A meditation on ‘touch and feel’

What is it that makes an individual’s playing distinctive? Here’s a brief muse, not on the potentially existential ramifications of that question, but somewhat more prosaic technical thoughts. This was prompted by seeing Tim Richards recently (a fine pianist) and wondering what it was that had put me so much in mind of Cedar Walton as I listened. I don’t think it was just that he played one of his tunes ( as my fellow listener pointed out). Tim’s got quite a ‘heavy left hand’. He really whacks out some of those chords – so does Cedar. What pianists will call touch is a very delicately nuanced thing – it comes down to the force with which keys are struck, the variation in that force between notes, the instinct to separate one note  clearly from the next or let them flow into each other .. it all adds to a very personal distinctive touch. If you listen a lot, it becomes quite recognizable.  There’s often a difference too between players who’ve learnt their trade on the stand (listening to, imitating, adapting other players stuff), and those who’ve been through a longer formal training (frequently these days on a jazz course, not necessarily classical). I’d wager that Cedar and Tim have that learning on the stand experience in common. A second dimension to this is ‘feel’ – its the timing of notes against the beat or pulse. All the best players can control this, but there’s something about their preference for where they place it, how more or less evenly spaced notes are combined with where stresses are placed. So Keith Jarrett is unmistakeable, so too is Herbie . John Taylor is masterful and makes my heart sing just by playing two chords (another one who learnt on the stand – so no generalising is safe!).  In full flight no- one is thinking about this, we are just hearing something of their musical personality, but its also a very physical connection  so technical mastery is needed  so that fingers respond to brain. Nobody gets good without the hours shut away ‘woodshedding’.

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