Learning a jazz tune on piano requires us to learn all the musical elements of a tune so thoroughly that we can express anything we want through the music. If we’re playing in a group, we need to be infinitely flexible to respond to what our fellow musicians play, and when we’re playing solo, to continually adapt our interpretation to fit the moment-by-moment flow of where the music leads us. You can’t plan ahead in jazz. That’s why it’s so exciting!
This is both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge because we need to practice much more than just the basic chords and melody, and an opportunity because we’ll eventually be able to use the tune to express a wide range of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic possibilities.
So grab your Real Book, pick a tune, and let’s get started!
1. Learn the melody. (This may sound obvious, but since so many jazz students don’t do this enough, I’ll repeat it here: Learn the melody.)
This means learning the melody so well that you can hum it while walking down the street. Sing it. Play it. Listen to recordings of it. Analyze how prominent jazz musicians phrase or possibly alter it. And if it’s a “standard,” get to know the lyrics. You don’t have to know every word, but you’ll play the tune more from the jazz tradition if you know the “gist” of the lyric. If you’re playing “Misty,” for example, you should at least know that the singer is “as helpless as a kitten up a tree.” In other words, the song is about feeling vulnerable. This was you may think twice before playing it as an aggressive samba. (Not like there’s anything wrong with that!)
2. Learn the chords by themselves, without the melody.
By practicing the chords by themselves, you’ll notice patterns and commonalities with other tunes that you might not notice if you go straight to “chords and melody together.” Listen to each chord, and then hear how the harmonies lead from one to another. Each tune has a unique harmonic journey that you need to know and experience.
3. Practice melody and chords together.
Start by playing the chords with your left hand and the melody with your right. (Later on you can go straight to spreading the chords out between the hands if that’s appropriate to the tune.) I find it fascinating to hear the relationship between each melodic note and it’s accompanying harmony. Is the note contained in the basic 7th chord or is it more colorful (a 9th,13th, etc.)? Or is it an altered note (b9th)? Does it increase tension and anticipation or does it resolve and relax? Listen to how the melodic line moves through each chord, and then how it moves between chords. This type of listening will take you far as a musician.
4. Practice varying and embellishing the melody.
This is a huge part of the jazz tradition and unfortunately has become a little bit of a lost art. Listen to how musicians like Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Keith Jarrett play melodies. If it’s a standard song, they’re constantly pushing and pulling the beats, adding a note here and there and generally playing it their own way. Even singers like Frank Sinatra rarely sang even a single measure exactly as it was written. (I know this because I once transcribed 25 Nelson Riddle orchestrations, complete with Sinatra’s vocal phrasing. I was very surprised by how much interpretive freedom he gave himself.)
5. Work on the bass line alone.
Become a bass player, at least for a while. Give your right hand a rest and experience the bass line as an entity unto itself. Start with just the chord roots, and then go into various bass styles such as walking bass and all the other things bass players do. Not only will you hear the tune with new ears by doing this, but you’ll relate to the bass player better on your next gig.
6. Play the tune’s bass line in the LH and chords in the RH, as an accompaniment.
Not for ballads, for definitely for medium and up-tempo tunes. Learn to play the tune as if you are accompanying a vocalist or melodic instrument. You’ll make lots of musician friends if you can do this well!
7. Play the bass line and melody together, with no chords.
This is a great listening exercise that lets you hear the Bach-like “outer-voice” structure of the tune. You can either hold down each bass note for it’s duration or play a more complete walking bass, 2-beat, or latin groove. Practice whatever works for the particular tune.
8. Learn rootless chord voicings.
Rootless chord voicings sound great when playing with a bass player and also in solo piano settings. Practice playing the melody and improvised solos with your right hand over rootless LH voicings until you can do so without much effort. Also learn rootless 2-handed voicings for use as accompaniment. These techniques are at the heart of modern jazz piano playing.
9. Practice improvising over the chord progression.
Jazz gives us the opportunity to create our own melodies over a tune’s chord progression without reference to the original melody. Practice various techniques such as motivic development, playing with appropriate scales and modes for each chord, and learning the musical language of each specific jazz style. Aim for fluency and go for advanced techniques only after you can easily improvise on the chord progression.
10. Use the tune to investigate the various genres of jazz.
You don’t have to simply play the tune the way it was originally played or the way everyone else plays it. If it’s a bebop tune, try it in a stride style. (Marian McPartland famously played “Giant Steps” as a stride piece.) Or if it’s a swing standard, try it as a bossa nova or samba. Try everything and use your judgement as to what ultimately works and what doesn’t.
So there you have it; 10 Essential Steps to Learning a Jazz Tune on Piano. It might seem like a lot at first, but the good news is that it gets easier over time. Many jazz tunes use similar chord progressions so once you learn a few, others will come easier. It’s the same with chord voicings and rhythmic styles.
Use this list as a good way to get started while you’re developing a jazz repertoire. After that, “the sky’s the limit!”
Here are some of my jazz piano lessons to help you learn some of the techniques you’ll need to know. Have fun!
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