5 Things Jazz Pianists Can Learn From Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra can teach us jazz pianists a lot about how to perfect our craft. Here are 5 things we can learn from his singing:

1. Phrasing

Standard tunes from The Great American Songbook are a big part of the jazz repertoire. And Sinatra can teach us a great deal about how to personalize these melodies through phrasing. Like most singers “back in the day,” Sinatra never sang a song strictly according to the sheet music’s rhythms. He would delay a word here, quicken up the phrasing these, and generally treat the rhythm with a sense of elasticity.

I never realized, though, just how much liberty he took until I was once hired to transcribe 25 orchestral arrangements of his songs off the recordings. As part of the project, I was asked to write out the melody exactly as he sang it. Wow! I couldn’t believe how much he changed while making it sound so natural. Learning to do this in a similar way can set your piano playing apart and make it sound more musical and individual.

2. Learn the lyrics, or at least get a sense of them.

“Old Blue Eyes” was a consummate interpreter of lyrics. An Academy Award-winning actor (From Here To Eternity), Sinatra lived his lyrics in a way that influenced his tone quality, phrasing, and even a song’s tempo. While we instrumentalists don’t need to know every lyric of every song, it helps to know the first few words and to have a general sense of what a song is saying. If we know that a song has a “fun” or “playful” lyric, it may have a positive influence on how we play the song. Even if we decide to play it differently, at least we know that we’re interpreting it in another way.

3. Learn the verse

Many standard songs have an introductory verse. Although many of these verses are wonderful, musicians don’t always learn them anymore. Sinatra was a big fan of verses and even recorded the verse to “Stardust” without the chorus! Learn some of the great verses. Singers will be appreciative, and you can set yourself apart by playing them as part of your jazz repertoire. I recommend the verses to “Stardust,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Over The Rainbow,” and “Lush Life.”

4. How to swing

Simply put, Sinatra could SWING! He’s one of the few singers whose rhythmic drive was so strong that he made his band work hard just to keep up with him. In a 1950s Downbeat magazine article, famous jazz musicians voted him their favorite male vocalist (even he was considered more of a “pop” singer than “jazz”). They liked his sense of swing.

5. Musical momentum.

Listen to the exciting buildup to the trombone solo in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” This was Sinatra’s idea. He asked arranger Nelson Riddle to write the longest crescendo in musical history. Jazz pianists can learn a lot from this about how to add drama and structure to their own arrangements. You could play the same kind of crescendo in the bridge of “Autumn Leaves,” for example. Miles Davis would sometimes play like this.

I once read an interview with Keith Jarrett where the reporter noticed a Sinatra CD on the desk in Jarrett’s home office. Take a cue from Mr. Jarrett and check out some Frank Sinatra.

Here he is at his swinging best: “The Summer Wind.”

And while you’re at it, here are a few jazz piano lessons to help you get more fluent at improvising. Enjoy!

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