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How I Used Jazz to Teach Myself Mozart

Posted by on June 8, 2014. 0 comments

In October of 2013 I performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467 with an orchestra in northern Mexico, the Orquesta Filarmonica del Estado de Chihuahua. This particular concerto is among Mozart’s most popular, frequently performed works, and I was concerned with finding ways of bringing something entirely new to my performance. Since there is no cadenza by Mozart available for this concerto, I initially decided to compose the cadenza. This cadenza was the result of hours of improvisation during practice. Since I never wrote it down, it preserved a certain flexibility that allowed me to create variations for specific passages while retaining the underlying framework. In a way similar to jazz improvisation, there were countless “licks” that I could play for a particular section that would be true to the style and work in my cadenza’s framework. For example, a four-measure ascending line connecting the end of the main theme with a long trill on the dominant could take the form of a chromatic scale, a broken V7 arpeggio, or more complicated elaborations using different types of ornamental notes.

Over time, I grew discontent with playing the same cadenza repeatedly, especially since my improvisatory excursions in the practice room continued to yield interesting ideas and a more fulfilling experience than my “written-out” cadenza. Through repetition, my cadenza had grown stale and uninteresting to me. My purpose in composing the cadenza was to imbue the concerto with spontaneity, to embrace the juxtaposition of an improvisatory cadenza and the rigidity of classical form. By fearing the uncertain and performing only the most successful versions of my cadenza repeatedly, I was taking away from my performance. To remedy this, I decided to improvise a new cadenza in every performance; I decided to confront my fear of the unknown and embark on a search for freedom in playing this music. Essentially, I took my practice room improvisations to the concert stage.  I consider improvisation in 18th and 17th century keyboard music as one of the most exciting, largely unexplored areas of piano repertoire and performance and was very excited when my friend, conductor Armando Pesqueira, agreed to accommodate my urge to improvise on the spot. This was the result:



To prepare for improvising in front of an audience, I had several lessons and conversations with jazz performers. I am currently based in Western Michigan University, home of some of the most exciting jazz musicians performing today and they were an invaluable resource. The differences between improvising in jazz and Mozartian style quickly became apparent; jazz has a high tolerance for inaccuracy and a low tolerance for the unoriginal, completely the opposite of improvisation in the Viennese classical style. I also came to realize that there is an enormous difference in the performance experience of inserting different interchangeable “licks” into my already established cadenza framework, as a jazz player improvises on a given melody or progression, and creating a new framework for each performance. Improvising a cadenza would be as much about improvising a balanced large-scale form, with its tonal centers and modulations, as it would be about improvising at the small scale.

For my improvisation, I set a limit for myself: I would only improvise in complete adherence to style and performance practice, working within the limits of the instruments and techniques of this particular period; no octave passages a la Liszt or jazzy extended harmonies for me. Improvising in a classical, Mozartian style requires an abnormally high degree of accuracy and adherence to style in the harmonic and melodic movement, balanced forms and gestures, and respect for performance practice guidelines. Finding practice strategies that would not encourage me to repeat the same material every time was a fundamental problem. The goal was to attain higher degrees of freedom with the material every time.

I talked with various jazz musicians about their practice and teaching methods and used these to teach myself over the course of several months. I began by studying other cadenzas for this and other Mozart concertos – often from recordings since they are frequently performers’ own compositions and not publicly available – and then worked to replicate them as closely as possible. Transcribing these cadenzas by ear and replicating them helped immensely, and I can understand why transcribing solos by ear is such an important part of jazz pedagogy. In the process, I isolated specific licks that were characteristic of the style, that appeared repeatedly in different works and cadenzas. What do I mean by a “lick”? This is also an idea taken from jazz. A lick is a stock melodic pattern or phrase fragment. Jazz musicians will often learn these licks and study how other musicians use them in their own improvisation, gradually evolving their own musical language. This is a common jazz lick:



I also found several licks in cadenzas of other classical concertos. I used the ones that I found most attractive and experimented with them. Doing this helped me gain insight into certain characteristics of the different material in the concerto that I had overlooked before. For example, Dinu Lipatti’s cadenza in the extraordinary 1950 recording highlights the contrapuntal relationship between the main theme and the characteristic arpeggio sequence that connects the second theme with the coda; Mitsuko Uchida’s 2012 recording begins the third movement cadenza with the “B” theme of the rondo-sonata, illustrating how that theme can be adapted freely to virtually any common classical chord progression. I also improvised countless variations over the framework of specific themes, chord progressions, or accompaniment patterns and often used jazz-specific pedagogical methods such as playing fragments of the melody and improvising new endings or beginnings, inserting rests and stops at different places, or experimenting with inserting sections from one part of the work into other parts of the chord progression.

