Dave McKenna (30 May 1930 – 18 October 2008, Woonsocket, Rhode Island was a jazz pianist. He was known for his "three-handed swing" and was a leading proponent of solo piano style.
Starting out at the age of 15, McKenna played with Boots Mussulli (1947), Charlie Ventura (1949) and Woody Herman's Orchestra (1950-51). He then spent two years in the military, and re-joined Ventura (1953-54).
He worked with a variety of top swing and Dixieland musicians including Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Bob Wilbur, Eddie Condon, and Bobby Hackett but became primarily a soloist after 1967, especially in the Northeast United States. McKenna performed with Louis Armstrong at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival.
He started to be recognized in his own right during the 1970s, but chose to play in his local area rather than travel extensively. He preferred playing in clubs and hotels to getting center stage in major venues. He could be found playing in hotel piano bars in Massachusetts, including a decade-long run at the Copley Plaza in Boston, until his retirement around the turn of the millennium. A loyal Boston Red Sox fan, he was known to listen to games on his transistor radio while performing.
McKenna was also known as a wonderful accompanist, recording with such singers as Rosemary Clooney, Teddi King and Donna Byrne and recording a PBS special with Tony Bennett.
McKenna died in 2008 from lung cancer.
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.
His recordings on the Concord record label attest to both the excitement and tenderness of his playing. His contribution to the development of jazz piano as a solo voice will not be forgotten by musicians or the history books. Art Tatum, often considered the greatest soloist in jazz piano history, praised McKenna as someone he considered a complete musician.
McKenna has had an extensive recording career from 1958 to 2002, and recorded for ABC-Paramount Records (1956), Epic (1958), Bethlehem (1960) and Realm (1963). McKenna made several recordings for Chiaroscuro Records in the 1970s, including his comeback album "Solo Piano". McKenna debuted with Concord in 1979, where the majority of his catalogue rests, including one volume of Concord's 42-disc series recorded live inside Maybeck Recital Hall. McKenna's last recording, "An Intimate Evening With Dave McKenna" was released on Arbors Records in 2002.
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