Dave Mc Kenna

Jazz pianist Dave McKenna at the Village Jazz ...Image via Wikipedia

* Dave McKenna

Jazz pianist Dave McKenna was best known for his solo work and his trademark left-handed bass style. He began his musical career at the young age of 15 when he started playing with Boots Mussulli. In the years that followed, he collaborated with the likes of Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman's Orchestra.

In 1954, after returning from two years in the army, McKenna began working with musicians such as Gene Krupa and Stan Getz. He made many recordings as an accompanist, but most markedly as an unaccompanied soloist. In 1966, McKenna and his family moved to Cape Cod, and he began to work less frrequently with bands and more often as a solo pianist, performing mainly in the New England area. During the 1980's, he was the pianist in residence at the Copley plaza Hotel in Boston. McKenna once said of himself, "I don't know if I qualify as a bona-fide jazz guy. I play saloon piano. I like to stay close to the melody." His modesty seemed a contrast to the vibrant piano playing he was best known for.

* Musical Style

Dave McKenna was a jazz pianist. He was known for his "three-handed swing", and was the leading proponent of solo piano style.

"His musical presentation relies on two key elements relating to his choices of tunes and set selection, and the method of playing that has come to be known as "three-handed swing".

McKenna liked to make thematic medleys, usually based around a key word that appears in the titles, such as teach, love, women's names, dreams, night or day, street names, etc. There may be ballads and up-tempo songs blended together with standards, pop tunes, blues, and even TV themes or folk material.

McKenna's renditions usually began with a spare, open statement of the melody, or, on ballads, a freely played, richly harmonized one. He often stated the theme a second time, gradually bringing more harmony or a stronger pulse into play.

The improvisation then began in earnest on three levels simultaneously, namely a walking bass line, midrange chords and an improvised melody. The bass line, for which McKenna frequently employes the rarely-used lowest regions of the piano, is naturally being played in the left hand, often non-legato, to simulate an actual double bassist's phrasing, the melody in the right. The chords are interspersed using the thumb and forefinger of the right hand or of both hands combined, if the bass is not too low to make the stretch unfeasible. Sometimes he also adds a guide-tone line consisting of thirds and sevenths on top of the bass, played by the thumb of the left hand.

His famous four-to-the-bar "strum" is achieved by the left hand alone, playing a bass note (root/fifth/other interval) plus third and seventh, leading to frequent left-hand stretches of a tenth, which is why these voicings frequently appear arpeggiated, with the top two notes being played on the beat, the bass note slightly before. These voicings are often subtly altered every two beats, for variety. This playing style is frequently mistaken for a stride piano, which it is clearly not, as it is of a four-beat nature, as opposed to the two-beat "oom-pah" of true stride piano, as exemplified by Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and the like. McKenna usually reserves all-out stride for sections where a bassist would play half notes, i.e. ballads and Dixieland-tinged material. The result is the sound of a three piece band under one person's creative control.

McKenna can weave a spontaneous melodic line, usually with lots of chromaticism and blues licks, over the bass line. The bass can be anything from single notes to repeated chords like a rhythm guitar to a full-blown stride piano, the latter often reserved for the height of a song's development.

The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes McKenna's playing is his sense of time. One of the most commonly cited difficulties of solo jazz piano is the need to provide a compelling time feel, in part by emulating the rhythmic landscape normally provided by three or four players in a small group. By conceiving of multiple "parts" and playing them with distinct volume levels and time feels (often with right hand chords ahead of the beat and the melody behind the beat), McKenna showed a unique ability to reproduce the small group sound on the piano."


* Listen to Tracks from Dave McKenna and McPartland


Art Tatum, often considered the greatest soloist in jazz piano history, praised McKenna as someone he considered a complete musician.

Dave McKenna was born in 1930 and passed away on October 18th, 2008 at the age of 78.

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