In the moment of the performance I was constantly thinking about the large-scale form of my cadenza. My practice methods helped me build up hundreds of licks (most interchangeable with any other Mozart concerto), accompaniment patterns, and chord progressions that would help me go from one key to another or develop a particular theme. This allowed me to focus more on where I was going and how I was going to get there than on the mechanics of a specific passage. My main concern was making decisions on the fly about which keys and themes I wanted to visit, following through without embarrassing myself, and then finding ways to return to the original key’s V7 chord to queue the orchestra’s entrance. It was an incredibly exciting experience, a rush that I have rarely experienced when playing classical music in the traditional way.

During the performance, there were two sensations that I’d never experienced before and that I’ve tried to recapture every time I’ve performed since. I felt a connection to a common language from which all improvisers draw. As I performed, I remembered other cadenzas I’d transcribed, all the other music I had studied, and I drew from it for my own performance. I have felt this connection to history and to other performers in the practice room, but never to this degree in a public performance. I also felt a sense of  physicality, an idea of space and a freedom to move about that space that I had not experienced in traditional performance.  Each new theme, chord, or tonal area was a physical location, a room or landscape, and, as I played, I felt that I began at a point in space and visited different rooms, moving away from my tonal center and then returning home. I can honestly say that I am a different musician thanks to this experiment and I highly recommend it. It allowed me to abandon many of my fears and take part in an expansive and free form of musical performance to which I had closed myself before.

Mozart 21 and the Dangers of Overplaying.

Posted by on March 26, 2011. one comment

For one of this year’s concert engagements, I will be playing Mozart’s 21st piano concerto. This piece has a very personal meaning for me. It’s one of the reasons I ultimately fell in love with the piano and with music. This will be the first time I play this concerto with an orchestra and I am very excited.

Mozart cartoon

One of my earliest musical memories is of me and my brother as toddlers dancing around while our father played a record of this concerto with Alicia de Larrocha. There were words that we would sing along to the second theme of the concerto about how “all the good little kittens were off to their beds,” (in Spanish: todos los gatitos ya nos vamos a dormir…) and when the trumpets played that little descending third that begins the theme before the coda, we would sing along: “Meaaaa-ow! Meaaaa-ow!” Now I get to practice this concerto while my baby watches from the playpen (not too long, I don’t want him getting too bored,) jumps around on his stationary jumper (louder, because that jumper is pretty noisy,) sleeps in his crib (sempre una corda e molto pianissimo,) or with him on my lap (one hand at a time and with him “playing along” with his fists — a lot of fun by the way.) I am truly blessed.

The Mozart concertos that I have played before — 9, 11 and 12 — all had original cadenzas by the composer. Since this one doesn’t, I decided to try my hand at improvising the cadenza. I am not sufficiently skilled at improvising to go out on stage and invent something completely from scratch. Instead, I decided to set up a sort of framework that I could follow, working out beforehand certain chord progressions and themes that I’d like to play along the way, but leaving enough room for spontaneity. For example, in a certain spot I could know that I want to go from C major to E minor using a certain chord progression; whether I do it playing arpeggios from the development section, or scales in broken octaves, or a sequence made out of one of the themes is up to whatever I’m feeling at the moment.

My first attempt at a cadenza went something like this: Go down along the keyboard from the I6/4 chord until I reach the bottom G. After that, I would make some sort of sequence using the second theme while modulating to E minor and then come back to G major. Play something based on the “Meaow” theme and then hit the trill and give the orchestra their cue. Quick and simple with little parts of my favorite themes from the first movement. After a while, I noticed that the beginning of the development section would be a nice way to start the cadenza, maybe changing it to major instead of the original minor key, so I added that. Then, while practicing the development, I noticed that I could cross my left hand over while playing the descending E minor arpeggios and play the “Meaow” theme over and under it, so I added that too. Every time I practiced it I would add a little more, never noticing what my cadenza was turning into.

After a month of working on the concerto, I asked my wife to listen to the cadenza. I was really quite clever: I combined themes with one another, played them in unexpected harmonies, and quoted little snippets from the orchestral part of the concerto. I showed off my broken octaves and sixths and all sorts of cool harmonic tricks I’d picked up from different parts of the concerto (especially that amazing variant on a simple progression along the circle of fifths that is right after the second theme.) So, when I was done, what did she say?

