A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Nuages” (French for “clouds”) is a medium-slow swing tune by the guitarist Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt, who was a musical superstar in his native France, wrote the tune in 1939 and it became very popular among the listening public, not just in “jazz circles.”

Reinhardt played guitar with a beautiful lyricism that we pianists can learn from. Listen to how he brings an expressive vibrato in on his long notes. Even though we can’t do that on piano, we can linger on some of our long notes and play colorful chords underneath, not only on ballads but on slower swing tunes such as “Nuages.”

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.)

Django Reinhardt

Michel Legrand: Legrand Jazz

Oscar Peterson

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
If you know your ii-V’s, “Nuages” is pretty easy to learn. It begins with Bbm7-Eb7, which is a ii-V in Ab, but then sequences this down a half step and resolves with a ii-V-I in the key of G major. But check out the subtlety with which Reinhardt alters the Am chord to an Am7(b5). By using the flatted 5th, Django hints that we’re going to the key of Gm. But after this poignant sound, we end up arriving in G major, not minor, which sounds like a ray of sunshine. This “sweet and sour” juxtaposition may be reflective of Reinhardt’s gypsy heritage, which features a lot of music with these contrasting emotional elements. It’s wonderful that he brought some of this into the world of jazz!

The bridge is a variation of the standard “Rhythm Changes” bridge, except that in “Nuages” the second chord is minor instead of dominant (Em7.) Get to now this bridge well in at least several keys, since it’s used in a lot of Swing Era music. It’s III7 – VI7 – II7 – V7, with each chord held out for 2 measures. Django further embellishes this chord progression by starting with a ii-V (F#m7b5/B7, and using Ab7 as a chromatic neighbor of A7). It’s interesting how versatile this “simple” bridge actually can be.

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

Further links and resources:
Nuages: Stories of Standards

Django’s World: Hot Club Jazz
A short but sweet overview of Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France, from NPR

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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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