A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
OK… get ready. This is a big one. “Body And Soul” was written in 1930 by composer Johnny Green, and has lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Frank Eyton. The song has a complex chord progression, modulates up a half-step for the bridge, and features one of the most lyrical melodies in jazz. The lyrics are passionate and heartfelt. I think of “Body And Soul” as having a lot of “gravity,” whatever that may mean. It just feels like a real solid tune, and it’s well worth spending a lot of time with. The chromatically descending series of chords at the end of the bridge are classic.

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(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.)

Coleman Hawkins

This is THE recording of “Body and Soul” to listen to. Recorded in 1939, it was so important an influential that jazz historian Phil Schaap divides jazz history into two parts: “Before Coleman Hawkins’ Body And Soul” and “After Coleman Hawkins’ Body And Soul.” It’s that big! Hawkins was know for his “vertical” concept of playing, in which he played up and down the chord changes as arpeggios. (At the time, this was contrasted with the more “linear” approach of Lester Young, who played more stepwise melodies in his solos.)

Benny Goodman Trio

This recording, from 1935, features the great Teddy Wilson on piano. Listen to how well he accompanies Goodman’s clarinet, playing tasteful fills that create interest but never get in the way of the melody.

Carmen McRae:

Become familiar with the lyrics and how a vocalist phrases the melody, so you’ll know how to accompany a singer on “Body And Soul” when you’re asked to do so!

Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock: Salzburg, 1989 (video)

Zawinul grew up playing the accordion, and this video shows how much he's incorporated the accordion sound into his electronic instruments.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Body and Soul” is one of the more challenging ballads from The Great American Songbook era. The chords change every 2 beats and move through many tonal centers. Also, it contains both diatonic and chromatic chordal movement, so you can’t stay on one scale for very long while improvising.

Once you have “Body and Soul” memorized, try playing it in all 12 keys. The very effort of transposing a tune like this to all 12 keys will help you in many ways. Your ear will improve, you’ll see many musical connections within the chord sequences, and you’ll get to know the piano keyboard much better. Transposing a song into all the keys can be very difficult the first time you attempt it, but it’s well worth the effort. The first time I transposed “Body and Soul” into all 12 keys, I became so confused that I could barely play it in the original key of Db anymore! But I soon figured it out, and you can too!

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

Further links and resources:
Body And Soul: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

Body and Soul: Journey Through The Real Book #43

Jazz Piano Tip #38: Body and Soul

The value of learning a tune in all 12 keys

Transcription of Coleman Hawkins’ tenor sax solo, in concert key

How to become comfortable playing in the “hard” keys
In addition to having lots of chords, “Body And Soul” is in the challenging key of Db major. Here’s how to practice for fluency in the keys with many flats or sharps.

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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