About Playing in Any Style

Musical U welcomes back Steve Nixon of FreeJazzLessons.com to discuss the art of playing in multiple genres, and the skills and knowledge that will help you shine in jazz, rock, pop, classical, and country music alike.

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Christopher: Hello, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. It is my great pleasure to be joined for today’s episode by Steve Nixon from freejazzlessons.com, which is perhaps the leading website dedicated to learning jazz piano.

Now, I know that I’ve probably already lost some of you by the very mention of the word “jazz”, but please don’t tune out, because it’s actually you guys that we’ve planned this episode for. Steve has been a guest on the podcast before, so if you’d like to know more about his backstory and get some expert insights on practicing and particularly, I think we talked a lot about rhythm skills, then do check out that interview. We’ll have a link in the show notes for this episode.

I get the chance to chat with Steve occasionally, and he knows that whenever we talked about jazz, I would mention how our followers at Musical U and the listeners to this podcast tend to think jazz is advanced or really complex as a genre. And we definitely do have some jazz aficionados among you, and certainly some jazz fans. But I know that for most of you, it seems like jazz is something you might get into the future, maybe once you master the simpler genres, such as rock and pop, blues, even classical.

Steve is convinced that’s not the case. That does not have to be super complicated. And recently I got an email from him, and if you’re into jazz piano and you’re not on Steve’s email list, then you should definitely go to freejazzlessons.com and sign up right now, fix that. But this email, anyway, was about a new course he has coming out, and he said something fascinating that I just had to find out more about. So I invited him onto the show to talk about jazz and genres and this interesting point from an email.

Welcome to the show, Steve. Thank you for joining us today.

Steve: Chris, we’re absolutely pleasured to hang out with you guys again.

Christopher: So the email that I mentioned was one about your brand new course, and you were talking about how jazz piano players today actually need to master a range of genres. Maybe let’s start there. Why can’t you just pick a genre like jazz and stick to it?

Steve: Yeah, that’s a great question. So obviously online, I’m known as the jazz guy. I have tons and tons of courses out there in jazz and blues, and this is, stylistically, one of my passions in life, is playing this particular art form. But the reality is that in today’s day and age, 98% of gigs out there are not in the jazz genre. They’re in rock, they’re in pop, they’re in country, they’re in bluegrass, funk, R&B, even hip hop gigs. You name it, broad genre. Classical. All the different genres out there.

And so modern piano players, if they really want to go out and perform and connect with people and live in today’s day and age, musically speaking, they have to be able to do a lot of different things. You can’t just play jazz if you want to go out and play all the time for people.

Christopher: I feel like you’re stepping on the third rail there and can get some backlash from the hardcore jazz people. Are you really allowed to encourage people to go outside of jazz?

Steve: Yes. Basically, so, this is the other interesting things about jazz. A lot of people try to define what … jazz is this or jazz is that. But on its highest level, it’s this melting pot of different sounds and different techniques. So if you love a lot of music, if you love Afro-Cuban styles, there’s jazz that influences and involves that particular genre in there that mixes that in. If you like rock, there’s a lot of people like, for example, Mike Stern or John [Skullfeld 00:03:26], even Miles Davis’s stuff, had a lot of rock stuff going on in terms of the fusion there. You name the genre, jazz has incorporated it to some degree at one point. It really is a style of infinite possibilities.
So to say, well, jazz has to be this or it has to be that, you’re basically boxing in a style that is about freedom. And so this is why it’s okay to “step on the third rail”.

Christopher: Nice. Well, as exciting as you make it sound there, I feel we are getting into exactly what sometimes intimidates people, which is … if jazz is so vast, there’s an awful lot to learn there. And this thing that jumped out at me from the email that I mentioned is you said there was kind of a shortcut to … not only into jazz, but into spreading across different genres. If you can pitch and hold as a jazz player, or if you’re not even that far down the jazz route, you are saying there is one person you can study from that can actually open up a range of genres for you. Can you tell us about that?

Steve: Absolutely. So when I was coming up, I had gotten some jazz skills under my belt, and I got pretty good at that particular style of music. But then when I went to go play gigs in other genres, I didn’t really know how to adjust, and I fell on my face many times, when I’d be go playing the pop gig and throwing in all my reharmonizations and ♯9 voicings and and all the stuff that scares people about jazz. So I was like, wait a second, you mean all this hip stuff I was working out in my jazz things, these aren’t working on I-IV-V pop gigs? I don’t really understand.

