Today we’re joined by Steve Nixon of FreeJazzLessons.com, one of (if not the) top websites for playing jazz piano – though actually it covers some non-jazz material too, and if you’re thinking that jazz means “advanced”, this episode is going to set you straight.
Although Steve specialises in piano, pretty much everything we talk about today applies across all instruments, and most of it is highly relevant outside of jazz too, so whatever instrument and genre you play, you’ll get a lot from this conversation.
Steve has an impressive background as a musician and music educator. After graduating from Berklee College of Music, he played over 1,800 gigs as a professional pianist in over 17 countries around the world, performing with Grammy Award-winning artists such as Koko Taylor and Buddy Guy.
He’s taught over 14,000 piano lessons and created FreeJazzLessons.com, the largest jazz piano education website in the world, which reaches over 60,000 students each month.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Steve’s opinion on the importance of musical talent versus hard work and how much each has contributed to his own enormous success
- His philosophy on improvising – and a cool trick for how you can make your improvisation sound more interesting, even with just a single scale over a single chord
- Plus the importance of rhythm skills and three great tips for how to develop your own sense of rhythm
And if you’re starting to think about getting called on to play Christmas music this year, you won’t want to miss what Steve shares about making the same-old Christmas tunes feel fresh and exciting for your audience.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Steve. Thank you for joining us today.
Steve: Chris, it is absolutely a pleasure to be here with the audience and the fans of the Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Can we start at the beginning of your musical journey. What was it like for you first learning music and becoming a pianist?
Steve: Yeah. So, I played music as a kid, you know, similar to probably a lot of the people who are listening to this, you know, just started exploring an instrument as a young kid and I didn’t really get real serious about music until I was in high school. I actually sang in the choir and — because I thought it was fun and there was, you know, just, good, social stuff going on. I don’t know if it was necessarily because I loved choir music, but it seemed fun, you know, like, a fun little credit hour in the middle of the day. But as we were going through it I started kind of getting interested in the sounds we were making. It started getting really fun. And I remember one time I had a teacher and she tuned a major chord for the very first time and we really locked in as a choir and it was an amazing feeling. I’d never had an experience like that musically before.
I said, “You know what, I want more of this type of feeling,” and I don’t know if it was this really conscious decision, but, just, really having fun in that particular area, I started, you know, playing a little more piano around that time. I picked up a couple of music theory books and started hanging out with the other musicians in my high school. I started buying jazz albums, started trying to figure out some of those things that were going on. So, you know, I got more serious as I got in my late teens. I got thought the point where I actually started getting some pretty decent skills together and ended up going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and practiced my tail off there, worked really, really, really hard, worked with some great instructors there and I made a promise to myself when I first started Berklee. I said, “I will not work a day job again after this,” and I was selling women’s shoes before that. I was working at Borders, Books and Music. I was working retail. I was delivering pizzas. You name it, I was probably doing a part-time job just to pay bills, but I said, “After I graduate Berklee, never again. I’m gonna do full-time music,” and I worked really hard. And, you know, it paid off.
So, I moved back to Chicago after graduating Berklee, started gigging three to five nights a week, pretty much right away, my first week in town and I continued to work hard and kept pushing the envelope practicing, trying to get new gigs, you know, really put my name and my face out there, started getting some nice touring gigs, and the rest is history. You know, I’ve had a really phenomenal music career. I’m really humbled by that. I’m fifteen years as a full-time professional, as of today.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, certainly congratulations on your success. And to hear you tell it like that, it sounds like a very smooth and straight-lined journey. Were there any moments along the way where you maybe had a doubt about whether you had what it took to pursue that career?
Steve: Absolutely. You know, it’s — I mean, I just summed it up in like, two minutes, or however long that took us to do that, but there’s always, you know, it’s a jagged, it’s a jagged journey, you know, there’s plateaus along the way, there’s — “Oh, man, I totally screwed up in that jam session,” the “Oh, God, I didn’t know that many wrong notes existed in music, period,” you know? But you have these moments that maybe don’t go that well, but you learn from them and then the next jam session that happens, you hit less wrong notes, and then, “Oh, wait a second, I’m actually playing okay, here,” and then you start building off of there.
