by Dr. Joel Simpson

Dave McKenna’s music has a special quality of reassurance. All the elements in his playing-lines, rhythm, dynamics, harmony-work together to create a warm feeling that we are in capable hands, that we can relax and be borne up by the music. Everything develops organically, even the surprises: key changes and tempo changes. It’s this overriding quality which draws the ear in, inviting us to give our state of consciousness over to this master of rhythmic strength and subtlety, of organic growth, of buoyant unexpected turns.

As a self-sufficient solo style, McKenna’s is one of the most effective and appealing. His left hand, with its strong assertion of the 4/4 beat, is a perfect foil for the rhythmic variety of his right hand, including the slight pushing and pulling of the beat. His melodic sense in the right hand is infallible: perfectly logical, often singable, and therefore needless of pyrotechnics. In the rare case of his use of a double-time run, it is a necessary one, often serving to finish off a phrase by bridging a large intervallic gap in a short time. The more you learn of his style, the more you will be assured of satisfying your audiences at a deep level,

of drawing them into your music with the confidence that they will be well taken care of.

For all of McKenna’s appeal and popularity, there is a virtual absence transcribed material of his available in published form. Part of that is due to the artist himself. McKenna is so particular about his sound that he frowns on transcriptions and methods which would claim to impart his style.

But with the caveat that any printed transcription is necessarily only part of the story, we present one here.

The original performance was on a Yamaha Disklavier in New York, and the only recording made at that time was a MIDI one. This I transcribed both by listening and by watching the screen of my Opcode Vision program. In this article I will point out a number of the salient features of McKenna’s style and sound, both those that appear on the page and those that don’t.

The Elements of Style

The features that make McKenna’s solo style so good are for the most part features that will enhance any piano style, solo or ensemble. Globally there are four basic principles:

  1. Volume: Keep the right hand about 1-2 levels louder than the left hand, unless there is some specific emphasis on a left-hand element. This presumes that you can create four to five distinct levels of volume in your playing.
  2. Line shape: Balance long phrases with shorter ones, and anticipatory phrases with consequential ones. Anticipatory phrases are those which lead up to a target note falling on an important beat, usually the first beat of an odd-numbered measure. Consequential phrases are those which flow out from those beats. See below for examples from the score.
    A balance between these two creates a flowing call-and-response texture, much more nuanced than the literal call and response found in traditional blues. If you are aware of these factors then your sense of balance between long and short phrases will be more solid. Occasional play a stentorian quarter-note-beat phrase for contrast.
  3. Rhythmic nuance: use anticipation and delays to lend weight to your lines. The right-hand comp chords invariably fall on the “ands,” the anticipatory eighth-note beats. This pushes the music forward and adds a kind of “bouncing” eighth-note effect, filling in eighth-note beats but making them come from different places, making for a textural continuity but with distinctive shape.
  4. Left hand: When strumming, vary the chord somehow (change chord, chord voicing or chord inversion) every two beats.

Although McKenna is famous for his “three-handed” playing, in which he somehow manages to play a walking bass in the left hand, a melodic line in the right and comp in the middle, he seemed to spend more time in our session playing in a left had “strumming” style. This is both easier to execute and harmonically richer, if less subtle. The “Rose Room” performance transcribed here features strumming virtually throughout, with some occasional forays into stride.

In order to maintain interest McKenna usually changes chord voicing every two beats, that is twice a measure, even if the chord stays the same.  He’ll alter the voicing or even just the inversion. This produces a very energetic effect, even at medium and slow tempos.

A Close Reading

Click here to view transcription

Here are some notes on the score, including a close examination of the second half of the first chorus to illustrate the organic quality of McKenna’s improvising style.

  1. Notice how quickly McKenna abandons the melody. He’s varying the still recognizable melodic phrase in m. 6, briefly strays from it until m. 13, but that’s the last we hear of it until the second half of the last chorus.
  2. The phrase that begins on the “and” of three in m. 15 and extends to the end of m. 17 is a perfect example of a phrase balancing anticipation with consequence. Its fulcrum is the Bb at the beginning of m. 17, the beginning of the second half of the form, a very important beat. The 11 notes preceding it are the preparation or anticipation, the seven notes following it are consequence, out-flow. Notice how McKenna follows it with two short phrases: a response, and then a response to the response, mm. 18 through beat 1 of m. 20.
  3. Immediately after this, still in m. 20 are six notes of an anticipatory phrase leading to the down beat in m. 21 (the half-way point of the first half of the last half of the chorus), an Eb. This is followed by a measureful of a consequential phrase, which in the next measure turns into an anticipatory phrase leading to the Db, played on the “and” of four of that measure (22), which itself anticipates the downbeat of m. 23. The four melody notes in m. 23 form a  consequential phrase from that note.
  4. The melody notes of m. 24 constitute both the response to the previous melodic material and a kind of pre-echo or detached anticipation of the assertive phrase which begins on beat 1 of m. 25. This is a perfect example of clear, discreet development, consisting of three four-note phrases starting in m. 23 and culminating in m. 25. The energy build-up is palpable, so that the short, 3-note response phrase that follows serves to release the built-up energy.
  5. The three-measure phrase which follows brings the energy of the second half of the first chorus to its highest point. It is the climax of the section and therefore of the entire chorus. Structurally it falls in the perfect place: the third four-measure section of this 16-measure unit. Look for chorus climaxes in this position.

It begins with an anticipatory section of 6 notes in m. 26 leading to the downbeat of m. 27. This is followed by a longer consequential phrase whose energy peaks on its highest note, the Gb at the beginning of m. 28. This is also the highest note in the 16-measure section, and the phrase is the purest pyramidal (rising/falling) phrase in the section. All these factors emphasize this phase as the climax of the section. The short phrase that follows in m. 29 is part of the “falling action” or concluding gesture of the chorus.

We chose to include the third chorus both because of its appealing bluesy content and its particular beauty. The same principles of organic development apply, and they should come clear to you as you study the chorus and contrast its structure with that of the first chorus.

These two choruses present a fair sample of McKenna’s developmental devices in their “purest” or simplest form: the medium is the eighth-note phrase. The only triplet is ornamental (penultimate measure of the third chorus). There are no double-time passages. When he does use double time, McKenna does it very judiciously, as a kind of energy escape valve after a build-up through eighth-note phrases.

We are not far from what Schoenberg called “developing variation” when describing Brahms’ composing style. A conscious awareness of how this works in McKenna’s playing plus learning his solo can be of enormous value in lending that solid quality of reassurance to your own playing.

About the author:

Dr. Joel Simpson plays jazz piano and sings funny songs in the New York area, having lived and performed in New Orleans for the past 27 years. He is the author of Blues By You-the Direct Route to Piano Improvisation (Hal Leonard), and the producer of Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano CD-ROM.

Dave McKenna’s latest solo recording is Easy Street on Concord. It features a medley of “street”-related tunes.