A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Thelonious Monk wrote this jazz ballad in 1952, during the bebop period of jazz. Like the majority of Monk’s compositions, it’s very melodic yet is full of surprising twists and turn which make it challenging to play. Definitely listen to Monk’s recording a few times before attempting to play it!

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.)

Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Monk Piano Solo

Sonny Rollins: Vol. 2

With Monk on piano

Wynton Marsalis Septet: Marciac rehearsal, 2008 (video)

I’ve always how Marsalis makes Monk’s music seem effortless. (But I’m sure that lots of hard work went into it!)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
As with most of Thelonious Monk’s tunes, “Reflections” poses some real challenges for us improvisers. For starters, take a look at the very first measure. There are 4 chords in this measure! Even if taken at a slow ballad tempo, this means we’re changing chords very quickly.

It’s not too difficult to play these 4 chords while also playing the melody. They sound great and support the melody wonderfully. The real challenge is to improvise over them. Furthermore, the chords descend by steps, with the last 3 chromatic: AbMaj7, Gb7, F7, E7. This makes them even harder to solo on, since none of them are in the same key!

The actual difficulty lies in coming up with an improvised melodic line that sounds natural as it wends its way through these rapidly-changing and seemingly unrelated harmonies. Monk does this nicely with his melody, but remember that he had time to work out the exact melody he wanted to use and “get it right.” As an improviser, we don’t have time for that. Sometimes it works out better than at other times, and part of the fun of it all!

So what do we do? How do we learn to solo over this measure?

For starters, we can listen to what Monk did? But Monk’s no help here: he tends to improvise on the melody in these spots. What do other musicians do? If you listen to a lot of players solo on “Reflections” and Monk’s other challenging chord progressions, you’ll hear that most jazz players, even some very accomplished ones, usually struggle in these spots. Sure, they play something that fits the chords, more or less, but the melodic line often rambles and is unfocused. Some others, such as John Coltrane when he was in Monk’s group, are able to navigate these spots with (seeming) ease.

As I see it, we jazz pianists have 3 choices in these tough harmonic spots:
1. We can play the melody, or a variation of it, as Monk himself often did.
2. We can practice these measures so often and so diligently, that our musical ear begins to naturally “hear” melodies within these harmonic changes.

Or, 3. We can do what Monk also did at times in his music: treat each harmony as an “island unto itself” and somehow arpeggiate each chord without trying to connect them melodically.

Those are 3 good, solid, options for learning how to improvise on a tune like “Reflections” that has a difficult series of chords. The good news is that at least on this particular tune, Monk took it easy on us and made the rest of the chord progression easier and a little more traditional. So spend a good chunk of time getting to know the first measure really, really well, and also have fun memorizing and soloing on the remaining chords too. “Reflections” makes a great group piece as well as sounding wonderful when played solo. And, as pianists, we have both options available to us.

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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