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Playing Piano in a Jazz Ensemble - Interviews with James Agg & Mike Green

James Agg and Jay Riley at Stratford Jazz Jam at RSC's The Other Place

A year ago I set up a Jazz Jam night in Stratford upon Avon with the help of Dionne Sambrook. 14 months on and it continues to be a huge success with plenty of talent joining in and a healthy crowd listening to the tunes.

The format is simple. We offer a chance for everyone to sing, play or dance with a strong emphasis on inclusion. I have been to lots of jam sessions where after hearing a few people sit in, I quietly retreat to the back of the room and pretend to be part of the furniture! Jam nights can be scary, but they should be fun ways to interact with likeminded people and experiencing the joys of improvised music. There's only so much interaction you can get with playing to backing tracks so I try to make communication within the band a priority. After all, isn't that the greatest element of a Jazz ensemble?

When I started this project I wanted to book some amazing players to hold the fort in the house band. These great players come from across the country and are considered some of the UK's finest. It's a great chance for people to work with these talented players in a uniquely intimate environment and also, selfishly, a great way for me to "up my game" as a pianist!

In an effort to improve, I asked James Agg ( - John Law, Daniel Ward, Edd Donavan, Dom Franks) and Mike Green ( - Remi Harris, Dame Shirley Bassey) a few questions. I wanted to delve into the relationship a pianist had with a bass player in a jazz combo. I tried to word the questions so that they didn't rip me to pieces as a player but I also didn't want to fish for compliments. I found their answers so inspiring that I thought I would share them with you. I hope you get as much out of these responses as I have and even if you are not a pianist, I still think you can take away a great deal of musicianship advice.




1) Who is your favourite pianist to work with?

James Agg: On a musical intellect level, John Law, but on a personal rapport and energy within the playing level, Alex Steele.

Mike Green: Hard to say; I played with Dave Newton not so long ago and that was amazing! The guy has a great sound, swings and is very versatile; no wonder he is award winning! I also like Al Gurr’s playing although I never seem to be on a gig with him. Really like him because he swings!!! Edgar Macias a Latin player there’s no one like him for playing Latin but only because he’s actually from Venezuela so he’s got an advantage over everybody. He plays traditional Latin but also modern Latin Jazz. Alex Steele is great as well because he just swings! There are other great players but these guys just stand out slightly more to me. I like anyone that swings or grooves relative to a particular style. That’s actually piano, bass and drums really together. I love it when the rhythm section can play as a team rather than battling each other. Listening a lot to each other and reacting instantly. I used to do that with Steve Tromans and Mitch Perrins but we used to do it to such an extent we used to compose instant arrangements on the spot.

2) Do you prefer different players for different styles?

JA: Yes, definitely. I have other favourites depending on what it is I’m doing. Different musicians have different strengths and why only book one player regularly when you can use the right tool for the right job?

MG: Edgar mentioned above, specialises in Latin but also plays straight ahead jazz amazingly well. [Maybe] he’s not so adept at Soul; Boogie Woogie maybe, which is a completely different piano speciality altogether? I think a lot of what I do comes under the jazz umbrella, big band, gypsy jazz, bebop, latin. I think the bass shifts from one style to the other easier than a lot of instruments say for example guitar. Guitarists have to work harder to make it sound like they are playing jazz and other styles convincingly. I think pianists get to be versatile at what they do as well because they are so much in demand. When it comes to completely different styles though such as Funk etc there are a load of really great Funk players who don’t play jazz as well as they play Funk. But they are much better at Funk than the jazz guys if that makes sense? Stuart Trotman, amongst many others, is a keyboard player who is in that Funk scene, I don’t see him playing too many jazz gigs but he is out on tour playing with some big household names!

3) What do those players do to make you smile?

JA: The main thing that makes me smile is when pianists or guitarists throw me unexpected but appropriate substitutions that I have to make work. Rhythmic ideas that are outside the box come a close second in the making me smile department.

MG: Swing or groove depending upon style!! Playing together as a team and listening rather than playing as individuals. I have occasionally come across pianists, although not too often ,who are known to be good, but at times for practically a whole tune I can’t even hear where they are rhythmically or harmonically. Sounds crazy but they are "off on one" and I just have to stay there on my own hanging on to the chord progression. Don’t get me wrong I love “going out there”as well with the best of them as long as everyone is still in control and knows where they are rhythmically and harmonically. As an exercise over the years I occasionally say to other musicians in the rehearsal space “let’s play a tune and try your hardest to lose each other BUT you’ve still got to know where you are personally” anything goes and it’s a cool exercise, also fun. Yes it does collapse as well but it’s funny when everyone takes it to the extreme edges. Again good ear training and counting as well. Another exercise again in the rehearsal space is playing up tempo as fast and as quiet as you can. That’s funny as well.

