The Jazz Piano StudyLetter

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Review of The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine

Sher Music Co. (Box 445, Petaluma, CA 94953), 1995. $35. 522 pp. Spiral-bound.

From JPSL No. 11.

In most respects, this is a definitive work. It's a felicitous example of the right book, at the right time, by the right person. Mark Levine is not just some college professor, but a respected professional with extensive experience in night clubs, concerts and festivals, playing with many of the top artists in jazz. But on top of that he is an educator with an extremely precise mind, who has carefully thought out how to present complex material with both accuracy and understanding of the way music students study and learn. I'm sure this book will immediately take its place as the standard work in the field and be a must-have for thousands of jazz students.

One benefit of Levine's real-world credentials is that the material is based on the actual practice of present-day mainstream players; he eschews any mere book-learning that's not directly applicable to what people do on the bandstand. At the same time, his analysis is intellectually rigorous and does not gloss over difficulties. (These two qualities are also what I aim for in the StudyLetter.)

Though perhaps a touch expensive at $35, this is a big book. The layout does have a great deal of white space, which seems to be a new convention for instructional books. There are an enormous number of musical examples, including, as a nice bonus, a number of complete charts for some great hard-to-find tunes. Since these aren't listed in the table of contents, I'll give them here for your reference: Wingspan (Miller), 163; Black Narcissus (Henderson), 216; Spring Is Here (Rodgers), 372; Body and Soul (Green), 377; I Hear A Rhapsody (Fragos, etc.), 385; My Little Brown Book (Strayhorn), 397; Beatrice (Rivers), 398; What's New? (Haggart, etc.), 412.

So what's in the book? (I've picked up Levine's writer's trick of asking a question and answering it.) For long-time readers of the StudyLetter, there is not much unfamiliar material, though of course it's well-organized. Also, there's a lot of content duplication with Levine's earlier The Jazz Piano Book, sometimes in the same words. The bulk of the book consists of a painstaking, clear and detailed exposition of the different types of chords used in modern jazz and the scales associated with them. This includes all the modes of major and "harmonic minor"; diminished; whole-tone; pentatonic; 8-note bebop; blues; and a few others.

There are extensive discussions of "rhythm" changes, Coltrane changes, "slash chords" (such as B/C), and all the familiar concepts of reharmonization like tritone substitution; all these are discussed mainly in terms of chord progressions alone, without reference to melodic lines or piano voicings; but those topics are not theory, strictly speaking.

Harmonic function doesn't seem to be one of Levine's strong points. He lumps together all secondary dominants as "V of V"; and puts very little emphasis on the subdominant (IV). In other words, he tends to take the chord progression as a given and does not comment much on its inner dynamics.

A section about lead sheets, heads and other practical matters that jazz musicians must know will be very informative to the student. This is stuff that everyone with actual bandstand experience quickly learns anyway. There's an amusing Glossary of jazz terms and a Repertoire list of 965 of the "best or most commonly played" tunes--silly, to my mind; a list of 100 essential standards would have been more useful. Another long list of recommended recordings is probably also a bit too subjective to be valuable.

Levine does discuss melodic improvisation in several chapters in the middle of the book. He focuses on sequences, triadic figures, contrary motion and common tones, and gives many extensive examples from the masters. There are many more melodic concepts that he might have included, though.

Throughout the book, Levine emphasizes his idea that the improviser should always think in terms of what some other writers (but not he) call "parent scales" (he puts it "think key, not chord"). In other words, when confronted with C(altered), you should think of C# melodic minor. I'm not sure I agree with this. For me, altered scales or half-diminished scales, for instance, each have a subtle identity that is not quite the same as their "alter ego" melodic minor scales-a matter of touch or emphasis on different notes of the scale, perhaps. In my teaching approach, you learn A(altered) and at another time Eb lydian dominant, and then are pleasantly surprised to realize they use the same scale.

Above all, Levine deserves enormous credit for establishing a definitive system for jazz theory that (1) adequately covers most present-day styles, (2) is genuinely based on practice and not theoretical preconceptions, and (3) is well suited for use by students and educators. (George Russell's interesting "Lydian Chromatic" system fails on all three counts.) It's a bonus that he is such an entertaining and encouraging writer.

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