– “I liked that last part.”

– “Which part?”

– “The one where you play a scale down and then you go up again and do a trill. You should get rid of the rest.”

She was right, of course; my cadenza was a convoluted Frankenstein’s monster. Self-editing has been pretty painful now. Each section I’ve had to cut since then feels like a jab at my own ego. I think I’ve got it down to something workable now — start with the little theme the woodwinds play three times before the piano’s entrance, doing a little variation each time; then some sort of variation on the opening passage of the concerto while going up to the dominant; play one of the themes (probably the second one) on the dominant in a more risoluto character to lead into the final trill. Every time I play it I have to resist the temptation to tack on more unnecesary stuff to it again.

I have trouble with self-editing. I tend to overplay when things should be simple and transparent; I use variation when things should just repeat. I do it when I write, not knowing when to stop a sentence. I did it when I tried my hand at composition (I was a composition student before switching to the piano.)

I had this problem in my short stint as a jazz pianist in my high-school’s junior jazz band (I didn’t make the cut for the big jazz band, I was a trumpet player at the time.) There was a piano solo for me in a Count Basie standard. Each time we played it I added something new to it and, by the time we showed up to the regional competitions, it was a convoluted mess of octaves and broken arpeggios (the only technical difficulties that I could reliably do without messing them up too badly.) Back then, one of the judges from the competition wrote on his advice slip: “The pianist is way too busy, this song should be laid-back.” Apparently I haven’t learned anything since then.

Embraceable You

Posted by on March 23, 2010. 0 comments


Embraceable You is one of my favorite Gershwin standards. It’s a beautiful song, simple in its structure but very finely crafted. At first glance, there are many things about Embraceable You that don’t immediately click. Take the lyrics for example:

Embrace me,

My sweet embraceable you.

Embrace me,

You irreplaceable you.

Just one look at you — my heart grew tipsy in me;

You and you alone bring out the gipsy in me.

I love all

The many charms about you;

Above all

I want my arms about you.

Don’t be a naughty baby,

Come to papa — come to papa — do!

My sweet embraceable you.

It’s not so much a consonant rhyme as it is just ending each verse with the same word. The great thing is that the whole accentuation is set up so that the biggest accent falls four syllables before the end of the verse, which is quite uncommon. The rhyming scheme is arranged so that not only the last syllable matches up but, almost every time, the last four syllables rhyme.

The melodic line is also pretty unconventional. Almost every time, it’s a small scale that rises, followed by a big (even dissonant) downward leap; first it’s a fifth and before the repeat, it’s an octave leap. This strange downward leap at the end of every verse keeps delaying the resolution, which makes the rising half step in the final two notes all the sweeter. The upward scale starts on the sixth, something that gives it a very jazzy feel and later became usual in many jazz standards. Three notes ascending scalewise over a I-vii7/V7-V7 (GM7-C#dim7-D7) progression. The melody is also a bit lopsided, in every verse the last word (“you” and “me”) get’s its own beautiful, very long note.

Harmonically it has a very basic structure: I-V-I (GM7-D7-GM7) with a short section (just one look at you my heart grew tipsy in me) with the vi (Em) which repeats to the beginning. We get a big sub-dominant (CM7) before the ending (Don’t be naughty…) which, as usual for the IV, is pretty well suited for a fermata, and at the very end we get the sequence I7(V7/IV)-iv-V7-I (G7-Cm7-D7-GM7). What I love about these last four chords is the way they build up on the sub-dominant from before, taking that CM7 and instead of resolving giving it its own dominant and turning it into a minor IV right on the accent of the last verse (on “embraceable”), which adds a bit of wistfulness and sadness to the very end.

The beauty of this tune, and its curse for many amateur performers, is that Gershwin fills it with embellishing chords. The very basic I-V-I is very highly ornamented and in some cases, some of the chords are substituted for others.


GM7 – D7 – GM7

turns into this:

GM7 – C#dim7 – D7 – Am7 – F7 – D7GM7

The D7 is preceded by its own dominant (which is why usually an A chord is also added before the C#dim7, to make a sort of A7b9) and then the D7 is spread out into four chords to match the melodic rising line in the third verse (Embrace me, you irreplaceable…)

Because of the very basic harmonic structure and the lopsided way the melodic line is built, this piece is very suited for long freestyle improvisations and rearrangements. In some cases, like in the version by the Bill Evans Trio or by Wynton Marsalis, it’s nothing but one huge improvisation.


