Jazz Two-Part Invention - Peter Saltzman

Jazz Two-Part Invention


Jazz Two-Part Invention takes the J.S. Bach concept and updates it in a jazz language. Ideal for pianists who want to improvise contrpuntally.

Jazz Two-Part Invention takes the J.S. Bach concept and updates it in a jazz language. Ideal for pianists who want to improvise contrapuntally.

Jazz counterpoint? What, like Bach meets Herbie Hancock? Well, yes. Sort of.

First, let me be clear: I am obsessed with Bach and counterpoint.

Obsessed? Maybe you should listen to the Venting in Two-Part Inventions episode of my podcast, which, by the way, is built around this very piece. 

My obsession stems from the idea that in an era where just about anything goes in music, where excess often equates to success, you can still make music with only two melodic voices. And on one instrument. Music stripped down to its essence. For me, counterpoint is not just a test of one’s skill but musical honesty. Can you tell a story with only two interdependent voices, weaving around each other sans any effects, any tricks, any hyperbole?

Develop Musical Ideas

As a composer and improviser, my main job (if you look at being musically creative as a job) is to develop musical ideas in compelling ways. There are many ways to do this—harmonically, rhythmically, texturally, with production techniques. Any decent composer knows how to employ all of these and other “tricks” of the trade.

But when you think about it, all of these tools derive from two meta-technique: counterpoint and thematic development. Thematic development is fundamentally about the many ways you can manipulate musical motifs. The methods are myriad, and they include all of the above and more: rhythmic, harmonic, melodic contour, sequencing, and… counterpoint.

Counterpointing Themes

Yes, counterpoint is a way of developing one’s themes, but it’s so powerful and complex that it deserves its own category. Counterpoint is the idea, as anybody reading this knows, of musical motifs interacting interdependently as pure melody. Interdependently because while each melody acts independently (as opposed to, say, in homophonic music where there is one melody that sits over a series of chords,) they collectively add up to harmony.

Multiple independent melodies adding up to harmony: that could be a definition of counterpoint. But it’s a different kind of harmony. 

The Power of Multiple Melodies

When written well, counterpoint has a unique and exciting power. Because melody, the primary force of music-making, is all the more powerful when we multiply it. Like anything, it takes practice—both to compose it and play it. And also to improvise it. Improvising counterpoint is the goal I’ve always had since I was a teenager and read that Bach could do it with almost superhuman control.

So yes, obsessed with Bach and counterpoint. And a two-part invention in jazz style is a perfect place to start working through my obsession. Think of it as jazz counterpoint 101. The only problem being that this piece is pretty difficult to play. But so is jazz. Counterpoint is hard. Jazz counterpoint? Not for the faint of heart.

Deal with it!


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