A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Dizzy Gillespie wrote and recorded “Con Alma” in 1954 and it’s been covered by countless of other jazz musicians since. Although it’s not one of the more widely-played Real Book tunes, your efforts to learn it and share it with your peers will be rewarded. The song is catchy and has a beautiful set of chord changes.

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.)

Dizzy Gillespie

Fred Hersch: Songs Without Words

Michel Camilo (video)

Steve Lewis/ Lewis Nash duo: Lafayette College, 2008 (video)

See if you can play along with this sax and drums duet. (Nash keeps the beat very clear so it shouldn’t be too difficult!)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The harmony to “Con Alma” is a little different from that of many tunes by bebop composers. In a way, each few measures features it’s own harmonic concept. While this keeps the tune sounding fresh and unpredictable, it can take some time to get used to playing and you may need to practice each section on its own until you understand what’s happening, harmonically.

Let’s start with the first 2 measures of the tune itself (not the intro). There are four chords, and they’re all related in different ways, unlike a “circle of 4ths” tune like “Autumn Leaves,” for example. Dizzy begins with an EMajor7, and immediately goes out of the key with a secondary dominant (G#7) that resolves to C#m7, the vi chord in E major. Then he simply moves down a step to B7, the V chord, in a non-functional way. Add to this the fact that the G#7 chord is used in inversion with the chord’s fifth in the bass so that there’s a stepwise descending bass line for the two measures. The overall effect of these chords in stunning but it does take a while to get accustomed to playing, since you can’t go on “automatic pilot” based on what you’ve played in other tunes! I recommend that you play the chords and bass line slowly, almost as a hymn, until you get them under your fingers.

Isolate and practice each group of two or 4 measures this was and really analyze how the chords move and relate to each other. There’s a nice tritone substitution in m.3, for instance, and later, in the bridge, you’ll see Dizzy’s trademark use of the iim7(b5) chord. (The original beboppers, by the way, referred to this as a ivm6 chord in 3rd inversion.)

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

Further links and resources:
Con Alma: A Critical Analysis Of Covers
An article that highlights several recordings of the tune

Con Alma playalong track

Con Alma: Journey Through The Real Book #68

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