So I started transcribing a ton of these different players, and basically I chained myself to the piano. And it’s a very fast way to burn yourself out if you’re just basically transcribing hundreds and hundreds of players and practicing 90 million hours a day. And I was like, okay, who’s got this all under their hands? Who’s somebody who’s able to cross genres and succeed in all these different styles with a bunch of different sole and different techniques?

So I did a lot of searching, and one of those guys who basically was right in front of my face the whole time, and I sort of took him for granted … And finally, I just had this aha moment … was Ray Charles. A lot of people think of Ray as just the iconic singer, but Ray was one of the greatest piano players of the 20th century. Absolutely an innovator in terms of being able to play all these different styles, not only in a soulful way, but in a stylistic way, and sound great in country, pop, rock, blues. He was a killer jazz player. You name it. New Orleans styles. This guy could absolutely do it.

So once I found Ray, I just locked in on Ray, and I just started transcribing him like crazy. And that’s how I got all these different skills together in the different styles.

Christopher: That’s fascinating, and this is why I wanted to have you on the show, because if we took one sentence from what you just said, that Ray Charles was amazing and went across these genres, someone might be tempted to say, well, Ray Charles was one in a million. He was talented, he just had the gift, he could do anything. But I know you’re a music educator who doesn’t have a lot of time for talk of talent, and you have really dissected how Ray Charles did what he did. And so I’d love to understand a bit more how it’s possible that he was able to master all these different genres without presumably spending 100,000 hours on each, transcribing painstakingly, the kind of way you described, and it wasn’t just that he had a preternatural gift for it.

Steve: Yeah. So the concept of the gift, or, oh, so-and-so was born with it, they just have it… That’s not true 99.9% of the time. So anybody who’s listening saying, oh, they’re just naturally talented, or I’ll never have it… You need to let go of that thought. I’ve seen it … We’ve taught millions of people through our website, freejazzlessons.com. We’ve interacted with thousands and thousands of people one-on-one through our training programs, and I can guarantee you that there really is no… The line between working on talent and… working on your craft and natural talent… is complete garbage. Anybody can get good at… If you can learn how to speak, if you speak whatever your language is, your native language, fluently, you can learn how to play your instrument natively as well. It’s just a language. So there’s no such thing as, oh, they were just born with it and I’ll never have it. So I want to make sure we’re addressing that.

Now, second of all, I want to talk a little bit now about simplification of harmony, and this is something that I got when I first started learning from Ray Charles, just sort of this aha moment. So, Christopher, number one chord progression in the history of the world. What is that chord progression?

Christopher: Some kind of I-IV-V.

Steve: Exactly, exactly. I-IV-V. So can I play the piano a little bit in this interview, is that all right?

Christopher: Yeah, go for it.

Steve: Okay, good. So I’ll go into the people’s key here. We’ll go in the key of C here. So, I-IV-V. I’ll just play a major scale, C major scale, just to get everybody’s ears accustomed to what I’m talking about here. So we would go something like this. Everybody’s familiar with that sound right there. Okay, now if I was to play a I-IV-V chord progression… So follow me here, okay? So this would be based off the first note of the scale, the fourth note of the scale, and the fifth note of the scale.

So in this case, in the key of C, it would be C4, because it’s built off of the first note of the scale C … An F chord, ’cause it’s built off the fourth note of the scale. And then a G chord, which is built off the fifth note of the scale, okay?

So we have I-IV-V chord progression. So many different genres of music have this chord progression in there. Now, in jazz, we use a different type of chord progression that’s our most common, and that chord progression is the ii-V-I. And that’s the disconnect that … A lot of people say, oh my god, I’m totally great at playing I-IV-V or playing a blues which is also I-IV-V. But the second that we start getting into ii-V-Is and this jazz stuff, this is crazy. How can I do this?

Well, check this out. This is the first thing I want to talk about. I-IV-V and ii-V-I are actually the same thing. And one of the big takeaways I got from Ray Charles is … so much of chord progressions can really just be simplified and thought of as basically three sounds. A tonic sound, a subdominant sound, and a dominant sound. Is it all right if I break down what I mean by this?

Christopher: Please do, yeah. I’m sure those words are not familiar to everyone listening, so…

Steve: Yeah. And if you’re driving right now listening to this, pull over, write these words down, okay? Or if you’re sitting at your desk, wherever you’re at right now, write these words down, because these are three very powerful words in music. Tonic, subdominant, and dominant. Okay? So follow me here.

