A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Lament” is a lush, gorgeous jazz ballad by the trombonist J. J. Johnson. It’s one of those tunes that wasn’t a popular standard, but was composed by a jazz musician specifically as a jazz tune.

J. J. Johnson wrote “Lament” in 1954, and it’s become a classic. It’s a good tune to play when you want to perform a ballad, but want something different from Cole Porter and George Gershwin songs that make up The Great American Songbook.

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.)

J.J. Johnson & Kai Winding Quintet: J.J. Johnson/Kai Winding

The Tommy Flanagan Trio (video)

Branford Marsalis: Renaissance

Keith Jarrett Standards Trio

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The funny thing about “lament” is that if you take a quick glance at the leadsheet, it looks like a typical post-bop medium-tempo tune. The melody moves in a semi-boppish way, and the chord progression contains a good deal of ii-V-I sequences. At first glance it almost looks like John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird” or many other similar tunes.

But as its title suggests, “Lament” is a ballad. And what a gorgeous ballad it is! The melody moves through the various tonal modulations in just the right way, and the final 8 bars build to an expressive, emotional peak before descending back down to a final resting point on the tonic note of F.

The Keith Jarrett Trio recording I’ve linked to above shows us an interesting possibility of how to play a jazz ballad. The tempo is actually faster than a true ballad would be played at. But even though it’s technically faster, they “feel” it in ‘2,’ so that it sounds like a ballad. They’re feeling the half notes as the main pulse, almost as if they’re playing in cut time. This rhythmic “slight of hand” is a very effective was of keeping your ballads from seeming too slow or lumbersome. Try it on other ballads and see which ones sound good with this technique. You can use it to give variety to your performances. For instance it you include two ballads during a 10-song set, you can play one in ‘4’ and one in ‘2,’ so they sound different from one another.

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

Further links and resources:
J. J. Johnson: Wikipedia

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