A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“My Funny Valentine” was composed by the great songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart in 1937 for the musical theater show Babes In Arms. Besides being a huge pop hit of the time, the song quickly became a favorite of jazz musicians.

Although many jazz instrumentalists enjoy playing the tune, it’s even more of a fixture in the repertoire of many jazz vocalists. I suggest that you learn it in the key of Am/C as well, so you’ll be prepared if a singer asks you to “lower it a little” to accommodate their vocal range.

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.)

Miles Davis: Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet

Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine

Herbie Hancock’s accompaniment behind Miles is hugely influential.

Herbie Hancock and Dee Dee Bridgewater: Live in Beijing, 2010 (video)

Chaka Kahn

A lot of vocalists sing the song in this R&B based style, so it’s helpful to become familiar with Chaka’s version.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
We can learn a lot by listening to and comparing the 2 Miles Davis recordings of “My Funny Valentine” which I’ve linked to above. The first, from 1956, is Miles’ original studio version. It’s by his famous “1950s quintet” and features pianist Red Garland and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, among others. This recording is a classic, in large part because of the mood the rhythm section creates and how sensitively Davis interprets the melody.

The 2nd link is from a live performance recorded 9 years later, in 1965. By now, Miles had a new rhythm section, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and a very young Tony Williams on drums. Their version is distinguished by a new sense of harmonic exploration by Hancock and Carter, and above all, a heightened degree of interplay between Davis and the rhythm section. They’re not just playing a preset series of chords. Rather, they’re viewing the original chords as a template which they can alter and change on the spot. If Ron Carter plays a B instead of Bb on the bass, Herbie might choose to harmonize that with a BMaj7 chord, even if the original chord was “supposed” to be a Bb7, or whatever. Similarly, if Davis plays a note during the melody that suggests a new harmony, Hancock might “go with it,” and play a new chord, even one he’s never rehearsed in that particular place in the music. This sense of continual discovery while playing well-worn standards reached a real high point with the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s, especially right after this recording when tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined the group. But as we can hear on this great recording of “My Funny Valentine,” they were already well on their way there!

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

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

My Funny Valentine (song): Wikipedia

How an argument fueled Miles Davis’ celebrated 1964 live album
An interesting article about the Miles Davis album My Funny Valentine

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