review by Stephen M. Stroff
The present volumes represent what may be fairly called his life’s work. It is a massive undertaking, spanning at least 16 years and every facet of piano jazz from simple blues and boogie to complex free-form improvisations. Along the way, Reilly provides generous samplings of his own compositions, improvisations and/or embryonic fragments to both guide and prod the student.
The most interesting and frightening aspect of this course of instruction is that it is much denser, and more complex, than first meets the eye. Although Reilly has a working familiarity with the studies of major classical pedagogues, the Alfred Cortot method of technique, Paul Hindemith’s ear training and Arnold Schoenberg’s theory of harmony, their use is this course is more subtle than overt. In other words, Reilly feeds that student only as much of this massive feast as he/she needs at any given time, but with each successive “lesson” the dose is increased exponentially.
Vol. 1, The Blues Form, concentrates on simple rhythmic structures – boogie and stride – over which the student learns to construct melodies based on the pentatonic scale and its auxiliary tones, simple intervals (2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 9th), the dominant seven-nine chord, minor 9ths and minor 9th flat 5, widening dissonances and two-part improvisations based on the 8th note motif. Finally, we graduate from blues to stride, working on rhythm etudes of various types. Lester Young’s famous Blue Lester solo is analyzed for patterns of motif, blues scale, pentatonic scale and chord tones. Following this the student is encouraged to apply similar trains of thought to preset raw material in both 3/4 and 4/4.
As you can imagine, this is a very dense course of study for a beginner, denser by far than the comparatively “simple” task of dissecting and inverting Bach fourpart chorales given to most first-year harmony students in colleges and universities. The tasks involved become even more difficult when the student is asked to assimilate the rhythmic and harmonic principles involved and create (i.e. compose) original music.
Difficult as this is, however, the student has just begun his journey.
Vol. 2, The Song Form, takes one deep into the woodshed that Bill Evans used to improvise: three-note voicings, their inversions and additions (9th, 11th, 13th); open and modal voicings; modal stride and bebop forms; the minor seven-nine chord; and then, transposition to different keys which allow slightly different chord positions. “Pivot” chords are given for harmonic flexibility; melodic etudes based on Lester Young and Charlie Parker solos are analyzed for melodic progression in the compositional sense; and then, we go back through the entire process in four-note voicings.
As Darius Brubeck points out in his excellent introduction to Vol. 2, this book is not primarily intended as a course of “study” in and of itself. It is, rather, a fake book for the mind – a way of prodding the experienced, working jazz musician into hitherto unthought-of realms. Because most pianists are also arrangers, and because most arranging is built on piano chords, this volume can also be used as a guide book for advanced arranging techniques. Indeed, it is hard to overemphasize the intelligence and wisdom that went into the planning and layout of this volume.
Vol. 3, The Free Form, takes the student into the nether world of spontaneous creation. But Reilly is not Cecil Taylor: he does not believe in the “free form” of chaos, but in a free-form based on sound compositional structures. In his line of reasoning, Reilly would question the choice of a chord substituted in a standard song only because it is “different” and fit the melody note. He would also strongly challenge the intrusion, or interference, of abstract, atonal “free-form” cadenzas in a piece that had not been set up for them. Reilly’s sense of structure is all-embracing, and overrides any freaked-out “emotionalism” that the improvising musician may use as an excuse for noxious noises.
This volume is, to put it bluntly, a bitch. Even serious professional musicians never get as far as Book 3, and by Reilly’s own admission few if any of his pupils get through it. We are talking, here of tonal and polytonal studies, chromatic harmony etudes, and improvisation exercises on ground basses (in tonal/atonal/polytonal figurations), angular polytonal melodic fragments, two-part (jazz) inventions, eight-part chorales and a Fantasy for Woodwind Quintet and Piano in which the keyboard part is improvised! As if to emphasize structure, Reilly also recommends that students practice the inventions, suites, toccatas, partitas, and preludes and fugues of Bach as well, then move on to Hindemith’s Ludis Tonalis.
Vol. 3, all by itself, could take a diligent student 20 years to master – and some never do, even after all that time – despite the fact that it only deals with free-form spontaneous composition in jazz forms, to wit, the blues, the song and ABA. But Reilly doesn’t stop there. He recommends that these three volumes, and possibly even the 11 Jazz Chorales written between 1969 and 1989 and published separately, be included in a 10-year course with the Cortot technique book, all scales and modes, the etudes of 11 classical pedagogues from Czerny to Stravinsky, Schoenberg’s harmony, ear training from texts by Hindemoth and Lard Edlund, and transcribing solos by Parker, Young, Coltrane, Evans and Armstrong.
All of which brings us to the million-dollar questions. Is this too much to take? Doesn’t all the pedagoguery crush spontaneity? And, plain and simple, isn’t this overkill?
The answers are, yes and no. Yes, it is overkill if the student wasted his or her time to learn all of this, and at the end of even, say, three years shows no proclivity or talent for spontaneous composition. A diligent but untalented student will remain untalented despite his diligence, or the best efforts of Mr. Reilly. It is also overkill if the student cannot feel anything of himself, which is to say anything original and NOT written out for him or her, and at several points in these texts Reilly exhorts the student to play as they “feel,” to make sure the music they are composing sounds “right” to them.
It is not overkill, however, if the prospective student takes this course one book at a time, one lesson at a time, and decides at any given point that this is as far as their talent and knowledge can take them. And therein lies the genius of the whole enterprise.
A moderately talented pianist with a fairly inquisitive mind, and a desire to learn something about jazz, will enjoy Book One. Whether or not said student progresses to Book Two is up to them. Once started, there is no prodding or pressure to finish Book Two. Indeed, it is highly recommended that this volume be perused in the company of a trained tour guide, i.e. a teacher, and that the student take it as far as their talent allows them to.
As for Vol. 3, its mere existence is a miracle. Never before have I seen the intricacies of complex spontaneous composition explained in so coherent and logical a manner. Of course, the student who embarks on this particular journey had better bring along a sleeping bag, good shoes and a year’s supply of food. You’re going to be there a while, believe me. But if you have the wit and the talent to come out the other end, you will be among the few – the gifted – the chosen. You will be a Master. Vol. 3 is the musical equivalent of Zen archery. It tells you how to learn to aim for the bulls-eye, but not exactly how to hit it.
Obviously, these are not books for casual readers or even casual keyboard tinklers. They are heavy material, recommended primarily for serious students, professional musicians, conservatories and libraries. But they are worth their weight in gold.
Jack Reilly shouldn’t teach at a music college or a conservatory. He should BE a music college or conservatory. He has the vision, the energy and the rare ability to communicate. These books are proof of that.
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Jack Reilly is an official Steinway artist
Photography by: Joe Kirkish. Photo manipulation and montages: Keffier Adkins