A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Sweet Henry” is a rock-oriented tune by bassist/composer Steve Swallow and Jack Gregg. They wrote it in 1974 at a time when Swallow and the other musicians in his circle were looking to develop a new repertoire for their improvisations. They used elements of rock rhythm, pop chord progressions, and hummable melodies to which they could bring the jazz sensibilities of their improvisations. If you’re looking for the musical place where 1970s Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Pat Metheny all met, this is it.

Recommended recording:
(for international readers who may not have access to this YouTube link, I’ve indicated the original album name so you can listen to it on music streaming services, etc.)

Gary Burton & Steve Swallow: Hotel Hello

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
One mistake that musicians often do it to play the stuff they already know on new types of tunes. Sometimes this sounds good, but it often doesn’t mesh. If you’ve spent 5 years immersing yourself in bebop, you may find yourself a bit lost when attempting to improvise on a tune like “Sweet Henry.”

For one thing, notice how there are few of the 7th chords that are such a staple of the jazz language. Instead, we find a chord progression that would sound at home in an Elton John song. This was exactly what Swallow and his contemporaries were looking for. Yes, they would interpret the tune more freely and expansively than Elton John might, but the harmonic language is similar. The great thing is that you can bring your full improvisational abilities as a jazz pianist to “Sweet Henry,” but make sure that you’re fully aware of the melodic/harmonic relationships at all times. And if you incorporate elements of bebop and it sounds great, then go for it. But be aware of what you‘re doing as you move through the changes.

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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