Tonic sound is basic the I in the key you’re in. So basically, let me show you what I mean by this. Again, we’re going to the people’s key, the key of C here. So if we’re in the key of C and I play a little chord progression… You hear that resolution, that sound at the very end? That’s tonic. That’s the resolution sound. It means you’ve reached your home base. And if we’re in the key of C, tonic is just the C chord. Simple stuff there, right?

Now, subdominant is known as kind of a transition chord. It’s to get us to set up the very last chord that leads us back to our tonic. So here’s the sound of a subdominant chord, okay? So if we have a subdominant chord, okay, in the key of C, we would have F. That’s our IV chord. Subdominant is IV.

Now, dominant, that’s going to be your V. And in the key of C, that’s going to be G7. G. You can hear it. It’s got that pull. It doesn’t sound like we’re done until we get back to our tonic sound.

Now, check this out. I just broke this down, this concept of tonic, subdominant, dominant, over I-IV-V, a chord progression that most people know. But jazz also has this concept of tonic, subdominant, dominant. And guess what? So does funk. So does blues. So does Latin music. So does pop, so does bluegrass, so does country.

So the reason why I asked everybody to write this down is because all musical chord progressions, as long as you’re in a key, can be simplified in terms of tonic, subdominant, dominant. And this was the big breakthrough I got when I started listening to Ray play all these different styles, is basically, this is how he’s also thinking of harmony as well. So this is why he says, okay, well, I can play this type of sound over a subdominant, and a subdominant might be a little bit different in jazz than it is in blues or rock or whatever, but it’s the same type of thing. So he’s simplifying it. Everything is just basically three types of chords. Does that make sense, or have I lost you?

Christopher: Yeah, no, I think that’s clear. You might have to explain how that tonic, subdominant, dominant maps to the ii-V-I if it is indeed the same thing going on.

Steve: Let’s do it, let’s do it. Love this particular question. So, okay, cool. Going to go back again in the people’s key, and by the way, the person that I got this from, who called this the people’s key, was Chuck Levell, the great keyboard player from the Allman Brothers, and I think he tours with the Stones now, just done so much different stuff.

All right. So here we go. So we had, again, our C chord, our F chord, and our G chord. I-IV-V. So let me introduce you to how basically substitutions work. So chord substitutions are … You just find common notes between the chords. All right? So if I say, well, we’ve got a C chord, which is our I chord, and we have our IV, which is F, well, follow me here. F-A-C. That’s the notes of the IV chord.

Well, let’s look at what a ii chord is. And again, ii is one of those big chords in a ii-V-I chord progression that we see in jazz. So the ii chord is built off the second scale degree. So it would be a D minor in the key of C. So just building the chord off of that.

Well, check this out. D minor is the notes D-F-A. Now, focus on these notes F and A, ’cause they’re the same notes that occur in an F chord, the IV chord, which is F-A-C. This is how basically I-IV-V is the same thing as ii-V-I, because IV, F-A-C, and D minor, D-F-A. So IV and ii are the same. V is V, right, it’s the same thing. And then I is the same thing. So in jazz, we would have a chord progression like D minor, G, C major. That’s a ii-V-I. It’s the same thing as IV-V-I in the key of C.

So the big picture takeaway here is I could go in all kinds of different chord substitutions and different techniques, but basically, they’re all just organized in these three buckets. Tonic, subdominant, and dominants. Pretty cool, right?

Christopher: Very cool. And so how would Ray Charles benefit from that?

Steve: Okay. Well, let me show you a couple examples of what I mean by this. So let’s say I’m playing some bluesy licks that work really nicely over I-IV-V chord progression. So let’s say we do something like this. Actually, I’ll play a IV-V-I chord progression. So let’s say I do something like … Okay, sounds all right, right? Or I would do something like … Okay? Simple stuff, just over a IV-V-I.

But now, I can do the same licks, same type of sounds, over a ii-V-I. Same type. Can you hear that, how it still works? Same thing again I can do over a IV-V-I. Okay?

So again, the reason why this works, and I can do this with basically any chord progression that falls within the bucket of our tonic, subdominant, dominant, is just because it’s all the same stuff. So this is how Ray can play all these different things. For example, here’s the same chord progression. I’m going to use some more advanced chords, but I’m going to use the same sound, okay? Okay? Again, just blues licks, a la style of Ray Charles, over more advanced chords.

