A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Tame Thy Pen” is by Richard Niles, who has been active as a composer/arranger in both the jazz and pop fields. Niles, who has worked with such famous musicians as Paul McCartney, composed “Tame Thy Pen” in 1975 as a student at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music, which was about the time that the original Real Book was compiled.

The tune is a wonderful example of the type of modern jazz that integrates written-out melodic and bass figures into the actual composition itself, as opposed to being “chords and melody” only. It would be a nice addition to your repertoire of you’re looking for something that sounds fresh and will give you a challenge at the same time!

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.)

Katherine Gang: Laughing At Lonely

Anna-Lucia Rupp & Adrian Zendeh (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Tame Thy Pen” is similar to Miles Davis’ “So What” in that it’s an entirely written-out composition during the statement of the melody. In other words, you can play it exactly as it appears in The Real Book, with both hands, and it will sound great. No need for improvised rhythms or chord voicings while you’re playing the melody. And if someone else like a singer, guitarist, or horn player is handling the melody, you can leave it out in some sections and just play the bass notes and chord voicings that are provided. In this sense, learning “Tame Thy Pen” will give you a good grasp of modern jazz chord voicings, keyboard textures, and bass lines. The arrangement reminds me of a kind of “Herbie Hancock meets Chick Corea” encounter, interms of musical style.

To improvise a solo over the chord changes, I suggest that you break the form down into small sections and practice each section separately. Unlike many jazz standards, each section is very different from the others and it’s too much to learn and assimilate all at once.

So begin with the opening 4 measures of letter A. It’s 2 measures of B7alt and 2 measure of Em6. So even though the notes in the piano part look complex, it’s really just a V-I progression. That’s all; a V-I progression in the key of E minor. Practice improvising on that until it gets easy, and then move on to the next 3 measures. (Yes – the ‘A’ Section is an unusual 7 measure long!)

The next 5 chords are more challenging, because they’re not harmonically related in a typical way. Instead, Niles seems to have written a descending bass line that provides a counterpoint to the melody. He then harmonizes it with chords that fit in between these two outer voices. So even though the chords are maybe not what one might expect they move nicely from one to the next and provide an element of harmonic surprise before “resolving” to Bbmaj7(#11). It’s interesting that the ‘A’ Section begins with a traditional chord progression and ends with such an unexpected sequence of harmonies. Tradition followed by contrast. This is a hallmark of much jazz in general, of any era. Incidentally, the ‘B’ Section does something similar, using different tonal centers.

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

Further links and resources:
Richard Niles: Wikipedia

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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