Book Review: Jazz Piano Series by John Mehegan

My “jazz piano bible” is a series of four books by John Mehegan, referred to collectively as the Jazz Improvisation series.  Books can be an invaluable part of your training as a musician, especially in the area of jazz, since a solid understanding of classic jazz can get fairly heavy on the music theory side of things.

I have included links to these four amazing books here, if you want to check them out.  Just below those four links is a single volume by Mehegan that covers the most essential information from the four-volume set.

Volume One: Tonal and Rhythmic Principles

Volume Two: Jazz Rhythm and The Improvised Line

Volume Three: Swing And Early Progressive Piano Styles

Volume Four: Contemporary Piano Styles

Here’s the compilation volume:

Improvising Jazz Piano

These books are systematic in their approach, which I love.  Lots of other books on jazz piano are full of great ideas, but they tend to be collections of “try this, try that.”  Books of that type are overwhelming to me.  I always want to look for the core principles behind things.

The great jazz pianist Bill Evans appreciated the fourth volume of this series so much that he wrote a great introduction for it.

Study Tips

I highly recommend that you read somewhat casually through all four volumes first, in sequence, and then go back and study the details and techniques that seem most interesting to you.  As you do that, decide on certain things that you will practice on a regular basis, and put in the work!

I’ve noticed that I tend to focus on volumes one and four, although volume four makes occasional references to material in the other books, so it’s best to have all four volumes handy.

The first thing I put into major practice is what Mehegan calls “Contemporary Left-hand Voicings.”  (I have a couple of videos on that topic that I will be posting here soon.)  These voicings, covering major, minor, dominant, diminished, and half-diminished sevenths, which Mehegan calls the sixty-chord system (five chord qualities on each of the twelve roots) are essential to have in your toolbox.

I keep these four volumes around the house and pick them up now and then for review.  I’m amazed at how much this material can have a new freshness to me when I re-read it, especially after having applied it for a while.

Be advised, Mr. Mehegan uses the Roman numeral approach to chord progressions almost exclusively, as in II-V-I.  For example, he provides chord charts to tons of songs, and all are in that format.  It is good to be able to think in those terms.  That is, instead of learning a jazz standard as Am7, Dm7, G7, C, you can learn it as VI, II, V, I, thereby setting yourself up to be ready to play that tune in any key.

I encourage anyone who is familiar with these books, or is beginning to study the material, to share please your insights, opinions, or questions in the comments section of this post.   Let’s make this site a community!

Kent