A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Freddie Freeloader” originally appeared on one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue.” The album was recorded in 1959 and also contains “So What,” “All Blues,” and “Blue In Green,” all of which are in The Real Book.

One of the ways that Kind Of Blue is fascinating is that it clearly shows us how the style of an individual pianist can effect the overall sound of the whole band. Even though Wynton Kelly was the pianist in the Miles Davis Quintet at the time, Davis brought back his former pianist, Bill Evans, to play on this recording. (He neglected to inform Kelly of this decision ahead of time, but that’s another story!) Evans brings his understated, impressionistic style to every tune except “Freddie Freeloader,” and this gives the rest of the album a unique color that’s well-suited to the emotional tone that Miles was going for. Evan’s also shared Davis’ interest in improvising with modes at the time, and indeed, most of the album is primarily “modal.”

“Freddie Freeloader,” with Wynton Kelly on piano, is different. It’s “swinging,” in the best sense of the word. The whole group digs into the beat more, right from the opening notes, and Kelly supplies some of the best piano fills in jazz history between the melody’s phrases. Listen to these and make them a part of your playing style. Wynton Kelly finds just the right balance between blues and jazz and his specific rhythmic feel while playing blues licks influenced Herbie Hancock and many other jazz 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.)

Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue

Jon Hendricks and Friends: Freddie Freeloader

Besides being one of the all-time great jazz singers, Jon Hendricks is a master at "vocalese," the art of putting lyrics to instrumental jazz solos and then singing them. This is fun!

Bill Evans: You Must Believe In Spring

18 years after he didn't play "Freddie Freeloader" on Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, Bill Evans decided to record the tune with his trio. It's nice to "finally" hear him play it!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Historically, “Freddie Freeloader” heralds a return to the roots of the blues, using what is essentially a very basic 12-bar blues progression after the heyday of bebop, in which jazz players would use more and more harmonically sophisticated chord addition and substitutions whenever possible. (Check out Charlie Parker’s “Blues For Alice’ to see what I mean.)

Here, Miles begins by staying on the initial tonic chord, Bb7, for the full 4 bars, not even playing the IV chord in m. 2, which had become standard practice even during the Swing Era. Holding out the I chord for the first 4 measures accomplished two things in 1959. Number one, it related the music, harmonically at least, to a very primal or “country” style of blues playing. And number two, remaining on a chord like this can encourage the modal approach to improvising that Miles and others were beginning to explore.

Another interesting feature of the chord progression is that Davis abandoned the by-then standard use of ii/V in measures 9-10. Instead, he uses V and IV, which was coincidentally (or not coincidentally) being heard in the Rock and Roll of the time. (Elvis Presley’s recording of “Hound Dog,” for example.) Could Miles have been listening to rock music this early on? He certainly was doing so a few years later, when he became a Jimi Hendrix fan!

Perhaps the most unusual feature in “Freddie Freeloader,” though, is that Miles goes to a different final chord (in the 1st ending on the leadsheet). The progression moves to Ab7, which is the bVII chord, instead of resolving to the Bb7 tonic chord as expected. This gently deceptive resolution serves to provide harmonic variety because the rest of the progression is the most basic blues chord progression. So even though Davis went back to an earlier, simple harmonic world in most of the tune, with the final Ab7 he’s reminding us that he’s still “modern” and an innovator.

Wynton Kelly’s piano solo is a classic, and would be a great solo to transcribe yourself. Begin by singing along with it, and don’t be in a hurry to write down the notes yet. Spend a good week or solo memorizing how the solo sounds and “scat singing” along with it, even if you don’t have a good singing voice. The act of vocalizing will get the solo in your body and enable you to absorb Wynton Kelly’s rhythmic feel in a thorough way. After a while, begin figuring it out on the piano, one phrase at a time, and eventually write it down. The solos I transcribed using this technique still influence my piano playing in a good way, whether I’m thinking about it or not!

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

Further links and resources:
Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
The definitive book on how the Kind of Blue album was made.

Kind Of Blue Documentary (part 1)
Kind Of Blue Documentary (part 2)
Kind Of Blue Documentary (part 3)

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

Kind of Blue: Transcribed score

Freddie Freeloader: Journey Through The Real Book #128

Jazz Piano Tip #39: Freddie Freeloader

Here's how to focus on the groove and make your solos sound great!

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