A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
The title of Bill Evans’ composition “Peri’s Scope” reflects his penchant for wordplay (it’s a pun on the word “periscope”). Evans included the tune on his 1959 album Portrait In Jazz, which featured his groundbreaking trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motion on drums. It’s a fun piece to play and has a lot of harmonic forward motion from the way Evans uses the ii V/ii vi chord sequence right at the beginning.

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.)

Bill Evans: Portrait In Jazz

Herbie Mann: America/Brasil

Fred Hersch/ Gary Burton: Evanessence

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Peri’s Scope” is a fascinating tune. At first glance, it’s one of Bill Evan’s more traditional compositions. The chords in measures 1-6 could be from a 1920’s Gershwin song, and m.13-16 contains the only chord sequence that could be challenging to learn.

But Bill Evans was a pretty sophisticated musician and “Peri’s Scope” becomes more interesting as we begin to study it more closely. In fact, I’ve been playing this tune for decades and I’m seeing things in it’s construction as I write this that I’ve never noticed before!

Let’s look at the melody. The opening 2-bar phrase makes me smile every time I play it! It’s very succinct and has a great deal of joyous, rhythmic energy. Many other composers might follow a phrase like this with another, similar one. Instead, Evans uses a more lyrical, contracting melody here. Antecedent – Consequent. Beautiful, and still pretty common.

It’s with the next phrase, in measures 5-8, that Evans get more subtle. The phrase starts out as a repeat for m.3-4, but the rhythm is a little more expansive (quarter-note triplets) and it spins out much longer, lasting a full four measures instead of the previous two. And, to top it off, it ends on a “surprise” harmony: E7.

So what’s going on here? Even’s genius is that he’s using extremely sophisticated compositional techniques while making them sound inevitable and effortless. Almost “casual.”

In this first 8-measure section, there are at least 3 “compositional development” devices going on.

1. Phrases of varying length: they get longer as the section progresses.

2. Harmonic development: the progression is predictable for a full 6 measures which sets us up for the harmonic surprise in m. 7.

3. Melodic development: the 3rd phrase is an extension and development of the 2nd phrase.

And that’s just the first 8 measures! There’s more to come as the tune unfolds, and I’ll leave that for you to discover. But I will point out that the opening phrase in the next section (m. 9-10), is a melodic inversion of the phrase Evans began the tune with.

So, it turns out that there’s more than immediately meets the eye (and ear!) in a simple-sounding, swinging tune like Bill Evans’ “Peri’s Scope!”

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

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

Bill Evans: The Creative Process
This is an excerpt from an excellent video where Evans was interviewed by his older brother, Harry. He demonstrates some points at the piano.

The road to becoming Bill Evans

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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