A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Steve Swallow’s “I’m Your Pal” came to the attention of jazz pianists when it was included on Chick Corea’s and vibraphonist Gary Burton’s groundbreaking album “Crystal Silence” in 1972. Their intimate chamber-music sound was new and fresh and their exciting rhythms inspired a whole new generation of young jazz musicians in the early days of jazz fusion.

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.)

Chick Corea and Gary Burton: Crystal Silence

The Gary Burton Quartet: Lofty Fake Anagram

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Of all the Steve Swallow tunes in The Real Book, “I’m Your Pal” is perhaps the most like a traditional jazz tune. It has a jazz ballad rhythm and even uses a few ii/V’s in the chord progression(!) The melody, too, has a more “standard” feel about it than some of Swallow’s other melodies.

At the same time, there are lots of inversions, which is maybe one reason why Swallow’s music fits Chick Corea’s piano style so well. (Then again, what music doesn’t fit Corea’s style? He makes everything he plays seem so effortless!) In true Steve Swallow fashion, many of the chord inversions come from creating that either chromatically ascend or descend.

One thing I like to do when practicing a tune with so many inversions like this it to play just the melody and bass notes, and simply listen to how they sound together. The outer voices in a tune have a relationship, especially when the composer took care to think it through and use inversions like in “I’m Your Pal.” It’s like with a Bach 4-part Chorale. The soprano moves one way while the bass moves the other. Or they might move in parallel motion. Or one stays the same while the other moves, as “I’m Your Pal” does in m.6. Hearing this soprano/bass relationship in it’s most pure form sensitizes us to the overall movement of the progression and how it supports the melody. After you do this for a while, go back and add the chords again, and hear how they color our perception of the melody and bass line in very specific ways.

After you follow this procedure for getting to know the melody, bass, and then chords, you’ll be better prepared to begin exploring ways to improvise solos on the tune. You’ll “hear” the chords better which will in turn allow your inner ear to dictate melodies more naturally and with a greater sense of ease.

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

Further links and resources:
Steve Swallow interview
The composer of “I’m Your Pal” discusses his composing and bass playing

An interesting forum thread about Steve Swallow and his Real Books tunes

Expert Testimony: Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow tells the story of how his tunes were included in The Real Book

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