A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Lazy River” is one of those “good old, good old tunes” that the “old timers” used to play. Actually, its complete title is “(Up A) Lazy River,” and the song was composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin in 1930.

“Lazy River” was a big hit during the swing era and many people still performed it later on. When I was a teenager, in the 1970s, there were still a lot of adults around who loved the song and sang it at sing-alongs or played it when there was a piano around. (It’s kind of like how the Beatles songs are still popular now, decades after they were originally hits.)

The melody is infectious and I love how the opening phrase peaks on the b9th. It gives the phrase a “yearning” sound that fits the lyric perfectly. We want to be there, on that lazy river where we can simply relax without any cares in the world. That’s what this song is about.

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.)

Louis Armstrong

A masterful recording of the song, from 1931

Count Basie and The Mills Brothers: The Board Of Directors

Dave McKenna: A Celebration Of Hoagy Carmichael

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The Real Book inexplicably has a Db7 and C7 in m.2 of the leadsheet. Just ignore these and stay on D7 instead, maybe putting in an Eb7 chromatic neighbor chord on beat 2 if you like. This gives a strong circle of 4ths chordal movement and also sets up a nice pattern which is mirrored with the G7 – Ab7 – G7 progression in measures 3 and 4. (Also use these chords in m.10.)

“Lazy River” sounds great when you play it the traditional way. All you have to do is play a slow, relaxed stride in your left hand while your right hand plays the melody with a few chords thrown in for good measure.

Once you can play that, then the real fun begins!

What “point of view” do you want to add to the basic feel you’ve established? Try playing the melody with some very delicate grace notes and a light touch. How about a few staccato notes with that? Or, maybe some blues embellishments might be nice.

It’s fun to try different things on a song like this see where it takes us. I was playing “Lazy River” before writing this and I became intrigued by the Eb at the top of the opening phrase. It’s the b9th of the D7chord and sounds beautiful. On a whim, I started trilling between the D and Eb. I found this to be very expressive and started trilling and embellishing other too in my improvised lines. The solo began to sound a little like Middle Eastern music, which I liked, so I brought some new rhythms into my left hand to support this sound. I had a lot of fun playing the song like this, even though I had never “gone there” with it before. In retrospect, it’s interesting to see how just that one little trill between D and Eb led me to discover a whole new interpretation of a song I’ve been listening to and playing for decades.

Try things like this for yourself. Start with the traditional approach and then loosen it up a bit. Add a little bebop, or get really mellow with it. These great standard songs provide us with a springboard to go way beyond what we think is possible with our piano playing. It’s up to us to “go for it” and see where the music can take us!

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

Further links and resources:
A brief Hoagy Carmichael bio

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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