A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Some Skunk Funk” was the first song on the first Brecker Brothers album. And WOW!, what an exciting way to announce their musical presence to the world!

Saxophonist Michael Brecker, along with his brother, trumpeter Randy, led this exciting, high-energy jazz fusion group in the 1970s at the height of the fusion era. Even though “Some Skunk Funk” is perhaps their most famous tune, it’s not played very much, mainly because it’s so difficult! But if you want to experience some very invigorating music firsthand, give yourself a good challenge and spend a few months immersing yourself in the tune. It’s a great way to bring something new to your jazz piano playing! (And you’ll also become known as “the pianist who can play “Some Skunk Funk!”)

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 Brecker Brothers: Heavy Metal Bebop

GREAT album name!!!

The Return Of The Brecker Brothers Band: Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Bear in mind that Randy Brecker and the other members of The Brecker Brothers Band were already top-flight jazz players when they began playing “Some Skunk Funk.” They knew bebop and postbop inside and out, as well as rock styles. So even though “Some Skunk Funk” is a complex tune, for them it was just a matter of learning the specifics of this tune. Unlike many of us, they didn’t have to learn the tune while they were still developing as intermediate-level improvisers!

I wish I had realized this while I was first attempting “Some Skunk Funk” as a teenager. It was overwhelming and I soon gave up.

Here’s what I would say to my 16-year old self:

1. Start by simply listening to the recording. Before you even play it once on piano, spend a few months listening to The Brecker Brothers play it. After all, it’s easier to learn any song if you already know how it goes, and this is as true for “Some Skunk Funk” as it is for “Happy Birthday.” Relax, take a deep breath, and spend some time getting to know how the tune sounds.

2. Just learn the melody, in your right hand, with no chords for now. Horn players do this, and it can help us pianists too. The melody is challenging enough, right? By focusing on just the melody for a while, you’ll be “entering into” the tune while becoming accustomed to the phrasing, chromaticism, and feel of the music. This will make it easier to later add the LH chords, as well as also preparing you to improvise with a similar melodic language.

3. Add just the bass notes with your left hand. Then you can play the chords too. For G/Db, play Db, D, G, B as the voicing.

4. Finally, begin improvising!

This is a powerful method for learning challenging tunes. (Easy ones too.) Have fun, be patient yet persistent, and enjoy the ride!!!

Further links and resources:
29 Things Michael Brecker Wants You To Know
An informative and insightful video interview

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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