A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Naima” is a jazz ballad composed by John Coltrane. Coltrane was an innovator in so many ways, and on the 1959 Giant Steps album he was especially interested in exploring new harmonic progressions in his songs. On “Naima,” he made extensive use of pedal points, which give the chords a “floating,” nebulous feel.

If you want to play a jazz ballad that’s outside of the “Great American Songbook,” then “Naima” would be a great choice!

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.)

John Coltrane: Giant Steps

John Coltrane: Live

A live version, preceded by interviews with Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The Great Jazz Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard

Hank Jones on piano

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Let’s try a listening experiment. Sit down at the piano and play an Eb with your left hand, an octave and a 6th below middle C. Now, play it again to really listen to it, and “hear’ the harmonic possibilities that it implies. Since there are prominent overtones of an octave and a fifth in every note we play, a single bass note like Eb will imply the interval of an open 5th, with a somewhat fainter major 3rd above it as well. In other words, an Eb triad is beginning to appear, even though we’re only playing the low, fundamental note. Stay with this for about five minutes or so until you hear this for yourself.

Now, play that low Eb again, and then add a Bbm7 chord (Bb, Db, F, Ab) with your right hand, in the register around middle C. Whoa! By this time, our ears had been kind of expecting an Eb major triad, and the Bbm7 may come as a bit of a surprise. But yes, it’s a beautiful surprise. “Floating,” unresolved, nebulous. However you describe it, this “combination harmony” sets us on an unexpected course, and we’re not sure which chords will come next. In any event, Coltrane’s opening harmony is very different than if he had started the tune with a ii-V-I or similar progression that would et up a more predictable harmonic path for us to follow.

Now do the same for each chord in “Naima.” Be patient, and simply listen to each chord and bass note. Some will be familiar, like the Ebm7 in the 2nd measure. But then others will be “rich and strange,” as Shakespeare said in The Tempest. AMaj7 with an Eb in the bass? We’re certainly not in “bebop land” any more!

When you’re soloing on “Naima,” use a scale that works with the RH chord, while also taking the bass note into account where possible. So for the AMaj7/Eb, for example, you can use an A major scale, but alter the D in the scale to an Eb, which gives us an A Lydian mode (A, B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#).

Have fun exploring each harmony individually, and then putting them together under the melody and while soloing. It may take a while to become comfortable with Coltrane’s harmonies, but the effort will be well worth it when you can play “Naima” as easily as, say, a more traditional ballad like “Misty.” Enjoy the process, not just the result!

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

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

“The Intriguing Harmonies of Naima”
Insightful article by Sid Jacobs

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists

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