Notating for Piano: The Basics

Most jazz groups you will write for will have a piano player. Knowing how to write a part that makes sense and is easy for the piano player to read is very important.

In this lesson, I go over different scenarios of what and how to write for the piano in a jazz group. There are some variations on this depending on the type of group you are writing for, but these should cover about 80-90% of the stuff you will need to know to write a good piano part.


6 thoughts on “Notating for Piano: The Basics”

  1. Assuming both a pianist and a guitarist in a big band, I’d like them both to have the complete changes so they can keep their places, back up an open solo or whatever. But how do I tell them they don’t have to comp-and-fill all the time as if they were the only chord axe on a club date? They could take turns comping, for instance; and if I’ve already provided fills in the horn parts, it would be nice it the pianist didn’t step on them. Most of the pianists I know tend to play much more than they need to in a big band, and then when the opportunity finally comes for them to provide that little solo fill that would make the whole number sparkle, they miss it. How could I help them with this?

  2. Bill: that is a tough one. I have heard this complaint before when there is a guitar player and a piano player. I think the bets answer is to tell them to listen to each other and decide where in the chart each will trade off comping, filling, etc. Ultimately it will be the quality of the musicians and how they work together that will work best. You, as an arranger, can help by deciding this for them and giving them little notes like “comp” or “sparse fills”, etc.

    And, it also depends on the style of the chart as well. If you are playing a straight ahead Basie or Nestico swing chart, the roles are a little more defined, i.e. the guitar playing can just lay down a Freddie Green groove while the piano player can do more Basie like fills.

    Guitar players will hate me for this, but I usually write big band stuff that does not include a guitar part. If I do write guitar I will often write almost the same part for guitar as the piano part. when I was writing for a band in Chicago that I knew had a guitar, I would often give him melody with flugel, or flute or whatever.

    Also, I think giving them rhythms and changes helps at points where the band is playing those same rhythms. Then they will be together in those spots. For solos and what not, they just have to listen to each other and stay out of each other’s way.

    I have often found that when I’m playing piano in a big band that I can’t even hear myself play. So as a result I tend to “overplay” because of this, so that is a consideration as well. Its hard to play over 8 brass players, so piano players are often at the mercy of the horn players sense of dynamics. That usually errs on the loud side to say the least. Anyway, hoped that helped.

  3. Thanks a whole lot man! In writing my first arrangments, the piano has been quite a quandry for me. Thanks for the vid,

  4. I work with a pianist who has talked with me and some of the other people in a band who do arranging, and he suggests another approach to writing the piano part as well, depending on the needs of an arrangement:

    If there is a specific melodic note that needs to be on top of a voicing, instead of writing out a full voicing, to just write the top note and a chord change with it. This is close to cueing a horn line, but is different because it says that I, the arranger, definitely want the pianist to play that note on top and none other. This can be useful when I have melodic material for the pianist to cover but don’t particularly care about specific voicings in the harmony, or when the piano will be supplementing a lead line in the trumpets (for example) where I specifically do not want the piano to be voicing anything in pitch above the trumpet.

  5. Andrew: yes, very good comment. This is another method that works well especially for jazz piano players that are not great note readers. I have worked with awesome jazz piano players ever and they have trouble reading notes. So giving the lead note (or simple line) gives them the freedom to voice everything below that top note. This is something that you see in older charts like Sammy Nestico and other writers.

    Lately I have been writing about 50% written and 50% chord changes for the piano player. I think publishers have been writing the entire piano parts out now because they realize alot of younger players (or less experienced adults) need voicings to sound half way decent in a jazz context.

    As is the case with horn parts, you always have to keep in mind what level of players (or what band) you are writing for. I think most publishers now straddle it in the middle so the stuff is playable by the most bands. Let’s face it, there are not really any professional big bands where guys make a living at it like there was 30-40+ years ago, so a realistic approach is to always give the benefit of the doubt when writing for players of today (which oftentimes is students in HS or college)

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