A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Pithecanthropus Erectus” is the title track from composer/bassist Charles Mingus’ 1956 album. While The Real Book does indeed give the melody and chords, you’ll want to listen to Mingus recording (see link below) in order to get the “feel” for how to actually play the piece. There are some necessary dynamics, such and the sudden crescendo from bar 7 into the downbeat of bar 8. Also listen to how well Mingus “orchestrated” his version, for instance, by having both saxophones improvise at the same time.

Recommended recording:
(for international readers who may not have access to this YouTube link, I’ve indicated the original album name so you can listen to the recording on music streaming services, etc.)

Charles Mingus: Pithecanthropus Erectus

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
For all his “radicalness” in terms of ensemble sound, Charles Mingus was fairly traditional in terms of the chord progressions he often used when composing. “Pithecanthropus Erectus” is no exception. Even at first glance, you may find yourself saying to yourself, “Oh yeah, I can go from Fm to DbMaj7,” or “I see, that’s just a ii/V/i in F minor.”

He liked to string these sequences together, but sometimes they follow each other in slightly unusual ways. That ii/V/i in F minor, for instance, is followed by one in Gb major, up a half step. With a DbMaj7 chord in-between. That’s part of how Mingus puts his own personal stamp on a piece like this. Traditional, yes, but a little different.

In fact, the only unusual harmony is the Db chord with the D in the bass which is found in m.6. By itself, this would sound very dissonant and maybe even “out of place” among all the more traditional chord sequences in “Pithecanthropus Erectus.” But Mingus already has a Db chord in m.5, and so this harmony continues in m.6 as the bass note shifts to the more dissonant or tense sound. And then it soon resolves up a half-step in the next measure. So Mingus is using this Dd/D to create a temporary increase in harmonic tension which soon dissipates. It’s not a “sound unto itself,” but, rather, one part of a harmonic or perhaps emotional movement over the span of a phrase. Mingus was more than a writer of songs. He was a true composer.

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

Further links and resources:
Pithecanthropus Erectus (album): Wikipedia

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