When the block chords begin it signals to the audience that one section has ended and another is beginning, involving the listener in the creative journey of improvising through melodic invention.  It should be noted that the block chords are also louder than a single note line.

Another of my favorite block chord artists, Bobby Timmons, is a master of exciting and climactic solos.  This is apparent in his solo on “Blues March” (Art Blakey’s album Olympia Concert 1958).  Timmons starts the solo with a single note line and quickly moves into his block chords – a style in which the right hand creates the melody and the left hand moves with the rhythm of the right hand, but does not change voicing except to accommodate the chord changes.  In this solo it is interesting when Timmons changes his block chords at the beginning of his sixth chorus into an Erroll Garner style.  This serves to delay the climax of his solo and further bait the audience.

Because block chords highlight melody and rhythm in favor of intellectual ideas, I find they connect with the audience on an emotional level and make them pat their foot or want to dance.  This subtle and swinging aspect of block chords was perfected by Red Garland.  Garland’s style was very similar to Bobby Timmons’ in that the right hand states the melody while the left hand rhythmically follows but does not move melodically.  Garland’s use is less aggressive, and with an emphasis more on melody than  rhythm.  Often Garland used block chords in his soloing, but maintained a single note approach to the melody.  This makes his block chords even more climactic.  Note his solo on “C Jam Blues” from his 1957 album Groovy.   Here we can hear the similarity to a big band ensemble chorus or shout chorus.  After the bass solo, Garland plays a send-off figure with the block chords, to effectively trade with himself (the rhythmic send-off is followed by a single-note solo), creating texture within the piano trio format.  Garland also used block chords for intros, as at the beginning of “You’re My Everything” (Miles Davis, Relaxin’) where we can hear Miles actually request a block chord intro from Garland; and on Miles’ famous studio recording of “Bye Bye Blackbird” where we can hear one of Garland’s most famous block chord intros.

Oscar Peterson has used all these approaches to block chords to great effect.  Listen to his solo on “Blues Etude” (Blues Etude 1966), where we can clearly hear the block chords as a shout chorus, complete with drum fills, in the chorus before the head out.  Peterson often favored block chords for melodies as well, such as “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” from The Trio, or his many recordings of “Satin Doll”.  Emulating the Oscar Peterson example are the block chord styles of Phineas Newborn, Gene Harris, Johnny O’Neal, Benny Green, and Monty Alexander.

Playing block chords is not only a commitment to melodic invention and rhythmic assuredness, but a demonstration of a pianist’s technique and creative ability.  I am always challenged by the possibilities block chords offer, and am constantly searching for ways to use them to involve and excite the listener.

Tell me, do you enjoy this style of piano playing? Did I leave out a favorite “block chord” artist of yours?  

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8 Responses to The Transcendent Aesthetics of the Block Chord Language

  1. Different instrument, but Wes Montgomery used to habitually structure his solos 1) Single Lines 2) Octave lines 3) Block Chord lines. Nice article!

    Like

  2. Hi Champian, Great article! Hadn’t heard the Evil Gal Blues, fantastic!!

    Like

  3. Adam Smale says:

    Bill Evans!!! Unless I missed it, you didn’t mention Bill…

    Like

  4. Allen Esses says:

    Enjoyed reading your wonderful article. Surprised to learn that you’re a publi
    shed writer.

    Like

  5. Lynn goucher says:

    What an awesome musician you are!! I loved reading this and learning what to listen for. I always loved Oscar Peterson and now I know why….his use of block chords! Not being a pianist I really didn’t know what block chords were until today. I love jazz and the more I learn the more I love it! Thank you so much for sharing!

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