So, you know, there’s always the little pitfalls and little, you know, I hate to use the term, “failures,” but just for lack of better terms, you know, little bumps along the way that, you know, that you learn from and that you progress from there. So it’s not a straight line, at all, you know, but it is consistent. That is actually where the straight line is. Consistently working on your craft.
Christopher: Hm. So, that’s a really interesting point, and you’ve mentioned hard work a few times, there. I think someone listening to that story, you know, of a musician who started early, went to Berklee and excelled there and then was an internationally touring musician would think, “Oh, they must be really talented.” What would you say in terms of how much it was talent versus hard work for you?
Steve: Yeah, that’s a brilliant question. One of my favorite questions, by the way, because I deal with this question quite a bit inside our courses and in our jazz Inner Circle program, as well. You know, students are always asking me, you know, they’re like, “Well, yeah, you know, if I went to Berklee like you,” or, “If I did this,” or “If I was born doing that,” but I’m gonna be honest with you. The separation between my talent, whatever that is, and my hard work, I don’t know even know what that is, okay?
So, I’ve consistently practiced all my life. Um, you know, um, cool, maybe I was a little bit more drawn towards music, maybe my ear was slightly natural, but, great, that gets you, as my Dad will say, you know, a slightly good ear in the beginning plus a cup of coffee. It pretty much leaves you with just a cup of coffee.
So, there isn’t really anything you can do with that particular skill. You have to have really focused, directional activity towards really getting something specific together that you can do with music. So I don’t think there’s any separation. I don’t know where one begins or one ends, um, especially if you’re being progressive as a musician and you’re trying to work on something very specific, musically. You need to practice.
Christopher: Awesome. I think that’s terrific to hear from such a successful jazz musician, in particular, because I think maybe jazz, more than other genres, people assume requires a gift or a talent, or, you know, preternatural abilities by ear, and so it’s wonderful to hear that for you, you know, talent may be a part of the mix, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite for success in jazz.
Steve: No, and, as a matter of fact, I’ve worked with a lot of students over the years who do not have what many people would call traditional, natural talent, you know? They weren’t, you know, born and then all of a sudden, fifteen seconds later they can play Mozart in all twelve keys. That’s just not how it works. But they’re intentional with their practice, they’re organized, they listen to the advice of people, you know, their instructors and the courses they buy, people that have been there before. They do the work, and then all of a sudden, you know, what’s that old saying? You know, “I’m an overnight success fifteen years in the making,” you know?
So, you know, there’s — you can do great things with music and really unlock what we would call natural talent through your hard work, you know. Everybody has a voice and a passion and a way that they can communicate. Everything — everybody has something to say at their instrument, you just have to get the technical skills to let it out.
Christopher: So it sounds like, for you, jazz was a passion from the beginning and I think that’s really interesting because a lot of musicians feel a bit intimidated by jazz and they think maybe, you know, it takes five years of learning before you’re ready to start learning jazz because it’s a more advanced genre than other styles like pop and rock. How much truth do you think there is to that, and what advice would you maybe have for someone who’s in that position of wanting to learn jazz but worrying that they’re not good enough yet to begin?
Steve: So, first of all, I totally disagree that you can’t learn jazz at an early stage. The only thing you want to do is just want to make sure that you’re getting trained in the right way from the beginning. If you try doing it entirely by yourself, yes, it may take you five years to just get there, but, like, working with a program, working with a great teacher, you know, there’s so many great educational opportunities available today. Having someone map out a simple plan for you to say, “Okay, listen. You know, there’s certain things that you need to have in place in order to sound fairly decent. And I’m not talking about that you’re Oscar Peterson or Charlie Parker or John Coltrane in one year. That takes some time, maybe to get to that virtuosic level, but to be able to to, like, play some songs, know some chords, sound good, have fun, progress in the art form, impress a few people if you wanted to, right, do something with music, you know, that can be accomplished fairly quickly, but it comes down to having the right tools and education.