But everything I just played, again, was… I wanted to simplify it. It was a tonic sound, an subdominant sound, and a dominant sound.

Christopher: Super cool. That’s a really great demonstration, and I think this is what I found so exciting about the way you presented this, is that if you’re purely in a world of music theory, this all just sounds kind of arbitrary and maybe intellectually interesting, but not all that useful. And if you’re at the other end of the spectrum, just listening to Ray Charles and being like, wow, that guy is amazing, he can play anything and sound good … But somewhere in between, you’ve made this bridge where you’re taking these fairly fundamental, simple music theory concepts, but connecting it directly to this rich music of Ray Charles that we all know and love.

Steve: That’s interesting you say that, because that’s really our big mission statement at freejazzlessons.com. We all know theory, we all were theory geeks in high school or college, and read all the books and things like that. But theory is really just a tool to express yourself and allow your inner musician out, allow your soul out of the piano. And again, it’s just a tool.

So if you aren’t using these techniques and actually using them in the context of real music, understanding how people actually express themselves with these techniques, you’re basically missing the point. I grew up … I was a math geek, I liked that kind of stuff. But most people aren’t. They don’t want to be thinking math. They want to be thinking more right-brain and having fun at the piano.

So that’s what it is. I wanted to take somebody who was a very hip player not only from a theory standpoint, but also from a soul and an expression standpoint, somebody from Ray Charles, and allow people from all kinds of different backgrounds to see his genius and show exactly how he succeeded, how he played all these different genres, to sort of hold my hand out to people no matter where they were, and help them learn how Ray succeeded.

Christopher: Love it. Well, I really wanted to have you on just to cast a light on this principle that we can make jazz accessible, that we can translate across genres, and it boils down to what can be quite simple and easy to understand concepts. So thank you, I think you did a fantastic job of demonstrating that and illustrating it.
I do want to talk specifically about this new course, though. It’s called Play Like Ray, is that right?

Steve: Yeah, exactly.

Christopher: And you partnered up with someone to create this. Bruce Katz?

Steve: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So Bruce Katz was my mentor when I went to the Berklee College of Music about 900 years ago. I won’t say how old I am, but I’m older than I look. But young in spirit. But anyways, Bruce Katz was my mentor at the Berklee College of Music, and I learned a ton from Bruce. I don’t know… I would’ve had some sort of musical career. I don’t think I would’ve had the success I had with touring and playing with a lot of the big names I played with if it wasn’t for Bruce’s guidance.

And so I was very fortunate to be able to work with Bruce. And when I was working with him, i was like, man, this guy is so good. He was famous in New England, and he had been known in certain circles in the blues scene, and a little bit in Europe. But I was like, how come he’s not on the cover of Keyboard Magazine and he’s not touring with the most famous players, because some of the stuff we would do in our lessons … It was insane. I couldn’t believe the sounds he was getting out of the piano.

So my instincts were right on. But they were… My timing was a little bit off. So a couple years after I graduated from Berklee, apparently Greg Allman heard him play somewhere, and scooped him up, and he started touring with Greg Allman, and he got so busy, he couldn’t teach at Berklee anymore. So during this period, Bruce was touring with all these huge names, Delbert McClinton, and he didn’t really have time to teach. And so much of the stuff that we did in our lessons was Ray Charles type stuff, and I was like, man. This completely, completely changed my life.

So when we started to hear from people that… Who are some of your favorite players that you would love to learn, and we take surveys of our audience and things like that, we kept on hearing Ray Charles’s name over and over. Now, I know a lot about Ray Charles, transcribed a ton of his stuff. But that being said, I wanted to partner with Bruce, because Bruce is, from many people’s opinion, the most authoritative teacher out there in terms of Ray Charles’s style. He actually toured with David “Fathead” Newman. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of David “Fathead” Newman before, but David’s the guy who took a lot of the classic sax solos on Ray’s iconic recordings.

So Bruce toured straight up with David “Fathead” Newman. He was playing a lot of the parts that Ray played on the album. He learned the way that Ray thought in terms of just touring with David “Fathead” Newman, plus Bruce was just a monster player and a monster teacher. And I said, you know, man, we’ve gotta bring Bruce into this project, and Bruce absolutely killed it. He’s a monster player, a monster teacher. And so we wanted to work with Bruce, because Bruce is the man when it comes to Ray Charles’s stuff.

