A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“My Ship” is a 1941 ballad by the great composer Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin (George’s brother). Weill began his career in his native Germany, composing songs like the classic “Mack The Knife” for The Threepenny Opera. He later moved to the United States, where his composing style changed to become more “Broadway-friendly.” Both his early and later styles are wonderful, and it’s interesting to compare them from a musical standpoint.

The recording of “My Ship” you should get to know is the 1957 version by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, from their album Miles Ahead. Evans wrote the most astounding orchestrations around Davis’ trumpet playing, and this is one of their very best!

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: Miles Ahead

Gil Evans’ orchestration here is one of the high points in jazz history!

Herbie Hancock featuring Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove: Jazz Baltica 2002 (video)

Anita O’Day: Newport Jazz Festival, 1979 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Since Gil Evans’ arrangement of “My Ship” is such a colossal achievement, the best thing you can do regarding this tune is to study Evans’ arrangement as much as you can. I’ve provided a link below to a transcription so you can get started.

Spend a few months with this arrangement, analyzing the chord voicings and playing them over and over again. It’s amazing to discover the possibilities that a genius like Gil Evans could hear in a relatively straight-forward ballad like “My Ship.”

Here’s just one of many examples of what I’m taking about:

Unlike many jazz musicians, Gil Evans didn’t dismiss a song’s original sheet music. In fact, Evans basically took composer Kurt Weill’s original introduction to the song and used it intact in his own, “jazz,” orchestration. Believe it or not, those stunning, chromatically-descending triads that the orchestra plays at the beginning of the Miles Davis recording all comes from the sheet music! (When’s the last time you’ve look at a song’s original sheet music?) But Gil Evans did, and he obviously loved what he found there. But he also added something else. Something that would have eluded most of us “musical mortals.” Evans added a harmonically independent, chromatic bass line that’s also rhythmically independent. The effect is spectacular! This one touch gives the intro a “floating” quality that immediately lets us know that we’re hearing something special. This is part of Gil Evan’s genius; to see possibilities where others wouldn’t.

So spend some time with Evans’arrangement. It’s a masterpiece and you’ll benefit by absorbing his voicings and arranging techniques into your piano playing. (And while you’re at it, listen to the whole Miles Ahead album. It’s a high point in the music we call jazz.

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

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

Jazz Theory: Gil Evan’s Arrangement of “My Ship”
Transcription and analysis

The Making Of “Miles Ahead”

How To Learn Jazz Piano
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