Christopher: Mm-hm. And on that note, you’re very modest to not self-promote there, but I know you do have a beginner’s jazz course available on freejazzlessons.com. Can you give us a glimpse of what kind of stuff you cover there and what, for you, would be those major things that a teacher should be guiding you through?
Steve: Yeah. So, the name of the program is actually, “The Zero to Jazz Piano Hero” course, and you can take a look at that. You can get it at freejazzlessons.com/beginner. And we designed that course because we knew there was — just like you were asking me — there were certain things that every player needs to know in order to play this style of music, and, essentially, what it is, is it’s teaching you from — jump from the beginning, like, “Hey, I know the names of the notes on the piano.”
Okay, so, pretty much — what is that? Like, maybe lesson number two? You know, like, really a beginner step, to being able to play songs you love in only thirty, sixty days. So we teach people all the chords they need to know, how to practice, chord progressions, how to wiggle their fingers in time, right, make sure they’re having fun along the way. Actually, we teach you how to transpose, as well.
So, if you ever had a problem where, you know, you say, “Great. I can nail this in the key of C, but –” or, “I’m a prince in the key of C, but I’m a pauper in the key of D flat, just a half-step higher,” you know. We want to make sure that you don’t have problems, so we teach people how to play things in all the keys and how to practice it. We have jam tracks in there, so you’re having fun along the way as well, and the goal of the program is to be able to play every fundamental jazz chord and the most important chord progressions in the context of great jazz standards, and we have a step-by-step system to teach you how to do it. It’s just not like, “Here you go. You’re in the program. Good luck, kid. We’ll see you some other time,” you know. It’s a — we have a clear goal and a method to get you to that ending point, right there.
Christopher: I think that’s super valuable, because I think part of what makes jazz overwhelming and intimidating is this amazing history of jazz musicians and the different heroes of jazz and the huge number of standards that are, you know — a pro jazz musician is expected to know and if you don’t have that guidance or structured course available, it’s really hard to know how to immerse yourself and not have to, just, drown in all of the music theory and all of the history and all of the expertise that you might one day hope to have.
Steve: Yeah. If you start talking to some people, especially if you go on some of these forums, you know, and you read for, like, seven hours, you need to know fifteen thousand tunes in every scale in every key and you need to know it right now or don’t even try playing this music, and that’s crazy, man. That’s just, you know, that’s — nobody gets it together that quickly. It’s not needed to do all that stuff, yet. Maybe over a lifetime, but this is an art form and there’s things you can do, smart, actional things you can do to get there right away, so, um, you know, it’s intimidating.
I think, though, if you’re — again, I keep saying this — if you’re intentionally smart about how you practice, you have the right method, you can make progress with clear, tangible, smaller goals right away and slowly get that stuff together over the course of time, right?
Christopher: Fantastic. So, one huge topic in jazz, is, obviously, improvisation and any jazz musician is expected to be able to take a solo at some point in a track. There’s maybe a debate or a divide among musicians as to whether improvising — particularly in jazz — should be heavily intellectual and based on theory and really understanding the scales and harmony or whether it’s something where you do some ear training or you naturally have an incredible ear and you just kind of pluck the notes by instinct. Where would you say you fall on that spectrum or what would your opinion be on the relative importance of those two?
Steve: Okay. So, first of all, man, this is like, the most exciting question I’ve ever had on a podcast…
Steve: …because it’s near and dear to my heart, because ultimately, with as much stuff as I’ve done with music, I truly think, like, at the end of the day, I’m an improviser. Like, that is what I am at the piano. It’s the thing that most excites me, right? And so, really, if you just sort of think about it, okay, let’s pretend that none of us know anything about music. We’ve never played an instrument before. We don’t know what major chord is. We don’t know what a practice technique is. We don’t know music theory. Like, nobody says to the teacher when they line in, “I can’t wait to learn my scales and all twelve keys. I’ve always been fascinated with what a major 7 sharp 5 chord is,” right? “How do we do a tri-tone substitution?” Nobody is asking these questions.