Christopher: Amazing. And I think you gave us a little glimpse of the kind of material you might be teaching in this course and what it can do for people, but tell us a bit more about what’s packed in there, and what it can do for players.

Steve: Absolutely. So we talked about, in the very beginning, that in today’s day and age, you have to be able to play lots of different styles of music. I’ve become a little bit more of a specialist later in my career, but when I first started playing, I used to tell people, if you pay me to play, I will do it. So I would play bar mitzvahs, I’d play teeth cleanings if I needed to, just to get my… Any style [crosstalk 00:23:30].

Christopher: I want to go to that dentist.

Steve: I know, right? That would’ve been … That was a fun gig. But anyways, just not only from a financial standpoint that I needed to feed my family, but I also just wanted experience. I wanted to be able to do all these different things. And I grew up in Chicago. We love all these different … metal and reggae and funk and pop. I just wanted to be able to do all these cool things.

So what the course is is it’s really a breakdown of Ray’s playing in all these different styles, and his overall techniques of how he thinks about music. So the first thing we do is we dive deep into some Ray fundamental vocabulary that everybody needs to know. You can instantly throw that into any style. Then after that, we go into his gospel style, how he approached gospel, the different techniques he would use. Interestingly enough, a lot of the vocabulary and the techniques we used … They find themselves in the other genres as well. So there’s little tinges of his gospel stuff that, later on, we also discover he’s using in the jazz chapters. He’s using it as well in some of the blues techniques, and he’s using some of the blues techniques in his gospel playing, and he’s using some of that in his country playing inside the country chapters.

And a lot of people don’t know this, but Ray was a monster jazz player as well. So we have a chapter which breaks down the way he played … He hipped up, dare I say, Bud Powell’s playing. And Bud Powell is one of my heroes when it comes to piano, so it’s had for me to even say that. But Ray had his own unique spin on the bebop style, which is a particular style of jazz. People like Charlie Parker, for example, if you’ve ever heard famous people like that. They were in the bebop era in terms of their style.

So Ray … We break down the way that Ray played that particular style. George Shearing, who’s a very famous jazz piano player as well … We show Ray’s unique approach to block voicings and harmonizing tunes. That’s what we do in country music, blues, gospel, jazz, and we also do New Orleans styles as well.

And the interesting part about all these different techniques is they also can easily be applied to funk and rock. It’s a course of music discovery. Yes, we’re breaking down these specific genres and getting vocabulary, but it’s really about you just expanding your musicality at the piano.

Christopher: Terrific. Well, that really is it in a nutshell. I’m sure some of our listeners are jazz piano players, or aspiring jazz piano players, in which case they definitely have to head to freejazzlessons.com and check out this course. But everyone else listening, I wanted to make sure we had Steve on the show, because hopefully it’s opened your mind and your ears a little bit to this rich idea, both generally speaking, and for Ray Charles specifically, that you can translate across genres, that you can tap into your instinct for music in a way that’s fairly fundamental and doesn’t require starting fresh every time you want to learn a new style.

So, Steve, for those who aren’t listening with a piano next to them, and they want to dive in and do everything you just described, where can they go to learn more and pick up a copy of the course?

Steve: So on October 22, 2018, is the first day the course is being released. And you’ll find it all over freejazzlessons.com on that day. Just go to freejazzlessons.com. You cannot miss it. Click on one of those links, you’ll be able to get access to the course. We’re doing some really cool stuff. Bruce and I, we come from a live touring background, and back in the day, we used to do CD release parties and things like that. So we like to turn a product launch into a party, so we’re doing some very, very, very cool stuff for the first week of the launch as well. We’d like to just have it be a reward for everybody who participates in the launch. So we’ll do some nice special prizes and some gifts and things like that. And I can’t wait to be sharing music further with your audience.

Christopher: Amazing. Well, I’ve certainly been enjoying your prelaunch videos myself, and I already alluded to following your emails as a subscriber. And I fear you may actually tempt me back to the piano with this course, which is a dangerous path, ’cause I meant to be focused on something else. But this, yeah, it sounds phenomenal and very exciting. So just a big thank you, Steve, for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure to have the chance to talk with you, and thank you for sharing with our audience.

Steve: Totally a pleasure of mine, thank you so much, Chris. And thank you for the audience, for hanging out with us, and see you guys again soon.

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