A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
“Michelle” is one of only two Beatles songs in The Real Book (the other is “Yesterday”). You may be wondering, by the way, why any Beatles song is in The Real Book, since the Beatles weren’t a jazz band. I think the reason lies in the fact that although the recording industry has labeled the Beatles as “classic rock,” they were in fact much more than that. For example, their song “Yellow Submarine” isn’t even rock at all. It has music more in common with a polka or other European folk dance than with classic rock. But since the Beatles wrote it, it’s considered “classic rock!”
Before they became famous, the Beatles started out by playing many old standards and Broadway show tunes in their club performances, in addition to their covers of American rock and roll. They even covered the show tune “Till There Was You” from The Music Man. “Michelle” is in this tradition. Paul McCartney wrote it as a kind of traditional-sounding French cabaret song. Just like the sort of older standards that jazz musicians have been playing for over a century!
(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.)
Paul McCartney: Live, 2010 (video)
Stevie Wonder: Montreal Jazz Festival, 2009 (video)
You can hear the Beatles’ influence in many of Stevie Wonders recordings. Here, he pays tribute to them by performing “Michelle.”
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Treat “Michelle” as you would any 1930s-50s popular song that you’d play in a semi-jazz style. Paul McCartney used the same melodic and harmonic vocabulary as these older songs used, and the Beatles even played it with a 2-beat swing feel!
It’s a great song to play on gigs since many of your audience members may recognize it. Remember: no one ever said that every song jazz musicians play has to be obscure! (lol)
Harmonically, “Michelle” combines evocative chords in D minor with some beautiful circle of 4ths movement. McCartney’s father was a jazz trumpet player and Paul grew up listening to the great songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter, and their contemporaries. As a composer, he has always enjoyed writing songs in the style of these greats and “Michelle” is certainly an excellent example of this.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book
Info on the song from The Beatles Bible
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.
Jazz Piano Lessons via Skype
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