What they really are starting with is, they’re saying, “Listen. I love music. It makes me feel really good. I go out to concerts. I see the artists are having fun when they’re playing their instrument. I want that feeling, too. I want to be closer to the emotional impact of music and all the cool things it can do.” Right?
So, if our goal — and we have all started there; we can never forget as teachers and as artists — if our goal is to enjoy ourselves, get deeper and maybe learn more about spirituality or ourselves, and be able to express ourselves at the instrument, we need certain tools available. So notice, Chris, I started from more of a spiritual, holistic, expression standpoint and this is the ultimate goal. This is the end journey, here. But we need certain technical skills in order to get there so we do feel free at our instrument, right? So it is helpful to know scales. It is helpful to know chords, right? It is helpful to be able to use your ear and understand the pitches.
You know, I know you guys do a lot of ear training here, and, you know, to understand scale degrees and to be able to hear those differences, right, to be able to hear chord substitutions, right, to be able to play melodies that you are hearing in your head and get them out, the things that are in your heart and in your head and be able to get them out on your instrument, right? And that’s where the technical skill comes into play, as well.
So, you know, as much theory as you can learn, as much ear training stuff and the discipline in a structured way as you can get, the better. I’m not a fan of saying, like, “Oh, you know, you shouldn’t learn anything technical,” because the technical stuff has helped me get out what I talked about was that end goal, that expression and being able to put how I see the world and connect with people through my keys and through my heart, you know, and through my fingers at the instrument.
Christopher: Awesome. I think that’s a really clear and inspiring philosophy of improvisation. I love that.
Steve: Thanks. Thanks. Yeah. It’s a, you know, again, it’s a passion of mine. You know, the more I learn about music from a technical angle, the more I can be me at the piano, if that makes sense. So, you know, for everybody listening to that, you know, don’t be afraid of — sometimes people are a little bit afraid of — oh, I don’t — any natural talent that I have. “If I learn too much music theory, this’ll be ironed out,” and they find, like, the — for example, Paul McCartney, you know, he calls a major seventh chord “the pretty chord,” right? And so, he doesn’t know, technically, a lot of music theory. So, a lot of times, people point to Paul McCartney, or the exception to the rule, and they say, “Well, Paul McCartney didn’t know this. I don’t need to do this.” But, you know, here’s the thing. Paul may not have known technical music theory, but he had done an incredible amount of organization in his own mind in terms of how the music worked. He may have used different words, but it is organized in his mind. He does have a theory component, just not necessarily in a traditional way. And again, he’s the exception to the rule, when you have people like that. There’s — most great artists are trained. You know, they have had lessons. They’ve studied music. They’ve gone and worked on specific musical elements.
Christopher: Absolutely, yeah. I 100% agree with that. So you were recently a guest on the Learn Jazz Standards podcast and I loved listening in on your conversation with Brent, there, and…
Steve: Shout out to Brent!
Christopher: …one thing that really stood out to me in that conversation was your emphasis on rhythm as a skill that a lot of musicians need to develop and is often the biggest weak point. I’d love if you could just share a bit of what you think about the importance of rhythm and how you think a musician can go about getting a better sense of rhythm and sense of the groove.
Steve: Yeah. So, here’s — I’ve got some sad but true stories in relation to the discoveries I made about rhythm. So, you know, like most musicians, when you decide, “Okay, well, I’m serious. I really want to get a go of this, and I really want to improve my skills.” And this is actually, you know, I talked about it, in high school, how I — when I started getting serious. So, finally, I got the discipline together and I started practicing approximately two hours a day, and what I was doing was — okay, well, so, if you ask most people, even if they don’t know anything about music, “What’s the first thing that you think about?” and they say, “Well, music has scales.” And even if they don’t know the scales, like, this is the first thing. So, of course, that was the first thing that I went towards, right? And I played sports as a kid, and I was like, “Okay, well, you know –” and maybe it was the fact that I was a young male, as well, I wanted to be able to, you know, wiggle my fingers fast and be impressive with the keys. So I’m like, “All right, well, I’m going to practice my scales. I’m going to practice my arpeggios. I’m going to do it in all twelve keys, ’cause I heard you’re supposed to do that, right, I’m going to practice my Czerny exercises,” right, which are these technical exercises that we do on piano, “I’m going to practice my hand exercises,” and I would do, like, every scale I’d ever heard in my life. Every key. Go crazy.
