A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Composer/pianist Herbie Hancock first recorded “Dolphin Dance” on his 1965 album Maiden Voyage. The album was a huge influence on modern jazz and the two most popular tunes from it are “Dolphin Dance” and the title track.

“Dolphin Dance” is a good example of a tune that’s “hard but not too hard” for jazz pianists who are moving from the beginning to the intermediate level with their playing. The melody is catchy and the chords move in interesting directions.

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.)

Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage

Bill Evans Trio: I Will Say Goodbye

Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra

Ahmad Jamal: The Awakening

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Even though “Dolphin Dance” is 32 measures long, it doesn’t follow the standard 32-bar song form that so many standards are built upon. Instead, Hancock wends his way from key to key as he repeats, develops, and alters the various melodic motifs that make up the melody.

The tune is “through composed,” which means that the sections don’t repeat. There is no “recapitulation” or return of the main theme. In fact, there’s not even any clear demarcation leading into the last 8 measures. Instead, the phrases built to a high point at this spot, in a way that’s more commonly found in longer, large-scale compositions and arrangements.

The chord progression given in The Real Book is excellent, but be aware that some variations exist. Hancock himself, for instance, has been known to play an AbMaj7 in m.2 of the melody, whereas The Real Book uses an Ab dominant 7th chord. Try both and see which one you prefer.

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

Further links and resources:
An Analysis of “Dolphin Dance”
An introduction to the tune’s melody, harmony, and scales for soloing

A transcription of Hancock’s piano solo on “Dolphin Dance”

Herbie Hancock on Piano Jazz
Radio host Marian McPartland interviews Hancock. (also features piano solos and duets)

Dolphin Dance: Journey Through The Real Book #96

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