A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Passion Dance” is probably pianist McCoy Tyner’s most widely-played composition. Tyner forged a highly distinctive style during his time in John Coltrane’s famous 1960s quartet. His use of quartal voicings and pentatonic scales influenced an entire generation of jazz musicians.

“Passion Dance” is the first track on his most famous recording as a leader, 1967’s “The Real McCoy.” Learning the melody is a good introduction to Tyner’s distinctive melodic style, which carried over into his improvisations.

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.)

McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy

Roy Haynes: Roy-alty

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
In my experience, there are 2 necessary steps to learning a tune like “Passion Dance.” Since the tune so identifiably “McCoy,” you’ll need to begin by playing it like Tyner himself did. But then the 2nd step, which so few pianists take, is to let that go and play it like “yourself.” Why should you do this? Simple: it’s what all the great jazz pianists have done, including Tyner. (He didn’t play like Bud Powell, did he?)

So begin by listening to Tyner’s recording, from his album The Real McCoy (see link above). Listen to it about 100 times, and listen to the other tracks on the album as well. Do this in order to get the “sound” of his playing in your ears.

Then, start learning “Passion Dance” from the leadsheet in The Real Book. See how the melody during the ‘A’ Sections is constructed in 4ths? This is a big part of Tyner’s improvising vocabulary as well. It’s only an F7sus4 chord, so you can start improvising in 4ths without having to worry about changing chords at all. Use the F Mixolydian Mode and stretch yourself by playing a lot of 4ths as you solo. Eventually this will become natural and you’ll “hear” these lines easily. (And by the way, the F7sus4 chord is used exclusively for all the solos so as far as the chords, you’re all set!)

Once you become comfortable improvising in 4ths with the F Mixolydian Mode, you can start playing more chromatically and taking the 4ths “outside” the key, just like McCoy did.

But at some point, even this exciting style of playing can become limiting for you artistically? Think about it: do you really want to sound like McCoy whenever you play this tune? Maybe you’re not feeling particularly energetic during a performance. Or maybe you’re hearing different types of chord voicings one night? So what do you express yourself then?

In this light, an interesting exercise is to pick a pianist and ask yourself “How would they play this tune.” How would Bill Evans or Jason Moran play “Passion Dance?” And then try to play it like that. Doing this will force yourself to investigate the stylistic differences between the two pianists, and to expand how you view the tune itself. “How would Gil Evans orchestrate the tune?” That question in itself could keep you busy for a good 6 months. Study jazz from this perspective long enough, and who knows, you just might develop a unique style of your own!

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

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

The Real McCoy (album): Wikipedia

Transcription of Tyner’s “Passion Dance” piano solo
Transcribed by Corey Kendrick

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