A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Inner Urge” is an up-tempo “burner” by tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. It’s a great tune, but it’s very hard to play.

Always keep in mind that jazz is a lifetime study. That’s a good thing! There will always be wonderful tunes and techniques for us to learn at every stage, and our continual involvement with improvisation will always remain alive and invigorating. We’re very lucky to be jazz musicians!

Recommended videos/recordings:
(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.)

Joe Henderson: Inner Urge

Jerry Bergonzi: Lineage

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
There are 3 main challenges to playing “Inner Urge” well: the fast tempo, becoming familiar with playing each chord and mode in the given sequence, and the fact that the melody covers a large span of the piano in the second half of the tune.

As far as the tempo goes, this may take some time to become comfortable with. I recommend that you practice “Inner Urge” at three tempos: very slowly, at a medium pace, and very fast. But here’s the key: don’t play the same thing at each tempo. Instead, play simpler lines or even single notes at the faster tempos and simply get “into the groove” at first. Even if you don’t sound very good playing fast at first (and in fact, nobody does!), try it anyway. The very act of attempting fast tempos will make your usual slow-to-medium speeds seem much easier than before.

To improvise on “Inner Urge,” start by identifying which mode to play over each chord. The Maj7b5 chords, incidentally, can also be viewed as Maj7#11 chords. This helps us relate them to Lydian modes, which also contain the #11 scale degree.
There are some beautiful m3rd movements between adjacent Major 7th chords in this tune.

As I pointed out above, the 2nd half of the melody goes up and down the keyboard very quickly, and has some leaps of a 4th and a 5th in very fast passages. I don’t play the saxophone, but I suspect that this type of thing is easier to play on sax than on piano. But I have found that with a little practice, this section of “Inner Urge” begins to actually feel natural and starts to flow. Practice it slowly at first and focus on your hand motion, not just finger technique. Yes, the fingers have to play the right notes, but the hands are what moves rapidly up and down the piano!

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

Further links and resources:
Inner Urge (album): Wikipedia

Compositional Style Of Joe Henderson
An article by saxophonist Dave Liebman, including a reference to “Inner Urge”

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