A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“The Girl From Ipanema” is the most famous Bossa Nova song, composed in 1962. Bossa Nova is a light, gentle style of Brazilian music that became popular in the early 1960s and has remained a favorite type of music for jazz musicians to play ever since. The rhythmic beat is similar to some pop/ light rock music but the chord progressions are similar to those used in jazz.

In 1987-88 I was assistant to the great jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan who was friends with Antonio Carlos Jobin, the composer of “The Girl From Ipanema.” Gerry once told me about a conversation he had with Jobim, in which the two of them had discussed how jazz musicians and the creators of Bossa had mutually influenced one another. Jobim told Mulligan that he an his fellow Brazilian composers had listened closely to Mulligan and the other “cool jazz” musicians of the 1950s, and how this had helped them create the Bossa Nova Style. Mulligan then acknowledged the huge impact that Bossa Nova in turn had on the jazz community. It’s fascinating to see this type of “back and forth” influence between musical cultures.

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(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.)

Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto: Getz/Gilberto

This was the hit recording of the song which made it so famous

Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz: TV performance, 1964 (video)

Frank Sinatra: Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim

Featuring wonderful orchestrations by Claus Ogerman, this whole album is a classic. It’s marvelous how Sinatra was able to put aside his usual hard-swinging approach from this time period and sing these Bossa Novas so tenderly!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Have you ever noticed how much better “The Girl From Ipanema” sounds on the Stan Getz/Gilberto recording than it does when you play it out of The Real Book? (Hint: It’s not just because Stan Getz is a great musician!) It’s because they play it in the key of Db, not F.

Don’t believe me? Then try it for yourself. Write out the chords a major third lower, in Db major, and figure out the melody. Once you do this, you’ll see what I mean. You don’t have to have absolute pitch to hear the difference. The song sounds much mellower in Db and after you play it there for a while, you may find as I did that it also fits under your hands much better.

Having said that, I need to point out that Frank Sinatra, among others, does sing it wonderfully in the written key of F major, but I do feel that the mellow key of Db fits the feel of the song perfectly.

Spend a week playing it in Db. You may decide to say there!

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

Further links and resources:
Bossa Nova: Wikipedia

The Girl From Ipanema: Wikipedia

The Girl From Ipanema playalong track

TV interview with the real-life Girl From Ipanema, who inspired the song

The Girl From Ipanema: Journey Through The Real Book #134

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