A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Like many other songs from the musical theater world, “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is known by jazz musicians primarily through Miles Davis’ 1956 recording. It’s usually played at a medium swing tempo and sounds equally great with the bass in 2 or 4.

Be sure to listen to the original cast recording from the show “Oklahoma” at least once. All the jazz musicians from the 40s and 50s would have known this version, and even though it’s not performed in a jazz manner, the essence of the melody is there in its pure form, which influenced Miles Davis and his contemporaries. Let it influence you too!

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.)

Oklahoma: Original cast recording

Miles Davis: Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Harmonically, “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is pretty straight-ahead. It’s an AABA tune in which the ‘A’ Sections are in Bb major. The bridge goes to Eb and F via a series of ii/V/I’s and there’s a 4-bar extension at the very end.

Since the chords aren’t so difficult, tunes like this are a great opportunity to investigate specific musical concepts, like phrasing.

Listen to Miles Davis’s trumpet solo, in the famous recording I’ve lined to above. The first time through, just listen to his solo and enjoy it. Then, listen to the solo again and pay attention to each phrase. Don’t analyze it yet, but simply notice when each phrase begins and when it ends. Just become aware of Miles’ phrasing. And also become aware of how you’re listening a little differently now. In a way, you’re beginning to think like Miles was thinking while he played this solo. On one level, it’s very simple. He played one phrase, breathed, and then played another. And so on.

Now, listen again and notice how long or how short each phrase is. And see how much (or how little) time Davis put in between them. You’re not trying to construct some grand theory about Miles’ musical thought, or to find any type of “formula.” But at the same time, you’re learning a lot. You’re having a private lesson in phrasing from an all-time master. Miles Davis is teaching you personally, one-on-one!

Do this with the trumpet solo on “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” for a few days. Have fun listening to Miles’ phrasing, and yes, you may discover some more things along the way. Does he repeat similar phrases in some spots? Does he ever follow one phrase with something that’s contrasting? You’ll learn a lot by doing this and when you feel the time is right, begin improvising your own phrases on “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” Follow the same process you did with your listening. At first, simply play one phrase and then another. Even just doing this will do wonders for your jazz piano playing, since it brings such clarity to our performances. Then, experiment with the other things you heard Miles do. Play long phrases. Play short phrases. Vary the length of time you rest between phrases. And so on and so on.

This is the beginning of a deep study of jazz phrasing, and you’ll also notice how different players phrase in entirely different ways. How do you phrase? Let’s find out!

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

Further links and resources:
The Surrey With The Fringe On Top: Wikipedia

“Oklahoma!” Historical Perspective

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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