A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:

Henry Mancini is one of the handful of composers who achieved popular success in the 1960s and 70s while using a primarily jazz-based harmonic vocabulary. His jazzy movie soundtrack pieces like “The Pink Panther” and “Baby Elephant Walk” were huge instrumental hits. Even his most famous song, “Moon River,” can be successfully played as a jazz tune.

“Dreamsville” was composed by Mancini for the 1950s TV show, Peter Gunn. It’s an absolutely gorgeous song that translates well to the piano. My experience with the song has been mostly with accompanying vocalist who include it in their repertoire, but it would be a great jazz ballad to play in jam sessions when you want to introduce a new tune to your musical colleagues. They’ll enjoy playing a “new” tune as good as this one!

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.)

Henry Mancini: Music From “Peter Gunn” (original soundtrack)

George Shearing: Live in Munich, 1992 (video)

Henry Mancini and Sue Raney (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Dreamsville” is a beautiful tune and unique, I think, in that its bridge is made up entirely of ii/V relationships: F#m7(b5) B7(#5)/Em7 A7/F#m7 B7/ Cm7 F7/G#m7(b5) C#7(b9)/F#m7(b5) B7(b9)/ Em7(b5) A7(b9)/Dm7 G7. This section alone could give us enough to improvise over!

It’s interesting to see how Mancini composed the ‘A’ Sections with a minimum of ii –V’s to contrast with this. The bridge sounds fresh because it comes out of something very different. The ‘A’ sections even contain a bit of modality. To improvise over the 2nd measure, you can think of the Gm7/C as either a Gm7 chord, using the G Dorian mode, or as a C9sus4, which would correspond to C Mixolydian. Like Irving Berlin before him, Mancini’s songs sound so melodic that we can miss the consummate skill and craftsmanship that he put into them.

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

Further links and resources:
Henry Mancini: Wikipedia

Dreamsville: Journey Through The Real Book #102

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