Ideas for playing “Hot Toddy” as a jazz piano solo

The 1953 jazz standard “Hot Toddy” is a wonderful piece to play, but it’s not a typical jam session tune. Composed by Ralph Flanagan, the tune became popular in part because of its repetitive, riff-like melody, and as such it can be viewed historically as a predecessor of Rock and Roll.

“Hot Toddy” can be played in many ways, and it’s fascinating to explore various interpretations and see how they relate to how the tune’s been played before.

The English bandleader Ted Heath’s recording of “Hot Toddy” features a catchy bass riff, played by the baritone sax, that evokes both big band swing and the R&B of the time. Later in the arrangement, the bass starts walking and it evolves into a more traditional jazz feel which we can play too. Pianist Gene Harris recorded a slow bluesy version of “Hot Toddy” that works well in a solo jazz piano context as well.

The tune’s chord progression is a little bit of a mystery. The Real Book leadsheet for “Hot Toddy” contains “backwards” ii-V chord progressions, V-ii, that give the harmony a Mixolydian sound. But the sheet music I’ve seen doesn’t have this at all. Instead, the chords revolve around the more common ii-V sequence, and this is what Gene Harris plays on his recording. Either way, the tune is fun to play as it moves through various keys before resolving back to the tonic key (F major in The Real Book).

When I sat down and played “Hot Toddy” for my Journey Through The Real Book video series, I enjoyed using many techniques and jazz concepts in my interpretation. I started with a rich-sounding harmony and improvised chord voicings, out of tempo. You’ll hear some chromatic chord voicings with inner-voice movement, modal harmonies, and even some Aaron Copland-style chord voicings in a jazz context. Later on in the performance, I move into a medium-slow tempo and play some stride piano while embellishing and varying the tune’s melody. You’ll notice some of the Gene Harris influence with blues tremolos and riffs, and I also play some walking 10ths and block chords in the style of George Shearing and Milt Buckner. There’s lots of chord substitutions as well and some of my favorite Duke Ellington-style voicings.

The biggest thing I hope you’ll takeaway from the video is how to use various musical influences to build your own personal solo piano interpretation of a jazz standard.

You can check all this out here:
Hot Toddy: Journey Through The Real Book

Have fun, and “let the music flow!”

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