A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Portsmouth Figurations” is a lively, exciting 1969 tune by bassist/composer Steve Swallow, whose tunes were a favorite of the original compilers of The Real Book. As with many of Swallow’s wonderful and idiosyncratic compositions, the main recordings of “Portsmouth Figurations” are by vibraphonist Gary Burton.

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.)

The Gary Burton Quartet: Duster

The Gary Burton Quartet: Live In Tokyo

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Playing a tune like “Portsmouth Figurations” is kind of like going on a roller coaster ride. It’s very fast, and full of unexpected twists and turns!

Even though The Real Book says to play the tune with “Even 8ths,” to my ears its kind of in between straight and swing 8th notes. There is a walking bass, which is from the straight ahead jazz tradition, but at the same time the melody definitely anticipates the kind of straight 8th-note playing that Gary Burton later became famous for. As with much fast jazz of the 1960s, the “swing” 8th notes become straighter as the tempo gets faster. So, on a very fast tune like this, the 8th notes will be almost straight, even if there’s an underlying swing feel.

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

Further links and resources:
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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