A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Take Five” was composed in 1960 by Paul Desmond, who was the longtime alto saxophonist in The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Brubeck’s music had an enormous impact on not just the jazz scene but on the overall musical world of the time. This was at a time when jazz instrumentals could be heard on Top 40 radio, side-by-side with pop music. Everybody heard “Take Five,” which was on Brubeck’s Time Out album.

The thing that made “Take Five” so extraordinary was that it was the first widely-heard jazz piece that was in an unusual time signature. And, not only is it in 5/4 time, but more importantly in terms of it’s popularity, the tune is catchy. Every aspect of the tune, from the opening rhythmic vamp to the main melody to the bridge, is very catchy.

Nowadays, most jazz players become fairly fluent in playing “odd” meters like 5/4 and 7/4. But not many musicians in the 1960s could play “Take Five” when it first came out. They weren’t used to playing in anything other than ¾ or 4/4 time. So “Take Five” presented a huge challenge. It’s still not easy at first, but nowadays we learn about these time signatures earlier in our development so we start learning them sooner.

After a while, it can become second nature to improvise in 5/4 and 7/4. I remember once when I was preparing to play a few concerts with Chris Brubeck, who is one of Dave’s sons. I spent about a week walking around counting in odd meters, since I knew we were going to play some of Dave’s tunes in 5/4 and 7/4 time. As I walked, I counted each step: “1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5” until it became as easy as 1-4 for me. The hard work really paid off when I felt confident soloing over the Brubeck tunes while playing with Chris. Give it a try yourself!

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

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 Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Out

Michel Camilo: What’s Up?

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
When playing “Take Five,” jazz musicians typically only solo over the opening vamp of Ebm and Bbm7. The Eb Dorian Mode (same as the Db major scale) works well over these chords and since this is relatively easy, it frees us up to focus on the rhythm, which can be quite challenging at first!

Instead of trying to solo in 5/4 time and becoming frustrated after struggling for 5 minutes, set yourself the goal of feeling this naturally in, say, 3 months. This may seem like a long time right now, but believe me, once you start moving towards your goal, it will go by quickly. And then, you’ll know it forever!

Begin very simply. Just play one note per measure with your right hand. Your first goal is to simply stay in 5/4 time while improvising something. Playing one note per measure will give you time to count to 5 while also requiring you to think melodically, even if just a little.

Once this becomes “do-able,” you’ve taken a big step. You’ve become comfortable in 5/4 time and I hope you don’t underestimate this moment. Enjoy it, and gradually start improvising with more notes in your melodic lines. In 3 months, all your hard work will pay off!

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

Take Five: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong

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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