A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
“Passion Flower” is just one of the many beautiful ballads composed by Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn was Duke Ellington’s musical partner and collaborator and his music reflects this. On the one hand, he wrote and arranged within Ellington’s overall style, but at the same time his compositions and arrangements have a unique quality that’s distinct from Ellington’s. Perhaps the best way to hear this is to listen to Strayhorn’s album The Peaceful Side, which is one of the few he recorded as leader. As a pianist he was, as Ellington would say, “beyond category!”
(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.)
Billy Strayhorn: The Peaceful Side
Duke Ellington: Paris, 1964
Bill Dobbins: Composers Series, Vol. 2
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Sit down at your piano or keyboard and play the first melody note to “Passion Flower.” It’s a C, right? Now ask yourself this question: If you were writing a tune and wanted to start with a C in the melody, what chord would you put with it? C6? FMaj7? If you wanted to get a little fancy, perhaps you’d use a BbMaj7. Play all these chords and hear how they affect our perception of the C in the melody. Now, Play the F#9(b5) chord that Strayhorn used. Wow! It sounds a little different, doesn’t it? Evocative. Surprising. Maybe even more emotional or “passionate” (hence the tune’s title).
“Passion Flower” reflects Strayhorn’s penchant for writing a melody that primarily consists of harmonic “color” notes. (Duke Ellington did this a lot too.) In other words, most of the notes in the tune’s melody aren’t part of the basic chord they’re with. The first melody note is a C, which is the flatted 5th of the accompanying F#7 chord. Then it moves to a D, which is the 13th. The second measure has a B, which is the b5 of the F9 chord. If you analyze the rest of the ‘A’ Section in this way, you’ll see that only two notes are the “usual” parts of the chord (the Eb and the D in measures 5-6).
We sometimes take this harmonic sophistication in Ellington and Strayhorn’s music, but this is definitely outside the “norm” in most music of the time. “Passion Flower” was composed in 1944 and must have sounded pretty exotic to listeners’ ears at the time.
The chord progression is pretty complex as well. Perhaps the best way to become comfortable soloing over the chords is to start out by improvising simple melodic in the same style as Strayhorn’s actual melody. This will give you a solid grounding upon which to build upon when you gradually learn to spin out faster and more elaborate lines. By the way, we piano players can learn a lot about playing beautiful melodies by listening to and emulating Ellington’s alto sax player, Johnny Hodges. He was a true master at lyrical melodic interpretation and improvisation. Learn how to play a melody like Johnny Hodges and notice how well people respond to your piano playing!
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
100 Years of Billy Strayhorn, Emotional Architect of Song
An excellent introduction to Billy Strayhorn and his music, 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
Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists
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