A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Isotope” is a jazz blues from Joe Henderson’s 1966 album “Inner Urge.” (The title tune is also in The Real Book.) McCoy Tyner plays piano on the album and it’s always interesting to hear him play outside the John Coltrane Quartet.

If you want to have a little fun, compare a few jazz blues tunes from different eras and see their similarities and differences. In The Real Book, start with “Alright, OK, You Win, in which the A Sections are an older swing-style blues. Then look at “Blues For Alice” and got to know Charlie Parker’s bebop melody and chord changes. After that, come back to the post-bop style of “Isotope” and see how Henderson adds different musical elements while staying firmly rooted in the jazz lineage. Making historical connections in the music itself will go a long way towards making you a better jazz pianist.

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

The Stanley Clarke Trio: Jazz In The Garden

with Hiromi

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Isotope” is a jazz blues with lots of chord substitutions. It’s so disguised, in fact, that you might not recognize it as a blues upon first glance. After all, a “blues” in C doesn’t have Eb7and D7 chords in bar 2, does it?

Well, “Isotope” does, because composer Joe Henderson is looking at the harmonic goal at the end of the phrase. Or, more specifically, at the beginning of the next phrase in m. 5. This gives him the liberty to use whatever chords he likes, as long as it leads logically to a IV chord, F7, as an arrival point at the beginning of m. 4. And yes, when we look at measure 4, we do see the expected F7 chord.

So how come he uses the Eb7 in the 2nd measure? To answer this question, we have to work backwards. He wants to set up the F7 by returning to the C7 in measure 4. (He actually anticipates this by bringing in the C7 two beats earlier, but the principle is the same.) Now, what chord could lead to the C? Look at the preceding chord, the G7. Have you ever seen a G7-C progression before. Yes, of course; it’s a standard V7-I resolution which had been a hallmark of traditional harmony since about the year 1600.

And what’s right before the G7? Why, a D7, which is the V of G. Henderson is simply moving around the circle of 4ths. It’s such a common chord progression, but Henderson is using it in a highly unusual place; during the first phrase of a blues. (I don’t think I would have ever thought of that myself!)

Now… about that Eb7 in bar 2.

Going from C7 to the Eb7 sounds a bit jarring, but this is quickly mitigated by the fact that the Eb7 immediately moves down a half step to the D7. It’s a “tritone substitution” with the Eb7 replacing and A7 chord which would have been a V-I setup to D.

Seen like this, the “weird” C7 Eb7 D7 G7 C7 chord progression now seems pretty traditional, doesn’t it? Henderson continues to do some surprising things, like insert an Ebm7 chord in m. 9. Beboppers like Charlie Parker liked to use the biii m7 chord too, but not necessarily in this exact spot. Again, Henderson is using traditional elements in an unusual way.

This all can take some time to get used to, especially if you haven’t played this kind of “altered blues” before. Spend some quality time just playing the chords until they sound logical to you and you can “hear” what’s coming next. At this point, you’ll be ready to improvise!

(By the way, Henderson simplifies the first 4 bars when soloing, just using the “standard” C7/F7/C7/C7 chord progression.)

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

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

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