A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
“Gloria’s Step” is one of the few compositions by bassist Scott LaFaro. LaFaro played bass in pianist Bill Evans’ innovative trio which recorded the iconic Sunday At The Village Vanguard album in 1961. The recording featured “Gloria’s Step” along with classics such as “All Of You” and “Alice In Wonderland.”
The trio, with Paul Motion on drums, brought a new level of interplay to small group jazz, where all 3 members played with a rhythmic freedom and independence that went way beyond the solo/accompaniment template of most jazz groups. Sadly, LaFaro was tragically killed in a car accident just 10 days after the Vanguard recording.
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.)
Bill Evans Trio: Sunday At The Village Vanguard
Featuring the tune’s composer, Scott LaFaro, on bass
Bill Evans: In The Jazz Set ’72 (video)
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Gloria’s Step” is a fun tune to play, but first you’ll have to become used to a few of it’s idiosyncrasies.
First of all, the tune is 20 measures long, divided in half. The first half, in turn, consists of two 5-measure phrases. Since we’re more used to playing 4 measure phrases, it may seem at first like there’s an “extra measure” in each phrase while you’re improvising, but you’ll soon become comfortable with this after some steady practice and repetition. Mozart, incidentally, wrote a lot of 5-measure phrases too, and both he and Lafaro make the melodic length seem natural in these spots. (To stretch yourself, try writing some music with 5-measure phrases too!)
Harmonically, the first half begins on an F major chord and ends in F minor, which can be considered “modal mixture.” In any case, F is the tonic key here. I love the way in which LaFaro uses “floating” major 7th chords to give a light harmonic sound while also obscuring our sense of where the key center is. But then he “brings us home” with a very traditional V – I cadence at the end of each phrase. It’s “out, but not too far out.”
The chords in the 2nd half of the tune do the same thing, but in a different way. After beginning with Em7/FMaj7 (chords which, by the way, also figure prominently in Chick Corea’s later “Crystal Silence”), LaFaro uses a harmonic sequence of Am7(b5)/ Em7(b5) and Gm7(b5)/Dm7(b5). Play these chords a few times and listen to them carefully. Do you hear the relationship? The A moves up a perfect 5th to the E, and then the G and D do the same thing, but down a step. Just like we can have melodic sequences, we can also have harmonic sequences like this. They give the tune a sense of logic and “inevitableness” that the roaming harmony might not otherwise have. The progression then ends with a “disguised” ii/V/I, in which a Bbm7(b5) replaces the usual dominant V chord and a jazzy/bluesy Eb7(#9) is used as a “tonic,” although the b9th makes it seem a little “unresolved.”
Enjoy your exploration of this chord progression. As I’ve outlined above, LaFaro seems to have constructed it so that it reflects some grounding in the jazz/popular standard tradition, while also moving in fresh and unpredictable ways.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
Scott LaFaro: Wikipedia
A transcription of Bill Evan’s piano solo on “Gloria’s Step”
Gloria's Step: Journey Through The Real Book #135
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