A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Contemplation” is a McCoy Tyner composition that the pianist wrote for his 1967 album, “The Real McCoy.” Tyner, who rose to fame as a member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, had left Coltrane by this time and was recording as a leader. The Real McCoy is considered to be his best album and has been a huge influence on many, many pianists.

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.)

McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy

The original recording, from 1967

McCoy Tyner: Revelations

Here’s Tyner revisiting the tune, in 1988

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
If you primarily play in the swing or bebop styles and want to “branch out” a little, give “Contemplation” a try. The medium-slow rhythm, in ‘3,’ was heavily influenced by the kind of grooves that Tyner helped create as a member of John Coltrane’s rhythm section. Polyrhythms help give the tune a kind of rhythmic tapestry that’s hard to describe, so be sure to listen to McCoy’s recording, below.

Harmonically, the tune is pretty easy, containing only four chords. Like many of his contemporaries from the 1960’s, Tyner enjoyed improvising over sparse chord progressions, using modes, pentatonic scales, and chromaticism for expressive means. Don’t feel like you need to play this music with McCoy’s exact approach, though. Tyner found his own way while playing other people’s music, and we should feel the same way about playing his. McCoy used 4th voicings and pentatonic scales to develop a highly identifiable and personal sound. If these techniques help you express your own musicality, then by all means, use them. But I also invite you to use the same voicings and improvisational techniques that you use on other modal tunes as well. How would Miles Davis play this tune? What type of arrangement would Gil Evans write for “Contemplation?” Simply asking these types of questions can help us break out of a narrow approach and bring different possibilities to a tune like “Contemplation.”

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

Further links and resources:
The Real McCoy (album): Wikipedia

Contemplation: Journey Through The Real Book #71

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