A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
If “Las Vegas Tango” is your introduction to the work of Gil Evans, you’re in for a real treat! And I don’t mean just with this tune. Evans composed and arranged some of the most beautiful an evocative jazz music ever, and you’ll get a lot out of exploring he music from the different eras of his career.

Evans began his career firmly in the Swing Era, as arranger for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Thornhill augmented his big band with some of the mellower instruments of the classical orchestra, such as flutes and French horns. They also perfected a blended sound that featured perfectly-controlled dynamics and an abundance of orchestral color. Evans, along with Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis, brought this sensibility into small group jazz in the late 1940s as arrangers for the Miles Davis “Birth Of The Cool” band. Evans’ two compositions for the band, “Boplicity” and “Moondreams,” are both exceptional and “must-hear” pieces of music.

Gil went on to record three amazing albums of arrangements for Miles Davis in the 1950s: “Miles Ahead,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Sketches of Spain.” Time spent with these will be time well spent.

“Las Vegas Tango” is from Evans’ 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans, and the whole album is incredible. (Evans’ re-thinking of Kurt Weill’s “The Barbara” Song is my favorite track on the album.) You’ll really have to listen to the recording of “Las Vegas Tango” to get the full effect of the tune, since it’s appeal lies very much in the orchestration. As you can see from the leadsheet in The Real Book, there’s really not much to the tune itself. It’s just a kind of “sketch.” But the orchestration… Wow! That’s something else entirely! The only way I can describe it is as being somehow “otherworldly.” Have a listen, and while you’re at it, check out as much of Gil Evans’ music as you can. He’s that important.

Enjoy yourself at every step of the way, and “let the music flow!”

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.)

The Individualism Of Gil Evans

Gary Burton: Good Vibes

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Las Vegas Tango” isn’t one of those tunes that “plays by itself.” In fact, a even a quick glance at the leadsheet in The Real Book tells us that there’s not really much there. It’s just two chords and the bare outline of a melody. This is both good and challenging for us as pianists.

It’s challenging because the melody and chords don’t provide us with enough interest by themselves. It’s not like “Confirmation” or some other complex bebop tune that automatically sounds great when played correctly. Played like this, “Las Vegas Tango” will still sound like “something’s missing. (Even the Gary Burton recording above is a little like this during the initial melody.)

On the other hand, the very sparseness of “Las Vegas Tango” invites us to open our imaginations and create new textures and chord voicings on the piano, maybe for the first time. Listen to how wonderfully Gil Evans orchestrated the melody in his own recording of the tune (see above). Wow! Do you hear how the band stretches the time while floating over the beat? They’re not playing the simple rhythms in The Real Book. But if we wrote down the exact rhythms they play, the notation would be to complicated to easily read.

And check out Gil Evan’s amazing orchestration! I’ve never heard anything like this anywhere else. And to think… it all came from his musical imagination. Whatever Evans was trying to express through this tune, it isn’t contained in the leadsheet. It’s not on paper, but it is on that recording.

So go ahead. Learn the simple melody and chords to “Las Vegas Tango.” And then use it as a fertile field for your imagination. In this regard, we can take inspiration from the great poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Dickinson wrote this poem to celebrate the power of creative imagination, which Gil Evans and we, too, can tap into with our jazz improvisations!

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

Further links and resources:
The Individualism Of Gil Evans (album): Wikipedia

Homages To Gil
An essay by Richard Williams

Gil Evans: The Arranger As Re-Composer
A good overview of Evans’ contribution to jazz, with lots of quotes from his contemporaries

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

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