A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Like many of Duke Ellington’s songs, “In A Sentimental Mood” started off as an instrumental composition and received lyrics later on. Duke wrote the tune in 1935, which makes it one of the earlier of his famous pieces.

The song is a beautiful ballad with a soaring melody and a haunting, chromatic countermelody in the chord changes that’s the same as the one that Rodgers and Hart used two years later in “My Funny Valentine.”

Lots of jazz musicians play this song so “In A Sentimental Mood” should be one of the first few jazz ballads you learn. The chord progression can be a little challenging at first, but look at it this way: once you learn it, other tunes will be easier!

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 and his Orchestra

This is the original recording, from 1935

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane

Listen to how Ellington uses a repeating motif in his piano accompaniment to make it distinctive and set a mood.
The Ellington/Coltrane pairing may seem incongruous at first glance, but they sound great together. This may be in part because Coltrane’s early idol was Johnny Hodges, who played in Duke’s band for many years.

Sarah Vaughan: After Hours

Michel Petrucciani (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“In A Sentimental Mood” has a lot of natural possibilities for piano. Here are a few of them:

1. When you’re learning to song of the first time, the chord in the first 2 measures can seem overly complicated and confusing: Dm, Dm(maj7), Dm7, Dm6. In fact, you may ask yourself, “Why couldn’t they have just written a simple D minor chord?” Well, you’re right. It actually is just a simple D minor chord, but with one addition: there’s a chromatic melody line moving through it. (D, C#, C, B.) So as you play the Dm chord with your left hand, let your thumb play a ‘D’, just above middle C on the piano. Then move it to a C# two beats later, then to a C natural, and finally to a B. When you add these melodic notes to a basic D minor triad, you get the overly-complex chord names you see in the sheet music during m.1-2: Dm, Dm(maj7), Dm7, Dm6. But once you know the “secret,” it’s easy! (And… you’ll easily be able to identify this pattern when you see it again, in other songs such as “My Funny Valentine!”

2. The ‘A’ and ‘B’ sections of “In A Sentimental Mood” are almost like different songs, or like two different characters in the same story. The ‘A’ section, which is in D minor, has ascending and descending 8th-note melodic lines followed by held-out notes with chromatic inner-voices below. This gives it a kind of “floating” effect. The bridge, however is in a different key, Db major, and features a very different kind of melodic motion over the old I-vi-ii-V chord progression that basically keeps circling over upon itself. This contrast practically invites us to use different pianistic textures for each, to highlight their uniqueness. You could use some arpeggios during the ‘A’ sections, for instance, while moving to a slow, relaxed stride accompaniment during the bridge. Or vice versa!

3. Listen to the Ellington/Coltrane recording I’ve linked to above to hear how Ellington creates his piano accompaniment around that short, repeated “motif.” Try doing the same on other ballads you play, and enjoy the positive response you get from the musicians you play with. (Just remember to keep it simple enough that it enhances the solo instrument, and doesn’t detract from the overall performance.)

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

Further links and resources:
In A Sentimental Mood: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

Ellington And Monk Play With Coltrane
Includes a discussion about Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” recording

Duke Ellington: Music Is My Mistress
Ellington’s autobiography is unmatched for its vivid descriptions of the early New York City jazz scene.

How To Learn Jazz Piano
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