A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Sugar” is one of those tunes that have a relaxed, bluesy/jazz vibe and are a lot of fun to play. Tenor Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine composed “Sugar” in 1970, at a time when many jazz musicians were looking for ways to stay connected with a listening public that was moving increasingly towards pop and rock music. Performing catchy, blue-based music was one such way. Jazzers could still improvise over swing beats without “watering down” their music, and the public enjoyed it too. At the same time, some rock bands were doing the same thing from their own vantage point: incorporating swing rhythms and jazz improv to rock songs like Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” In retrospect, it’s fascinating to hear the boundary between “jazz” and “rock” disappear with these songs!

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.)

Stanley Turrentine Sextet: Sugar

Bob Florence Limited Edition: Serendipity 18

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Musically, “Sugar” is 16 measures long. I wouldn’t call it a “16-bar blues,” but it definitely sounds like a blues. A minor blues, that is. It’s in C minor, and the melody features the same kind of ornamentation that Milt Jackson’s “Bag’s Groove” has.

The chords basically revolve around the i, iim7b5, and V7 chords in the key of C minor, with a nice harmonic movement to the iv chord (Fm) in m.11, with some other chords along to way to provide interest.

If you’re just getting into jazz piano, you can improvise using the C Pentatonic Scale throughout the whole song. Indeed, the melody is almost entirely composed of notes from the C Pentatonic Scale, with the addition of Ab as an upper neighbor. The C Blues Scale is similar to the Pentatonic Scale and also sounds great. Later on, you can begin using modes and bebop lines to create more melodic possibilities.

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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