A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
“Miss Ann” is a 1962 composition by the great alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Dolphy was one of the few musicians who was equally “at home” in the worlds of both John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. He could play modally with Coltrane’s group, and “post-bop avant garde” with Mingus.
As you’ll see when you play through “Miss Ann,” it’s not your average Real Book tune. Dolphy, along with the other musicians I mentioned above, was stretching the limits of jazz’s harmonic language, and this is evident in “Miss Ann.” Although the melody might sound “wrong” at first, play it a few times every day for a week, and listen to Dolphy’s recordings of the tune. Your ear will gradually begin to hear it’s internal logic and expressivity.
(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.)
Eric Dolphy: Far Cry
Eric Dolphy: Last Date
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Unlike many players, Eric Dolphy didn’t play outside the chord changes merely because he wanted to play “out.” Far from it. Instead, this came about because Dolphy had completely mastered the technique of playing “inside” the changes and was naturally starting to “hear” notes that weren’t in the basic chord. Someone would play, say, a C chord on the piano and he would hear melodic notes such as F# and Ab on top of this chord. I don’t even think he thought of these notes as “dissonant.” Rather, they were expressive to him in the same manner as a classical composer such as Stravinsky would use these same tonal relationships.
I know this partly because he spoke about this in interviews, and also because I knew one of Dolphy’s teachers. My college composition teacher, Hale Smith, had been good friends with Dolphy and actually taught Dolphy out of the German composer Paul Hindemith’s classic book, “Elementary Training For Musicians.” The irony of the book’s title is that it’s one of the most challenging music books ever written!
Many of Hindemith’s musical exercises involve playing a chord on piano and singing an unrelated scale at the same time. To try this for yourself, go to the piano and play a C major triad. Now, with the C chord still ringing, sing an Ab major scale. It’s not so easy, is it??? No, but that’s exactly what Eric Dolphy spent hours doing, until his musical ear had developed to the point where he could easily hear these harmonic superimpositions with his inner ear. Then they could naturally come out through his alto sax when he played jazz.
The melody to “Miss Ann” isn’t actually as “outside” as it seems at first. Man of the notes are upper extensions or alterations of the chords and are derived from altered scales and such. The big question for us improvisers is; do we play our solos in the same style as the melody? Dolphy certainly did. But “Miss Ann” can work with solos that are more traditional, too. Too many jazz musicians, in my opinion, “force” a particular style because they think they need to play a tune a certain way. But Dolphy himself didn’t do this. Instead, use him as a model and let the music unfold organically, as you hear it with your inner ear. Above all, be true to yourself.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book
Talking About And Appreciating Eric Dolphy
A discussion about Dolphy and some of his finest recordings, including “Miss Ann”
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.
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