A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Freedom Jazz Dance” is a jazz-rock piece that was composed by tenor (and electric) saxophonist Eddie Harris in 1965. The “free” in the title comes from the fact that there’s only one chord, a Bb7, and during your solos you can basically play anything you like over it, going “inside” and “outside” at will. The melody establishes this sound with its use of 4th intervals that freely move between tonal regions.

Harris’ recording was hugely influential at the time but nowadays, the version by Miles Davis is much better known. Miles’ great 1960s quintet recorded it on their landmark 1967 album, Miles Smiles. You can listen to both versions below.

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.)

Eddie Harris: The In Sound

Miles Davis: Miles Smiles

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
After you’ve learned the melody to “Freedom Jazz Dance,” check out the piano solo that Herbie Hancock played on the album Miles Smiles. (I’ve linked to a transcription, below.)

There’s a good deal of problem-solving involved when you’re soloing over a single chord like this. To begin with, we can either play modally or chromatically, and the players in Miles’ quintet did both, at different times. The basic idea is to “be in the moment” and let the music unfold.

As I observed above, the melody to “Freedom Jazz Dance” is so chromatic that it “sets the stage” for the solos to follow suit. But not necessarily. A modal solo might work very well on the tune, depending on your own individual musical style.

Let’s look at Herbie’s piano solo now. If you’re used to playing in more of a swing or bebop style, this may be a little strange to play at first. So before you analyze it too much, simply play through the solo and become used to the sounds and how it feels under your fingers. This is an important step and it’s best if you stay with it for a while. Even as long as a week or a month. Give yourself time to absorb it before thinking about it too much.

Now let’s analyze what Hancock did.

In a sense, Herbie is setting out in this solo to create patches of tonality which he can then flit in and out of, at will. Instead of playing a straight Bb7 chord, be begins with a “shape,” which only vaguely resembles Bb7. His first LH voicing has the root (Bb), and the b9th (B natural), and a G below, which can either be seen as coming from an Eb major triad or as the 13th in a Bb7 chord. (Note, though, that he’s omitted the 7th of the Bb7 chord!) What he’s doing here is implying the Bb7 chord while at the same time keeping it vague enough that he can superimpose other tonalities on top of it. This gives him a lot of freedom to play these other tonalities in his right hand.

So if we look at his first improvised RH phrase, it literally emerges from the LH voicing with the B natural, and then contains Eb and G. Together they form an Eb augmented triad, which viewed against the backdrop of Bb7, make it a Bb13 sus (b9). He’s playing an arpeggio. But as Herbie told my friend Barry when Barry took lessons from him in the mid 1960s, he did indeed think in terms of “shapes,” and this Eb augmented triad can therefore be viewed as a shape that he can now repeat, alter, and vary. The next part of the phrase is kind of a transposition of the shape up a fourth, but with the top note kept at Bb in order to keep it related to the LH voicing. (The E natural can also be seen as a chromatic “sidestepping” from the Eb.)

Everything through m.7 can be seen as relating to the opening voicing and RH phrase like I’ve just described. Even the addition of the low Eb in the LH voicing comes from this.

Hancock has stated that composer Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring” is one of his favorite pieces of all time. I find it fascinating that Stravinsky liked to do the same kind of harmonic manipulations that Herbie is doing here: combining the tonic and dominant in one chord and using layers of harmony like we see in this solo.

You can go through and look at the rest of the solo in the same way. You’ll see that every few measures, Hancock shifts uses a different color from his harmonic palette and focuses on it to take us on a journey. He references the blues in measures 14-16 and solos with a B major scale in measures 25-26.

You can practice using these same techniques as you also try things out and find your own favorite ways of soloing over the Bb bass note in your own “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

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

Further links and resources:
A transcription of Herbie Hancock’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” piano solo

Freedom Jazz Dance: Journey Through The Real Book #129

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