A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
One of the great love songs. Irving Berlin’s “Always” is performed more by vocalists than as an instrumental. This doesn’t mean that you can’t play a wonderful jazz arrangement of the tune, it just means that you’ll be playing it mostly as a vocal accompaniment.

Here are some recommended videos/recordings:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Frank Sinatra

For all his swagger, Sinatra never hesitated to bare his soul while singing a love song.

Paul McCartney: Kisses On The Bottom

Although McCartney is first and foremost a pop/rock musician, he sings older standards very well. His father was a jazz trumpet player and McCartney has composed an occasional song in the swing style (like “When I’m Sixty-Four”). Unlike many rock singers when they attempt standards, McCartney shapes each phrase in its entirety, never focusing on each beat at the expense of the longer line.

On this recording, McCartney sings the verse out front, which isn’t in the Real Book. This performance also features a nice jazz guitar solo by Anthony Wilson.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Jazz musicians have always enjoyed altering a tune’s changes, to make them more logical or interesting to improvise over. In the case of “Always,” however,” I feel that the Real Book has added a few chords that detract from the melody and especially the lyric. The first instance of this is in measure 10. Irving Berlin’s original version stays on an F major chord for mm.9-10 while the Real Book inserts Bm7b5 and E7 in m.10, which makes a ii/V into the A Major chord in m.11. While this does give a sense of forward motion and is in the jazz tradition of inserting ii/V’s whenever possible, it destroys the tenderness of how the melody and chords relate to the lyric. By keeping the change to A Major as a harmonic surprise, Berlin harmonizes the lyric “When the things you’ve planned” with the tonic chord of F Major. Then, when the lyric says, “Need a helping hand,” he surprises the listener with a chord that’s outside the key, A Major. It’s as if the new key represents “help” from somewhere or someone else. (And if you think I’m reading into this too much, check out the Beatles song “With A Little Help From My Friends,” which does the exact same thing with the lyrics and harmony.)

Even if you’re playing a purely instrumental version of a song, it helps to know at east some of the lyrics. The lyrics to “Always” are a direct, unadorned, and emotionally bare declaration of love. Respecting this can only help your own interpretation of the song.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Always: Journey Through The Real Book #13

Here’s a harmonization inspired by composer Aaron Copland.

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Always: Wikipedia

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