A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
In his final years, Ellington wrote and performed 3 concerts of sacred music, which he considered to be among his most important work. “Heaven” was part of his 1968 Second Sacred Concert and features a vocal by Swedish soprano Alice Babs, whom he speaks highly of in his autobiography.
“Heaven” is one of my favorite pieces to play, and if you’re just getting acquainted with it, listen to the Ellington recording to get a sense of how it goes. The leadsheet doesn’t give the flow or groove of the tune, which can be played as a ballad or as a bossa nova.
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.)
Duke Ellington: Concert of Sacred Music
Earl Hines: Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington
Randy Weston: Portraits
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
There’s an entire stream of jazz piano playing that isn’t primarily bebop, and much of it stems from Ellington. Duke’s music heavily influenced Thelonious Monk, who in turn influenced non-bop players like Randy Weston, Gil Evans and Abdullah Ibrahim. A lot of jazz pianists have also been influenced by both bop and what we may call the Ellington/Monk continuum. This list would include Chick Corea as well as contemporary pianists such as Jason Moran.
I don’t want to try to describe the “Ellington” sound in a few words, since that tends to limit our actual experience of hearing it. Anyway, it’s more about a specific “sound” than an actual technique. Ellington formed his initial concept during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, which meant that he started out playing in the style of the Harlem Stride pianists such as James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. This gradually morphed into his own unique approach that worked incredibly well with the overall sound of his big band. He played with a full piano tone and used elements of the blues such as riffs, along with an advanced, rich harmonic palette. I recall reading an interview with one of Ellington’s later bassists, who remembered being shocked when he looked over at Duke hands to see him playing a Cdim7 chord with his left hand and a Ddim7 with the right. Many jazz musicians would tend to associate this type of voicing with later pianists such as Herbie Hancock. But Ellington (and Art Tatum) were playing chords like this in the 1930s!
“Heaven” is a good tune to use when exploring Ellington’s piano style for yourself. Check out the colorful and unexpected notes in his melodies, and push yourself to invent chord voicings that you haven’t played before.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts: Wikipedia
Duke Ellington: Music Is My Mistress
Ellington wrote this autobiography himself, with a “ghostwriter.” He writes as though he’s speaking to us directly and gives us a vivid glimpse into the excitement of jazz’s early days.
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