A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Long Ago (And Far Away)”is a great old “chestnut” from The Great American Songbook that has been used as a vehicle for jazz improvisation since it first appeared in 1944. Jerome Kern and lyricist Ira Gershwin (George’s brother) wrote the song for the movie Cover Girl where it was sung by Rita Heyworth. It became an instant hit and was widely covered by other artists right from the start.

Get to know the lyric a bit, even if you only remember how the title lyric fits into the opening musical phrase. Doing so will connect you to the emotional intent of the composers and help you remember the melody better, too. After all, it wasn’t a coincidence that the opening phrase contains 7 notes. There are 7 syllables in the song’s title!

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.)

Johnny Hartman: And I Thought About You

Dave Brubeck

Chico Hamilton: Gongs East!

This beautiful, “classical meets jazz,” arrangement was by my college composition teacher, Hale Smith. He was friends with both the drummer Chico Hamilton and Eric Dolphy, who plays flute here.

Sonny Rollins: Jazz a Vienne, 1994 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
There are two stages involved with learning standard songs like “Long Ago And Far Away.”

The first stage is to become thoroughly familiar with the musical elements of the tune. This means not only learning the melody, the basic chords, and being able to play it in a steady tempo, but also learning it in a jazz context. To do this, you can practice each of the following, individually:

1. Embellish and phrase the melody in different ways
2. Play a bass line in ‘2’
3. Play a walking bass line
4. Learn rootless, 1-handed chord voicings.
5. Play the voicings with your LH while your RH plays the melody and then improvises a solo
6. Play the voicings with your RH while your LH plays each type of bass line you learned above.
7. Learn 2-handed rootless chord voicings
8. Add the root underneath these same 2-handed voicings

That’s the first step (but don’t worry, it gets easier with each new tune you learn!). The second step is to choose a musical approach to the tune and “go for it.” Play it as a tender ballad. Then as an uptempo burner. How about a bossa nova? These great songs are extremely flexible, and you’ll discover many possibilities if you have fun and experiment a bit. Your taste and personal preferences will guide you as to which approaches “work” better than others. And yes, even the greatest jazz musicians sometimes play the same song differently on different occasions. The point is to become so familiar with a tune’s musical elements that you have the freedom to play it any way you like.

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

Further links and resources:
Long Ago (And Far Away): Wikipedia

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