What feeling are you aiming for when you play ballads? In any style, ballads can go in many directions and the great musicians tend to go to extremes regarding this.
For example, do you want to play forcefully, like Bruce Springsteen?
Or passionately, like Sarah Vaughan sang?
Or delicately like the great jazz pianist Bill Evans?
Duke Ellington often expressed a feeling through his ballads that I sometimes call “floating on a cloud.” I probably got this idea from Ellington himself, through the title of his wonderful 1947 composition “On A Turquoise Cloud.” The orchestration uses extremely sophisticated techniques to accomplish something very basic and direct: to evoke the feeling of peacefully and blissfully relaxing. To accomplish this aim, he utilizes muted trombone, wordless vocals, lush jazz harmonies played with a mellow tone, and wide intervallic leaps to bring a feeling of height and yearning.
If you haven’t heard this yet, you’re in for a real treat!
Duke Ellington: On A Turquoise Cloud (1947)
At 3:06, listen to how deliciously the second-to-last chord lingers for just a little longer than expected before revolving downward to the tonic, and final, note.
As pianists, we’re lucky. We can try this ourselves without having to write out a complex orchestration and hiring a full band to play it. In fact, we can evoke the feeling of floating on a cloud on any ballad from jazz standards to contemporary pop and classic rock.
Watch me approach the jazz standard Dedicated To You with this aim, and then try it yourself on a tune of your choice.
Dedicated To You: Journey Through The Real Book #86
Have fun exploring this approach to playing ballads!
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