I’d practice for, like, two hours, but, like, an hour and forty minutes of it was just technical work, because this is all I knew. I didn’t know any better. And then, you know, my chest is puffing up. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m really committed and disciplined in practicing music here, right? I’m really good.” And I go to my first jam sessions, I know some chords and some scales, and I get my butt kicked, man, you know? Like, I didn’t have the stuff together that you need.
So, what do you need when you go to a jam session? Well, you have to be able to lock in with other musicians. You have to be able to play in time. Cool, great, Stevie, you know chords, but can you put them together cohesively in a chord progression in time, can you keep form, do you understand what really is involved in music? And the answer is, and I can keep going, here, but, “No, no, no, no, no, no,” I didn’t have any of these skills, right?
So, finally, after a while, after getting your butt kicked, you say, “You know what? Maybe I’m not doing this right,” okay? So, at that point I realized rhythm was incredibly important. There was certain technical things in terms of organizing the stuff and putting it in time. And the more I started getting into jazz and transcribing and talking to players that were better than me, the more I realized that rhythm was a huge part of all of this stuff.
Okay. Great. I know how to mix a Lydian scale, but can I groove with it? Can I keep people entertained? Can I do something impactful where people are jumping up from their seats in the crowd, when I’m just jamming through one scale and the answer, again, on all that was no, but as I started working I was able to eventually do that. And I told this story on the podcast that you mentioned earlier, but, you know, I’ve been on international tours, and I’m not going to mention the names of the artists specifically, but these are people who’ve sold platinum level recordings and been on huge, huge, huge albums, people that your audience would know and they don’t know the notes on their instrument, okay? They maybe know the blue scale pentatonic box if there’s any guitar players listening to this, right? There’s a pattern that all guitar players learn on their instruments. It’s a box and you can really kind of — it’s a simple way to, kind of, create some, like, one-on-one level solos.
So they may know that, but what they do have, even though they don’t know anything about music theory or anything else, is, they have incredible groove and incredible rhythm and audiences eat that stuff up, man, and they’ve sold millions of albums. And you’re saying, “How can you do that if you don’t know the notes on your instrument?” But it comes down to what we connect with on the most fundamental, basic level as human beings is rhythm, first and foremost.
Now, I’m not saying that pitch is not important. It is important. Chords, pitch, music theory, that stuff is important, too, but everything lays on the foundation of groove. You can know all the music theory in the world, but if you don’t have great rhythm, the ability to play it in time and in a way that feels good for your audience, it negates 99% of it.
Christopher: That’s a really valuable insight. So, having identified, maybe, that weakness in your own skillset and the importance of rhythm and groove from the artists you were playing with and admiring, what did you do? What did you do about it? How did you approach this task of getting better at that?
Steve: Yeah. So, like, the simplest, easiest thing that people can do, is just — and there is definitely a more advanced regimens and I’ll share them in a second. But if you are currently not practicing with a metronome, anybody listening to this recording, please do right away, okay? And if you absolutely hate metronomes, you say, “This is — the metronome is the devil,” right? Then play with a professional level jam track.
And that’s one of the things we actually have in our Premium Jazz Membership program, is, we put these professional level jam tracks that make it more fun so you’re, you know, you have the ability to learn rhythm while jamming with other musicians at the same time, right, bass and drums, it’s more fun. But you have to make sure that you’re playing with a consistent time keeping device, right, and that’s going to immediately make you jump up if you practice every day with a metronome for the rest of your life, your rhythm will 5X, you know. So — because I know that people, you know, a lot of people who listen to this and probably go, “Oh well, you know, I’ve practiced with a metronome, like, ten years ago, once. Doesn’t that count?” Like, no, not enough, you know, like, please do more than that.
