A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Although credited to Miles Davis, “Solar” may have been composed by Chuck Wayne (see link below). Either way, it has a catchy melody, is great to solo over, and has become a true classic since it first appeared on Miles Davis “Walkin’” album, which contained tracks originally recorded in 1954.

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.)

Miles Davis All Stars: Walkin’

The original recording with Horace Silver on piano, from 1954

Bill Evans Trio: Sunday At The Village Vanguard

Chick Corea: From Miles

Charlie Haden: The Montreal Tapes

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Although it’s not in The Real Book’s chart, the opening Cm chord in “Solar” is usually played with a major 7th, as Cm(maj7). The notes are C, Eb, G, B. This harmony, which combines a minor triad with the interval of a major 7th, sounds very evocative and in the mid-1950’s, it was a bold move to compose a tune which started with this chord for 2 full measures.

“Solar” is only 12 measures long and has a kind of “circular” form. It just keeps going around and around, always coming back to the opening Cm(maj7) harmony. Along the way, it moves through several keys which keeps it sounded fresh throughout the whole progression.

Once you know the chords well and can improvise them, it can become fascinating to see how stylistically diverse the approaches to this simple chord progression can be. Listen to the recordings I’ve linked to above to hear this for yourself. Miles Davis and company play it in a straight-ahead “hard bop” style, while Bill Evans, coming along a few years later, plays it in a very different, highly-personal way. Still later, Chick Corea brings a more abstract way of phrasing to his improvisation. (Try following along the chord progression as you listen to his group play it and you’ll see what I mean. Can you keep track of where they are in the tune?) Charlie Haden plays it still differently. There’s something so “elastic” about this short 12-bar tune that seems to encourage a wider variety of approaches than some other tunes do.

So learn the tune thoroughly, listen to all the various interpretations, and then forget it all and just play!!!

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

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

Solar: Wikipedia

Tunes Miles may not have written
Some thoughts on who wrote “Solar” and some other tunes on Miles Davis’ albums

Transcription of Bill Evan's piano solo on "Solar"

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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