What do you do when you encounter a jazz tune that’s a little out of the ordinary?
Well, one approach is to look to another style of music for inspiration, and if possible, see if this style is aligned with the tune itself.
Case in point: Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann.”
“Miss Ann” is a wonderful, expressive tune. But at first glance, the melody doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the chord progression. The intriguing aspect of this is that it sounds great when Dolphy himself plays it, but it feels strange when we try it ourselves.
When this happens, there are two things we can try, the first being simple repetition. Once you play the tune, say, 50 times, it begins to feel and sound more natural as our hands and ears become accustomed to it.
The second avenue is to discover what music may have influenced the composer, and then approach the tune through that style itself. In the case of Eric Dolphy, one road to the style of “Miss Ann” was contemporary classical music.
One of my college teachers. The composer Hale Smith, had been close friends with Eric Dolphy, and Hale told me how he would give Dolphy informal ear training lessons using Paul Hindemith’s book “Elementary Training For Musicians.”
One we look at “Elementary Training For Musicians,” Dolphy’s music begins to make more sense. After all, some of Hindemith’s ear training exercises involve singing scales over unrelated chords. He may, for example, ask us to play a C major chord on the piano and sing an E major scale over it. Aha - this is exactly the type of technique that Dolphy uses in “Miss Ann!”
By looking to contemporary classical music for inspiration, Eric Dolphy was following a long line of great jazz musicians who have done so, going all the way back to stride pianists like Willie “The Lion” Smith who were influenced by Ravel and the Impressionists. Even Charlie Parker got into the act, be predicting that future generations of jazz musicians would improvise using Hindemith’s musical vocabulary.
Here’s a video that will show you these concepts in more detail, so you can incorporate them into your playing:
Miss Ann: Journey Through The Real Book #234
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