So, um, the other things I did was I started transcribing a lot. Now, the term, “transcription,” in jazz, you know, a lot of people think, “Well, you wrote it out, right?” Yes, but that’s not the first step. What I’m really doing is, in transcription with jazz, we play along with the recordings first, and then later on, I’ll write it out, but, like, you know, man, if I want to learn groove and I want to learn great rhythm, I’m going to play along with the best of the best. So I start playing along with the Miles Davises, right? I start playing along with Oscar Peterson. I started playing along with Charlie Parker, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, even my rock guys. Bruce Hornsby, man. I wanna learn how he’s phrasing his rock stuff. I play along with him, as well, and, inevitably, that improved my rhythm, as well, right?
Now, the last thing that I did, which was really important, was, I acknowledged where I was at. I had a, you know — just, not pretending that, like, it wasn’t important. I said, “You know, man, I want to learn from people who are better than me.” So I started playing with musicians who were better than me. And I wasn’t afraid to, like, be the worst guy in the band. I mean, you know, I don’t want to be the best. I want to be in situations with people who are better than me so I can learn from them, right? So I did that as well, um, you know, I started trying to get gigs where people were better than me and I worked really hard behind the scenes to make sure that I could hang, right? Um, so, inevitably, man, you play with a great drummer, right, they’re gonna help your time, as well, or a musician who’s better than you.
Um, and then, you know, I guess part B of that is also making sure that you’re working with great teachers, as well, who also have great rhythm. And that’s really important to me. This is why in our Jazz Inner Circle program, which is a private coaching program that we have, every teacher on there has either been Grammy-nominated. They’ve been on at least 50 tours throughout their life, right, they’re playing with A-list level players, um, you know, they’ve been on platinum recordings. You know, we want to make sure that we’re hooking our students up with the best of the best so they can also learn from them, as well. So, working with great teachers is hugely important, as well. So, I realize I just dropped a ton of information on you and so I hope that’s what you’re lookin’ for, there.
Christopher: Absolutely. I think there was some really valuable recommendations, there, for a topic that is often, often just seems a bit fuzzy, you know. People can know they’re a bit loose on rhythm, or they need to get better at creating a groove, but I think it’s often very hard for them to know how to go about that and I think you just gave a few really great tips for how people can improve that side of things.
Steve: Yeah. So, for everybody listening to this right now, please, please, please make your audience happy. Make me happy. Make Chris happy. Make yourself happy. Work on your rhythm. You will not regret it.
Christopher: So, you touched on, there, the sort of range of experts you have contributing at freejazzlessons.com and I wanted to talk a little bit about a couple of your products, your courses, there. One is — well, we touched on one already, the Zero to Jazz Piano Hero course, but the two I wanted to talk about now were your most recent release, which is the Jazz Improvisation Supersystem, and I believe that’s a collaboration with a world-leading artist, is that right?
Steve: Yeah. Um, so, what that is, is that is an A to Z jazz improvisation course, and, um, what I did was — so, just from my years of touring, I feel like I’m sort of the conduit or the bridge between the students, right, people out there who are really serious about music. They want to get better, they don’t have 20 hours a day to practice. And then the people who are out there professionally playing this stuff on a high level, you know, because I have always been a gigger, you know, I’ve been out there touring for years, myself, but I’m also really passionate about education and so, I wanted to — I’ve just met so many great players over the years in my years of being on the scene and on the tours, and, just, people who would absolutely blow your mind when they sit down with their instrument, right? Like, I loved their playing. So I wanted to start bringing more of those type of players in and helping the students be able to learn from them, as well, but also getting that information in a step-by-step way and in the special way that we do it at freejazzlessons.com. So, I’m sort of that bridge in between.
