A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Composer/pianist John Lewis loved Europe, and many of his tunes were inspired by the various European cities he spent time in. Paris, France and Milano, Italy are two famous examples that come to mind.

His composition “Milano” sounds good at various tempos, from slow to medium jazz. And it’s amazing how much mileage Lewis gets out of ii/V chord progressions! The chords themselves look like hundreds of other jazz standards, but the way the melody brings them together is utterly unique, and gives the tune a special quality all its own. Only John Lewis could have composed this!

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 Jazztet and John Lewis

The Modern Jazz Quartet: Django

John Lewis: Live in “Just Jazz,” Tokyo, 1986 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
I hear a lot of jazz musicians playing “Milano” as if it were “just” another jazz tune. They look at it in The Real Book, count “1-2-3-4” and off they go! But when he played it himself, John Lewis approached it a little differently. Listen to the above recordings to hear what he did with it. It’s a little hard to describe, but it seems like he was going for a specific “feeling” that was perhaps related to his actual experience in the town of Milano, Italy. (I once spent a week there when I was Gerry Mulligan’s assistant, and I found it to be a very special place.)

Be sure to listen to a few of Lewis’ versions of the tune, and then decide how you want to play it yourself. You can either follow Lewis’ example or go in a different direction. In this respect, Lewis can serve as an example of how to play a jazz tune from a very personal perspective. You can try this on other tunes as well, digging deep into what makes your playing individual, and then letting that influence your whole interpretation to a tune, instead of starting with how someone else played it.

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

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Jazz Profiles: John Lewis
An excellent overview of Lewis’ career

John Lewis on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz radio show
Interview, solo piano performances, and duets with McPartland

“Inside information” from jazz piano legend John Lewis

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
Personal guidance from an expert, caring teacher. Beginning through Advanced.

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

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