A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“I Mean You” is one of pianist Thelonious Monk’s best-known compositions. It’s widely performed as an instrumental, and is also one of his more “vocalist-friendly” melodies.

Like all of Monk’s tunes, you may find that it sounds easier than it is to actually is to learn. That’s because Monk liked to write very tuneful melodies and then harmonize them with tricky chord changes and rhythms. But Monk knew what he was doing and the effort to learn a song like this will play off once you’ve learned it.

Monk first recorded “I Mean You” in 1947 and kept it in his repertoire for many years. It always amazes me how natural and effortless his compositions sound when he plays them himself!

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.)

Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk: Mulligan Meets Monk

Fred Hersch: Chivas Jazz Festival, 2002 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Even though “I Mean You” has a few twists and turns, it’s actually one of the easier Monk tunes to learn. (If you want to hear one of his wonderful but extremely difficult tunes, listen to Monk and John Coltrane play “Trinkle Tinkle!”) But unlike “Trinkle Tinkle,” “I Mean You” sounds pretty much in the tradition of a lot of other jazz standards. The chord progression in the ‘A’ sections is, in fact, similar to what “Tanke The ‘A’ Train” would be in the key of F major. The only difference would be the chords in m. 2-3. Seen in this light, it’s clear that the “small” difference in chords is actually pretty big in terms of style. In fact, it’s exactly this “Monkian” touch that sets it apart.

This slight difference is also what make this and some other Monk tunes challenging to solo on. After improvising on countless choruses of “Take The ‘A’ Train,” we suddenly find ourselves in unfamiliar territory when we encounter the Db7 chord as early as the 3rd measure. And, just when we adjust to being on the bIV chord like that, Monk jolts us by moving us a chromatic step, to D7. (Yikes! We can’t use any of our ii/V/I licks!!!)

No, Monk’s compositions aren’t like all the other tunes we play, and it’s also worth noting that he himself preferred to teach his music to other musicians by rote. I’ve read accounts of how he and Sonny Rollins would stay up all night, taking hours to get through just one tune at a time by carefully going over each phrase until Rollins could play it perfectly. Monk did that with John Coltrane too.

Monk’s music presents us with a huge challenge that’s also a huge opportunity. With each piece, Monk invites us to step outside our comfort zones and re-think how we play jazz and who we are as artists. I hope you accept his invitation!

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

Further links and resources:
I Mean You playalong track

Here's why Thelonious Monk's music is so hard to play

I Mean You: Journey Through The Real Book #164

Your (bebop) roots are showing, Mr. Thelonious Monk!!!

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