And one of my favorite players that I’ve ever heard play is, just, a genius improviser. He’s a man by the name of David Garfield, and a lot of your listeners will probably know David. He is the musical director for George Benson. He’s been on hundreds of recordings. He’s been on, you know, he’s a top L.A. studio musician. David Sanborn, he’s played with Natalie Cole, Freddie Hubbard. If you have any rock fans out there, he’s played with Boss Skaggs, Eddie Van Halen, for your, you know, 80’s shred guitar fans out there, right? Man, he’s played with so many people. Manhattan Transfer. I mean, the list goes on and on and I just truly love the way that David plays piano.
And so, what we did is, we flew David in to our studio and we filmed a course together and we documented his whole improvisation approach, his method, how he improvises over a variety of chords, chord progressions, how he thinks about things, how he comes up with licks, how he solved musical situations, and how he improvises over great jazz standards. The thing — the cool thing about this program is that he teaches it in a way that you can also apply this information to other instruments so it’s not just the piano base course, and then he also teaches in a way where you can apply the same information if you’re playing other styles of music. Blues and rock, you know, he teaches it in this special way, so — and that’s really the goal of all our programs, Chris, is just to make sure that, you know, that people can take this one skill and apply it to a thousand different areas, so we’re really proud of that course. It’s actually been our — we just released it October 2 of 2017 and I’m floored by this, but it’s our best-selling course so far of this whole year. People have gobbled it up. They really are enjoying it. So, it’s pretty exciting.
Christopher: Wow. Well, I think there’s one really remarkable thing about it, from what I’ve seen and that is, I think it’s easy to hear a description of an A to Z jazz course like that and think, “Okay, there’s going to be lesson after lesson and maybe by the end of it, I’ll become a pretty decent jazz musician, but you’ve been sharing these great preview videos with little excerpts from the course and they really hammer home how just a simple concept can really have an immediate and quite dramatic impact on how you approach jazz or how you approach improvising, and, you know, one that stood out to me was about the mixolydian scale and how you can relate scales to chords in your improvising. Can you share a little bit about that with the audience?
Steve: Yeah. Absolutely. So, check this out. All right. So, for those of the audience who do not know what a mixolydian scale is, so mixolydian is simply just a major scale, right? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. So if we’re in the key of C, it would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, right? Simple major scale. And it’s the same formula except for one note is different, okay? The seventh note of the scale is flat, and so it’s a C, D, E, F, G, B, A, B flat, as opposed to B natural, see, and you can apply that same pattern as one, two, three, four, five, six, flat seven, and then one again and that’s your octave. So, um, this is a scale that you can use, and there’s lots of scales, but it’s one of the simple scales that you can play over a dominant seventh chord, right?
Now, inside each scale, no matter what scale you’re in, there’s a variety of chords that you can access inside each scale, so, you know, we talked about the C mixolydian scale. Well, inside there, there’s a C chord, C, E, G, there’s also the notes, D, F, A inside that chord as well, which is a D minor chord. So you can start going through these different scales and you can start building melodies with chords, with little arpeggios just from the scale, itself. So you’re sort of painting different chord progressions on top of one chord and it’s really, really beautiful sound. It’s super fun, and you’ll hear so many great players do this in their improvisation, people like — I mentioned Bruce Hornsby earlier, right? Barry Harris. Chick Corea does stuff like this, right? You’ll hear people like Bud Powell do things like this, you know, the list goes on and on, and Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s a modal way, a vertical modal way of improvising, and I don’t want to get too ahead of your audience, just in case, you know, they’re not super-advanced. But the simple takeaway there is, there’s lots of cool chord stuff you can get from one scale, and David really, you know, David and I, we would really break down all these little, cool nuggets you can get from scales and chords and things like that in the course.
Christopher: We’ll definitely put a link in the show notes to the page where you share those preview videos and I’d recommend anyone listening to go and check out that one and actually hear it in practice, because it’s just, it’s such a powerful idea, you know, it’s simple enough, but a lot of people wouldn’t think that they’re, kind of, allowed to play different chords over the current chord in the progression and once you hear how it works, it immediately makes sense, and you can see how you could use that in your improv.
