A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Originally a ballad, “My Romance” works equally well at medium and fast swing tempos. The fist time I hear “My Romance” played fast was by pianist James Williams on a recording with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Williams was featured on a trio arrangement of the song, and he played it in a very exciting way. I loved his playing on this and was once delighted to find myself sitting next to him on an airplane from Geneva to Spain. He was very friendly and I was glad to be able to tell him how much his playing had influenced me!

Songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart composed “My Romance” in 1935 for the Broadway musical “Jumbo.” Like many of Richard Rodgers’ songs, the melody is completely “diatonic,” meaning that it stays entirely within the major scale. Rodgers expertly creates musical complexity by harmonizing this basic melody with a clever use of secondary dominant and other chromatic chords.

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.)

Ben Webster: My Romance

Bill Evans: Waltz For Debby

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Buttercorn Lady

Featuring a young Keith Jarrett on piano. It’s interesting to hear Keith Jarrett before he became “Keith Jarrett.”

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Once you become really proficient at playing jazz piano, all the musical elements sort of fuse together into one big whole. By this I mean that when you play a melody, you instantly hear harmonic possibilities and see continual implications for chord voicings. Improvised melodies and come out of chord voicings, too, and you continually sense how your bass lines relate to the chord progression and or can veer off into other directions if you choose to go in that direction. You also develop a keen perception of how a given tempo influences the phrases you play, even in how many notes each phrase contains. Playing jazz piano becomes like riding a bicycle in that the rider automatically keeps a relation between speed and balance, for example, without having to really think about it moment-to moment. It becomes intuitive.

But until then, we need to practice all the various elements of a tune separately, and “My Romance” is a good tune to practice this on. Start by playing the melody. Play it a lot, until it comes naturally and flows. Vary the phrasing, and have fun embellishing it. Melodic interpretation is a big part of jazz, and is unfortunately overlooked by many aspiring jazz players these days.

Then look at the chords. Play them as 7th chords. Then practice rootless voicings, until you can play the melody and improvise over these voicings without having to think about them too much. Your goal is to make the the basics come intuitively, just like riding a bicycle. Then you can think of other possibilities while you play.

It’s the same with bass lines and various pianistic textures, like block chords, and all the scale possibilities for soloing. Motivic development, too. Practice them all separately, and then work to combine them into a single, organic whole. This will make you sound a lot better than just learning a bunch of “licks,” as many people try to do.

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

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

My Romance: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

My Romance (song): Wikipedia

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