A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“If You Never Come To Me” is a beautiful bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim, although it’s not nearly as widely-played as his more famous songs like “The Girl Fom Ipanema,” “Wave,” or “Corcovado.” If you’re new to jazz or the bossa nova style, learn those songs first, if only because everybody plays them and you’ll be able to participate when they’re called at jam sessions or on gigs. Then, when you’re ready to expand your bossa nova repertoire, come back to “If You Never Come To Me.” You can learn it and bring it to jam sessions to share with your musical friends. It’s a great song and the melody moves in intriguing ways.

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.)

Nancy King & Fred Hersch: Live At Jazz Standard

Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
A soon as you play the first three measures of “If You Never Come To Me,” you’ll know that you’re in unfamiliar territory. The melody is chromatic and the chords don’t seem to be following any type of functional harmony like Jobim’s tunes usually do. (Look at “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Wave” to see what I mean.)

But Jobim was a composer who can’t be put “in a box,” as we tend to do when thinking about a highly specific style like Bossa Nova. In fact, though, if you listen to a lot of Brazilian recordings of Bossa Nova you’ll hear a much wider stylistic range than we jazz musicians tend to use while playing bossas ourselves.

Jobim and the other creators of the style sometimes played them very rhythmically, but went smooth and lyrical at other times. And some of his recordings actually sound “pop” to our ears. (And they were! Remember, these were big ‘hits’ at the time.) Jobim clearly didn’t want all his songs to sound the same and used many different compositional techniques to achieve this variety.

Here, he’s actually “dressing up” a chord progression that when viewed over the longer 16-bar section is actually very traditional. But along the way he’s being quite experimental.

Let’s look at the first 4 measures, for example. When we’re playing the tune and moving from the C chord to the B and then the Bb (all Major 7ths), we lose the overall sense of key a little. Especially with the ascending chromatic line in the melody. But when we place this phrase in it’s bigger context, we notice the “sleight of hand” that Jobim used.

Jobim’s overall goal here is to start on the I chord and eventually arrive at the Vi& chord, 4 measures later. All of sudden, this chord progression looks very traditional, right? This chordal motion could have been written in the 1920s! And taking it a step further (no pun intended!), moving down by chromatic half steps would be a very standard way of getting there. Play if for yourself: CMaj7/B7/Bb7/A7. Typical Gershwin or Harold Arlen. But Jobim doesn’t exactly do this, does he? Instead, he uses Major 7th chords, which obscure the tonality a bit. And he adds to it even more by moving the melody up to G# (the 6th of BMaj7) and following it with A, which is the Major 7th of the BbMaj7 chord. To top it off, he even throws a 5b (or #11) into the BbMajor7th chord. Wow!

The result, of course, is an absolutely stunning opening phrase. It kind of “floats” over the steady bossa beat and conveys a feeling of relaxation and emotional bliss. A true master stroke by a brilliant composer!

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

Further links and resources:
Tom Jobim’s Story Of Bossa Nova
An amazing video which contains interviews and performances with Jobim

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

Jazz Piano Lessons via Skype
Personal guidance from an expert, caring teacher. Beginning through Advanced.

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

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