A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
There are no two ways about it; “Four” is essential jazz repertoire. It’s a great tune, but even if it’s not one of your personal favorites, you’ll be expected to play it. A lot. The melody is simple enough that most beginning jazzers can learn it, and the chords are a good introduction to the bebop vocabulary.

Although it’s credited in The Real Book to Miles Davis, “Four” was actually composed by Eddie “Cleanhead Vinson. Vinson composed it in 1954 and it ws soon after recorded by Davis for his album Blue Haze (you can listen to the recording below).

The original Real Book had some wrong chords in “Four,” so make sure all the musicians in your group know the correct chords, especially if they have an older edition of The Real Book. I’ve compared the two harmonizations below so you can make sure you have the correct version.

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.)

Miles Davis: Blue Haze

This was the first recording of “Four,” which is from that fascinating “in-between” period of Miles’ career. He had left Charlie Parker’s group a few years earlier and was struggling to establish himself as a leader during these years, before he formed his great 1950s quintet. Horace Silver is on piano, leading the move away from “pure” bebop into a bluesier, funkier style that he would continue to develop in the coming years.

Miles Davis: Four And More

1960s quintet

Sonny Rollins: A Night At The Village Vanguard

This is the great version by Sonny Rollins from 1957. Since there's no piano on the recording, we get to play along and be the pianist in the group!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The  old version of The Real Book had some wrong chords for “Four.” Specifically, they used Bbm7, Eb7, and AbMaj7 in measures 3, 4, and 5 respectively. Even though this progression may sound more “logical” at first, being a standard ii/V/I in the key of Ab, the original series of chords is much better and I’m glad the publishers of The Real Book have now corrected this. The Fm7 in m.5 in particular sounds fresh and “out-of-the-box.” The good thing about this too is how it gets us out of our usual way of improvising. You can’t play any of the “usual” ii/V/I licks over this section. The chords all sound related, but a little surprising at the same time! Listen to the Miles Davis recording I’ve linked to above and follow how Miles negotiates this section during his solo. It’s not easy!

The brief excursion to the key of E major (represented by the F#m7 and B7) will keep you on your toes as well. Practice these chords on their own until you can improvise easily in E major, and then slowly practice improvising on those sections of the tune. I remember once playing “Four” for my piano teacher, Billy Taylor. He patiently listened to my improvisation and then gently pointed out that I tended to avoid the “hard” chords! I immediately realized that he was right and I resolved to start practicing all the chords in each tune I played.

One way to make sure you equally learn all the chords is to practice improvising through the entire chord progression using continuous 8th notes. I’ve spent hours practicing “Four” and other tunes like this and I can say that it definitely keeps us honest about our own playing! (Also, be sure to learn the transcription of Miles' solo I've linked to below.)

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

Further links and resources:
Jazz Piano Tip #32: Four

How to take a bebop lick through the chord changes

10 Ways To Learn Bebop Piano

Four playalong track

Four: Wikipedia

Transcription of Miles Davis’ “Four” trumpet solo by Jamie Breiwick

Four: Journey Through The Real Book #126

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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