You his another one, too, about playing outside of the chord progression that, again, was just that, kind of, lightbulb insight that would let anyone quite quickly improve their improvisation, so, yeah. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes, and definitely go and check out those previews and see if the course might be useful for you.
The other course I really wanted to touch on just because it is December time, and a lot of people, musicians of all stripes, but I think really pianists in particular are going to be called on to play some Christmas music sometime soon and you have a dedicated course to help people play Christmas traditional music in a jazz style. I’d love if you could just share some insights on what makes the difference between, kind of, the traditional Christmas hymns and carols and approaching it with a jazz mindset and how you teach it in that course.
Steve: Yeah. Absolutely. So, the name of the course is, The Christmas Jazz Piano Supersystem, and the reason why I developed this course is, you know, getting a gigging musician and, you know, out there, and for those of you guys who are not professionals but oftentimes in late November and early December, especially if you are a guitar player or a piano player, like, you’re out there doing, like, Christmas gigs like crazy. People want to hear Christmas music. And, you know, I pay attention to the audience, you know, I want to see what they’re reacting to and early on in my career, I would get, sort of, these, you know, Christmas fake books, and I’d just sort of play the tunes fairly straight and I noticed that people were like, you know, polite golf-clap and they liked it okay, but it wasn’t really that interesting, because they’d heard the same darn arrangements. You know, if you’re in your forties or in your thirties you’ve heard these arrangements that everybody’s playing with the same chords for 25 years and you’re not really getting people’s attention, right? So, you know, as musicians, we want to do stuff that’s fun and is interesting, and, of course, we want to do stuff that people relate and enjoy, so when I — the next year, I was like, “I gotta do something about this, you know, I gotta start, like, doing some reharmonizations, let’s put some cool chords in there, let’s do some things that are gonna catch people’s attention.
So I started, you know, kind of mapping out some different chords and ideas and putting in some jazz rhythms and syncopations and things like that, and all of a sudden, people were, like, coming up to me and standing around the piano, and so, “Okay, I think I got something, here,” like, “apparently this is resonating with people out there. ” So, what I ended up doing was, I started building out a bunch of different arrangements of these classic Christmas hymns, and so, that’s what this course is. I just documented the chords, all of the different arrangement techniques, the syncopations, the different concepts that I’m using to take, just, you know, bland Christmas chord changes and Christmas tunes and make them more exciting in a jazz style of music.
And so, you know, not only do you get sheet music and everything is written down, but I’m breaking down, step-by-step, all the chords. I’m showing you the voicings, the rhythms. I’m always going to show people example performances of what I’m doing so that if they’re more ear players they can, you know, watch and press rewind on the video and see me doing it at half speed, right? But I also want to let you know what I’m doing. It’s not just, like, “Here you go. Play this chord. Don’t ask any questions,” you know? Like, that’s not teaching, right? You want to make sure that you’re making people a better musician through studying the stuff that you’re doing, so that’s what this program is. We go step-by-step through all of these different Christmas classics and it’s a double discourse. I’m extremely proud of it and, yeah, I think we launched that in 2014, 2015. It’s sort of what we call an evergreen course, it’s sort of timeless and every year we sell a bunch of copies of that, as well. So, thanks for asking about that.
Christopher: Cool. Well, I definitely recommend our listeners to go check that out if they want to spice up their Christmas playing this year.
Steve: Yeah. And I forgot to mention, you can actually get a copy of that course at freejazzlessons.com/Christmas.
Christopher: Awesome. Well, we will have a link to that and everything else we’ve talked about in the show notes of this episode. Thank you so much for joining us, today, Steve. It’s been a real pleasure.
Steve: Chris, it is truly my pleasure. Thank you everybody who stuck around and listened to my story and I hope you got some value out of it and I really appreciate you spending the time with us.