4) how are you challenged by what they play?

JA: The main challenge is presented when I’m thrown unusual polyrhythms in unusual time signatures that I have to figure out on the spot and to find the best way to deal with them. This can sometimes happen in regular time signatures when the emphasis of a phrase is in an unexpected place.

MG: When I play a solo it seems to be open ground for people to try little licks and polyrhythms and various interesting chords out. None of which is anything to do with my solo. It’s like I’m dodging bullets shot my way. I have in the past just had to stop playing because it’s a big mess and I just can’t hear what notes I’m playing. Not that I’m the greatest soloist!!! When you have a sharp sounding instrument, like most instruments apart from the bass it’s easy to cut through on a solo but the bass is a relatively soft sounding instrument compared to the other instruments so it can get lost in a bass solo by the backing. Also you are going to be plucking softer for the solos as opposed to when walking because you have to play more intricate lines.

5) what are the biggest/most annoying habits of bad piano players?

JA: When there isn’t enough space left for the bass; it’s an ensemble, and the bass has a job to do. If the pianist constantly takes that job, I may as well go home. Missed beats and a lack of subconscious tracking of the beat and form is a pet peeve too. I can forgive the odd occasion where that arises as it happens to the best of us, but it can be a regular mistake in some of the worst pianists I’ve played with. Not enough space left in improvisational ideas can be a problem too. If no space, no interaction can occur. And finally on this point, speeding up/slowing down presents a problem. A pianist should have as good a sense of the time as anyone else. The bass player contrary to common belief does not serve as the timekeeper. Everyone should be independently doing this as a unit, and no job should be made harder by another player’s inadequacy.

One more point to add, which is when the pianist insists on playing my idea straight back at me. Sometimes is works if it leads to another place, but if it’s to make a point that what I’m playing can be heard and replicated easily on the piano, it’s inappropriate, especially as the bass is significantly limited whilst the piano isn’t. The same rhythmic idea with a responding phrase is totally acceptable, or even a harmonisation of the idea if it can be predicted is a good thing, but yeh, a parrot has no place in a band... I used to be guilty of it myself having the ears that I have, but I rapidly learned that it wasn’t adding anything to the music, and just because one can hear and replicate what another is playing, it doesn’t necessarily give one the right to.

MG: Playing in the bass register too low. Playing too loud. Playing walking bass lines under a bass solo. Not very often but occasionally I feel a pianist can think they can beef the sound of the band up by playing lower register stuff along with the bass. But what that can do is overpower the bass. It does beef the sound up but then when they stop, the bass end sounds weak. The sound they are actually producing is boomy and artificial sounding in reality.

6) do you like piano comping during bass solos?

JA: Piano comping in bass solos is good if it is minimal, delicate and in the right part of the form. If a pianist loses the form under the bass solo, the worst thing they can do is guess where it might be as that pulls apart the development of the bass player’s idea. If the bass solo sounds complex, it’s best to do less. If the bass player keeps it simple, add to it for extra support.

MG: If it’s swinging, yes. I find most people have a hard time knowing what to do under a bass solo. Basically keep it relatively simple. Keep it swinging and the energy up but volume down by 30%. Still has to swing!!! A track I’ve been listening to recently that has a bass solo and I love the backing is Sam Jones playing Straight No Chaser with Cannonball Adderley.

His solo is about 3/4 of the way through. The drummer plays very quietly but it’s still swinging like mad. Even if there were no drummer other instruments can take a lead from his book. In this version the pianist doesn’t play much but I would be happy for pianists to play more than this. But he does swing and everything he does play is related to the bass solo.


So there you have it folks, words from the wise! I love that James and Mike had different approaches but had similar likes and dislikes. I also love that Mike ended the interview with this reversal of my original question:

MG: One thing I would like to know while we are on the subject is...

Do bass players do anything to annoy the rest of the band? Is there anything people say about bass players that they don’t necessarily say to their faces! Hahaha. From my angle we are completely blameless but I might be a bit biased there.

If you would like to respond to Mike's question or leave any comments about what you've read then please do so. Id love to hear from you. My thanks once again to James and Mike for taking the time to give such great answers. Please check out their websites and say hello. If you have enjoyed this blog post and would like to receive a weekly email full of advice, tips and recommendations for musicians then please head over to and leave your email address.

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