A Musician’s Guide to Black Tie

RIP OP (died 23rd Dec 2007): great musician, great guy and great dresser.

RIP OP (died 23rd Dec 2007): great musician, great guy and great dresser.

Jazz musicians usually chafe against the whole idea of dress code, but for some gigs dems de rules.

Since many musicians don’t really dress, they just add glue to their bathwater and run through a pile of laundry, I thought it might be worth a rundown on how to get black tie right.

This is mainly aimed at the blokes, but there are also some guidelines for the girls further down. And none of what follows counts for anything if it’s not all clean, pressed and ironed…


First of all – don’t fret that you’ll look like a waiter or a penguin. You won’t, but only if you do it properly. Black tie is a convention and it’s largely about attention to detail – get it right and you’ll look a million. Believe me, people really do notice the details, even if just subconsciously. It’s rather like music: play a simple G with understanding and conviction and that G will sing.

Read more ›

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

Rachmaninov Had Big Hands

Here Igudesman and Joo show how to tackle Rachmaninov’s famous C# minor Prelude if you’re a little digitally ungifted by nature.

Rachmaninov was a big guy. He also had Marfan Syndrome, aka hypermobility. He could span an incredible 13th and make unusual stretches in between the fingers. Nevertheless, he generally wrote within standard compass and ability. Generally… And I hope this doesn’t ruin the joke for you, but this prelude sounds bigger and more unmanageable than it actually is.

Incidentally, this piece launched old Sergei Illyich, but also rather hung round his neck throughout his career. To the point where he eventually got rather sick of requests for it.

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Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings, g) Classically Inclined

The Value of “Huh?”

confusedI was recently asked about how to play the second chord in Jobim’s Wave. I don’t think my correspondent would mind me saying that he’d got himself rather tangled up in analysis and choices of diminished chords.

Here’s where the most helpful thing I’ve ever encountered comes in – it’s called the “huh?” chord. You sometimes analyse tunes ahead of time, and often while you’re actually playing them. Read more ›

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Posted in b) Harmony & Comping


Vielen Dank to Tomas, who enjoyed the Beethoven Buddhist Choir and added a question. What kind of a computer do I think a musician needs?

This raises two immediate thoughts. First, most musicians don’t tend to have great wadges of money falling out of their trousers. Second, most musicians do tend to go without to afford good equipment (often it’s a choice between a decent instrument and a car). So I’ll focus on the word “need”, and the result will probably surprise you.

Basically, modern consumer hardware has long since passed the point where it can handle good audio and even modest video work with ease. The circus has moved on, and as ever it’s games that are leading the way – so bleeding-edge hardware these days is all about live rendering the sunlight glinting off virtual goblin snot (which is mostly the domain of expensive high-end graphics processors).

I’ll focus on PCs here, but I have nothing against Macs. I just feel that you get more bang for buck on PCs if you’re prepared to embrace complexity and choice (and what are musicians good at, if not fiddling with things?) I’ll keep the tech specs general anyway.

There’s an entire industry out there geared to selling you hardware you don’t actually need. So what actually does matter for tasks such as multitrack recording and mixing in a DAW, working with samples and scorewriting? Read more ›

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Posted in j) Sound & Vision

Augmented Sixths or Tritone Subs?

I was recently reminded of my dusty school days when someone asked me how jazz uses augmented sixth chords. Oh, I do so love these invitations to give a fag-packet explanation and get myself into trouble…

I suppose the simplest answer is that jazz uses augmented sixths all over the place, it just doesn’t think of them as augmented sixths at all.

The only real difference between an augmented sixth chord and a dominant chord is that the former carries specific expectations as to the direction the tones are to resolve. This chord is typically notated deliberately to highlight its “raised sixthiness” (which means using eye-catching accidentals on that note).

The harmonic function of the augmented sixth is as a pre-dominant chord, and one allowing for a lot of chromatic interest. The three classic variations (German, Italian and French) are as follows, preparing the arrival of G dominant:

Ge6: Ab C Eb F#
It6: Ab C C F#
Fr6: Ab C D F#

The augmented sixth chord appears on the bVI of the key, and the idea is that the lowest voice drops and the highest one rises, both by semitone, to the root of the following V chord an octave apart. The middle voices go where you’d expect, to B and D. The German one is highly organised and everything slips by semitone (how very German), the Italian one has the twin Cs resolving in different directions (how very Italian), and with the French one, the D is already there so stays put (how very French)… Read more ›

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes

Erm, me…

고맙습니다 to my lovely Korean friends at Talent Shop, who recently spent a sweltering week enthusiastically tailing the band with cameras. Check out their website or YouTube channel for a growing series on London musicians.

PS Yes, I do actually possess a comb, I just keep forgetting to use it…


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Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings

Funky Chunks & Clunky Chunks

…and dominantsy divey…

Right, I was beer-deep in a chat with a musician the other day who was a bit down about the results he was getting out of 7b9 chords. They sometimes just sounded – well, tame.

Aha. Need to restore some mojo here. So what was going on?

The 7b9 dominant chord-scale is a classic and versatile sound most associated with the bebop era, but used ever since. It has a funky chunk and a clunky chunk…

The easiest one to look at, from a keyboard perspective, is G7b9, because all the white notes are straight and all the black notes are alterations.

G Ab A# B C# D E F (G)

All the hip action is visually obviously in the first bit – root, b9th, #9th, 3rd #11th. Wild stuff. The rest of it, going all the way back to the root, is really just a normal dominant scale.

Now a G7 chord will generally resolve to a C chord, and you’ll see that the root and 5th of C have some nice funky stuff around them. Not so the 3rd of C – that’s in a rather boring area.

I’m not saying there aren’t ways to handle this, but it is pretty common to centre a lot of action around the lower, funky chunk. Read more ›

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes
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Wednesday Sessions

We play every Wednesday night, 9 to 12.30, at Toulouse Lautrec in Kennington, South London. It starts as a gig then becomes a jam.
See also Thoughts from the Piano Chair of a Jam Session.
Illustration by Sue Harding

November guest soloists
2 Fulvio Sigurta tpt/flugel
9 Jim Mullen guitar
16 Benet McLean violin
23 Carl Orr gtr
30 Christian Brewer tenor sax

December guest soloists
7 Tony Kofi alto sax
Xmas Specials
14 Anita Wardell vocals
21 Roberto Manzin tenor sax

More info on guests here