One of my favorite versions of Embraceable You is the piano etude by Earl Wild. What’s great about playing it is the way the technique matches up with the  music. He adds a ton of arpeggios all around the melody, so all those circular movements with very little finger action almost make it feel as if you are embracing the piano.

The Universal Mind of Bill Evans.

Posted by on April 19, 2009. 4 comments

Every musician should learn jazz.

As most musicians today understand it, jazz is a musical style. That is not wrong, but it’s not really the most important thing because jazz is also a process. It’s the process of making music in the moment, an essential skill that was mostly lost in classical music towards the end of the nineteenth century.

A long time ago, musical notation was developed out of the necessity to make a piece of music permanent. Without recording technology, it was necessary to write the music down if it was to be played more than once. Music, up to the end of the eighteenth century, was improvisatory in a very high degree. Even in the romantic period, there was still a great deal of improvisation serving as the basis for concert music.

Musical notation allowed composers to write works of increasing complexity, to the degree where a composer could take months to write a single minute of music. It also marked a new division between composer and interpreter. Today we have composers that can’t play a single note of music on any instrument; some of the really bad ones are also practically tone-deaf. There are also interpreters out there that can’t pick out a melody on their instrument, let alone deviate from their precious score– even when the musical style demands it!

The necessity for the ability to improvise goes beyond being able to pluck out a cadenza in a classical work or playing a jazz standard by ear, it affects everything we do as musicians.

It affects our interpretation. When we hear or play a piece, being able to follow along with the “jazz process” of the composer is something that gives us depth and insight. It gives an interpreter the ability to see what a composer didn’t write and what he could have written instead of what is on the page. This ability also allows to understand the “why” and the “how” better. I’ve been to too many classes where the lesson the teacher is able to give with his limited insight does not go beyond correcting the note values and marking the tempo by clapping along. There is no talk about the musical process the composer followed and there is no deeper meaning to what is being done. Too many musicians go through their whole careers thinking that an interpreters job is just counting , measuring and following along with what is written like a good little bureaucrat.

Being able to improvise also affects the way we teach and learn. I believe that the best way to learn is by playing around. In many languages, the word for playing an instrument and the word for playing with a toy is the same. I have found that the best way to teach a child is through improvisation. By letting them write their own songs and trying out alternatives to what is written down. In the same way, good practice is really the process of teaching ourselves. In that sense, one of the best ways of learning is by making variations on the music and playing the things that are not there.

Most important of all, the jazz process allows us to be real with what we play. Particularly with the piano, it is easy to play a note without feeling it, without thinking it. You drop the finger, and the instrument makes noise. You could just as well have hit the piano with a pencil, or thrown something at the keys. It is absolutely essential to listen in your mind to every thing you play or it isn’t real. This is more apparent when making jazz. It is easy to play scales up and down, or have a few formulas that sound good almost anywhere, without really feeling the different harmonies or thinking out the melody that you are improvising. The sense of actually doing what you are singing in your mind is quite hard to do, but being honest and real with your playing really makes a difference in the end result and in what you, as an interpreter, get out of your music.

In The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, Bill Evans sits down and has a talk with his brother. I consider this video essential viewing for any pianist, specially those of us who play mostly classical music. Bill Evans was not only a great pianist, he was also a philosopher of music and, in my opinion, one of the greatest musical minds that the world has known. I don’t compare Bill Evans to other jazz pianists, I think of him as a modern day Chopin or Schubert. Here is part one of the video, the whole thing is up on YouTube:


For the love of God, learn another trick!

Posted by on September 12, 2008. 0 comments

When re-harmonizing a melody, one of the oldest tricks in the book is substituting the dominant (usually V7) with a major chord a diminished fifth above it. It is usually the last trick a jazz pianist is taught, for a very specific reason. It is so easy to do, and so effective, that many pianists out there don’t learn anything else. The problem is that after hearing it so much, it just screams of cheese. I think it actually catches me more by surprise when a pianist uses a regular V7 instead of the tritone substitution.

When playing a melodic solo, one of the oldest tricks in the book is playing a whole tone scale on top of the dominant chord. It kind of turns the dominant into a V7 with an augmented fifth. It is also the only thing about harmony that many mediocre horn players bother to learn.

