A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Herbie Hancock composed “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” in 1969, which was right at the point of transition from straight-ahead jazz to jazz fusion. The tune’s lyrical melody and extended jazz harmonies blend extremely well with the funky rhythm section under it all. “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” is one of those tunes you should check out when you’re looking for some funky material to play. Hancock’s funk/fusion innovations have influenced several generations of pop, rock, and jazz musicians, including Stevie Wonder and Prince.

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.)

Herbie Hancock: Fat Albert Rotunda

Robert Glasper Experiment: Leverkusener Jazztage 2016 (Live video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Open up your Real Book, turn to p. 402, and begin play the chords and melody to “Tell Me A Bedtime Story.” If you’re like me, you’ll say “WHAT?????!!!”

Right away, Hancock give us something to play that doesn’t fit with our previous experience. The first melody note is fine, it’s the 9th of the chord. But the 2nd note??? It’s strange enough that it’s a G# over a G major chord, but Hancock doesn’t resolve it back up to the A or down to the G. Instead, the melody bypasses the harmonic center entirely by going down to an F# and then E.

What’s going on? How can we view this harmonic “crunch” or dissonance?

Let’s answer this by playing the melody by itself. What do you hear in m.1-4? What scale is this? It’s an A major scale, right? Yep, it’s A major, and as diatonic as can be. (It can also be seen as an F# natural minor scale, which is the relative minor of A major and fits nicely with the F#m7 chord in m. 3 and 4.)

So if the melody is written in A major/F# minor, then why is there a Gmaj7 chord underneath it?

Hancock is using bitonality: superimposing one harmony on top of another. Herbie has cited the Russian modernist composer Igor Stravinsky as a prime influence, so in this light it’s not surprising that he’s using some of the same techniques that Stravinsky used in works such as The Rite Of Spring and Petrushka.

The bigger surprise for me is that the rest of the tune is more traditional. I guess Herbie just wanted to throw in a little harmonic spice at the beginning, and then settle down into something a little more traditional. He does mix up the meter on the second page, by going into 5/4 time for 4 measures.

In short, “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” has a few twists and turns to give you something to practice. 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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