A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Really called “The Sidewinder,” this Lee Morgan composition is one of the earliest jazz-soul tunes. It was also one of the few post- Swing Era jazz tunes to become a best-selling pop hit, rising to number 25 on the Top 40 charts in 1964.

One listen to it will tell you why it was such a big hit. It has a very catchy melody, and the straight 8th-note groove perfectly captures the sound of the early 1960s. And remember, this was just at the end of the period when an instrumental track could still get played on commercial radio. If you’ve been playing a lot of jazz with a swing feel and want to try something different, “The Sidewinder” would be a fun choice!

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.)

Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder

Check out the funky, blues licks that pianist Barry Harris plays!

Joe Sample and The Soul Committee: Blue Note Fukuola 1995 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
There are 3 main musical elements to “The Sidewinder:”
1. The bass line
2. The rhythmic figure written in the RH part for the chords
3. The melodic lines

I’m glad that The Real Book includes the bass line for “The Sidewinder.” It’s an integral part of the tune and sounds great when played on piano if there’s no bassist. Learn it as indicated in the first few measures and then transpose it for the rest of the chord progression.

Play the chords using the rhythms indicated in the right hand part of the arrangement. You can either play the whole 7th chords or just the 3rd and 7th of each harmony. This use of the tritone sounds particularly good when moving up a half step over a soulful or funky rhythm, as it does there.

“The Sidewinder” doesn’t really have a continuous melody like most tunes do. Instead, each 4-measure phrase begins with the rhythmic figure and concludes with a smooth melodic line. The contrast between these measures is almost hypnotic.

“The Sidewinder” is written in a 24-bar blues form, with each chord held out twice as long as it would be in a “usual” 12-bar blues. Have fun experimenting with the blues scale and all the other improvisational devices you’d use on a blues, but remember to stay on each harmony for twice as long as you’re used to. And be sure to listen to Lee Morgan’s original recording (which I’ve linked to, above) to get a feel for the groove.

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

Further links and resources:
The Sidewinder: from “100 Best Jazz Albums”

Bob Cranshaw remembers Lee Morgan and The Sidewinder
Bob Cranshaw, who played bass on the original recording session shares his recollections.

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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