For the love of God, learn some new tricks. You can substitute every single chord in a progression with its “ii-V-I”. That leads to the typical I-iii-VI-ii-V-I progression in which all you are really doing is branching the “ii” into it’s “ii-V-I” (which in the original key would be “iii-VI-ii”). Once you do that, you can use tritone substitution on that “VI”, since it is actually working as a dominant for the “ii”. There are so many possibilities in jazz harmony, that it really sounds lazy and cheap hearing the same stupid substitution over and over again.

The circle of fifths is your friend when trying out new harmonic progressions. Just give it a spin through the whole circle. When you play something in more than one key, you are learning the idea behind the harmonic progression, not the actual chords. That is very useful for classical pianists too. Transposition is a huge aid to memorization, it helps you understand what is going on. You learn the actual functions of the chords, and not the notes in themselves. As a jazz musician, it is very easy to get bogged down repeating over and over the same cute tricks without realizing that you are doing it. Mastering new harmonic progressions or solo patterns seems like forced labor, but what it actually gives you is freedom. Freedom from the cage of cliches into which you force yourself because of ignorance.

The circle of fifths is your friend.

The circle of fifths is your friend.

Also beware of signature chords, usually dissonant, and usually way overused. They are sometimes cool, but lots of pianists tend to find a chord or a run they can play comfortably and shoe-horn it into everything they play. It’s the same case with the trumpet player who just realized he can hit a high-E and even give it a nice shake. He will play anything, even a slow ballad, and force the damn thing in there so everyone can see his nice new trick. The music turns into a succession of cute tricks, instead of an actual artistic enterprise.

To open your harmonic horizons, analysis of jazz standards and Gershwin songs is a must. I also really recommend listening to and playing a lot of Bill Evans. He will either use quartal harmony, or he will use really normal triads, but in very intelligent and interesting ways that show you all the possibilities in simple three-part harmony. Something classic like Waltz for Debby uses harmony that is very simple on the surface, but treated in a way many jazz pianists avoid, almost as if it were something from Chopin or Schubert; and it will sound really awesome too.


And unlike many jazz pianists, the man had a beautiful round tone as well. I would kill to have that piano sound for Chopin, Grieg or Mozart. Miles Davis said it best. Bill played the piano the way it should be played.

St. Coltrane

Posted by on August 22, 2008. 2 comments

A holy relic.

A holy relic.

How do you describe a truly great performance?

There is something there that defies explanation; it just is.

John Coltrane was an amazing musician. One of my teachers had a saying about Liszt and Schubert. Something hard to translate about Liszt taking the listener up to paradise with his music and Schubert making that paradise here on Earth. In a Love Supreme, Coltrane takes us up into the stratosphere on a staircase made of sixteenth notes.

One can get lost completely just getting carried away with the waves of harmony from McCoy Tyner and the ever changing rhythmic background created by Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. On the endless walls of sound that Coltrane produces, the mantric nature of the theme, always developing always changing. For a trained musician, the effect this music has is huge. Coltrane was a genius, hundreds of amazing modulations in every solo; he does things with whole-tone scales that I had never dreamed were possible. The relationships he finds between keys are always fresh and completely groundbreaking. At the end of Acknowledgment, when they start chanting “A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme” it is a release, it is as if that is the only outlet left for what he is saying after everything he has played before it.

One of the things that strikes me the most about Coltrane, was his involvement with the music. He almost stands completely still while he plays, with an intense look of concentration on his face. Few things bother me more than those sax players out there who are sweating rivers while they play, swinging their instrument up and down and all around, screaming and doing all kinds of silly crap, blowing out their cheeks and with their eyes ready to pop; only to have a mediocre uninspired musical result. Coltrane, even in his completely dissonant period (with things like Jupiter and Leo) is always amazingly interesting to listen to. You can just sit back and let the music carry you away, or you can perk up your ears and try to catch everything he is doing; either way, it is a trip to another universe, a glimpse of a whole other world of his own making.

A Love Supreme is a miracle in its own right, something holy. It inspires the listener with Coltrane’s faith and belief in God’s supreme love in the same way as Bach in the St. Matthew Passion. He was one of those musical greats that stands alone. A Love Supreme has done more to make us feel what faith and belief in God’s love are like than many actual clergy members out there. He was just a man, although many claim him a saint; but he brings out the best of music, shows us what “just a man” is capable of with practice, dedication and playing with complete honesty from the heart.

The complete video of his only live performance of A Love Supreme –July 26, 1965 in Antibes-  is lost. Only little snippets of home videos remain. If this video surfaced, I am sure it would be the holy grail of Jazz. Enjoy a minute and a half of greatness, and then go out and buy this album if you don’t have it!