A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Poem For #15 (The Saga Of Harrison Crabfeathers) is a beautiful, modal tune by pianist Steve Kuhn. If you don’t yet know Kuhn’s playing, check him out; he plays wonderful jazz piano! The tune is a jazz waltz and was composed in 1972, around the same time that Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and others were composing and performing similar music. It was “in the air” at the 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.)

Steve Kuhn: Live In New York

DVS Jazz (Live video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Besides having a fun title, “The Saga Of Harrison Crabfeathers” is a fun tune to improvise on. So… how to begin? Do we play swing-type riffs? Bebop licks? What procedure do we use for our solos? What harmonic language is the tune based on?

Let’s look to the tune itself for clues on how to improvise. Since each chord is held out for 4 full measures (except for the AbMaj7 on the 6th line, which is played for 8 measures), we can begin by seeing if the melody uses any sort of scale or mode.

The first chord is Em7. Play it with your left and then slowly play the melody with your right. Just for those 4 measures before the chord changes. The melody notes are B D A G B E A and G. Do these form any kind of E scale? Let’s put them in a scale-like order, starting from E since it’s the root. We have E G A B D. That’s an Em Pentatonic scale! So now we have a scale which we know works over the Em7 chord.

Do the same thing for each chord in the tune. Write down the notes if it helps you. Organize each set of notes into a scale and then improvise with these scales for the whole chord progression. (Hint: The basic scales in the piece are Minor Pentatonic and Dorian modes for the minor chords and the Lydian Mode for the major chords.)

This is called “modal playing” and was first popularized in jazz with the Miles Davis album “Kind Of Blue.” It’s interesting to see how subsequent composers such as Steve Kuhn have used the modal concept in their own, personal way!

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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