A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Thou Swell” is one of the many Rodgers and Hart tunes in The Real Book (the songwriting team has more songs in the collection than any other composer). It’s a lively, uptempo tune from 1927 and before I researched this page, I had only performed or heard vocal renditions of it. But a quick listen to the Bix Beiderbecke and Toshiko Akiyoshi recordings below showed me how effective an instrumental piece it can be. A great tune like this can be played in many styles of jazz!

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.)

Bix Beiderbecke

Sarah Vaughan: Live In Chicago

Toshiko Akiyoshi: Her Trio, Her Quartet

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Since “Thou Swell” is usually performed by vocalists, it’s a good idea to practice playing it as an accompaniment. If you’re new to this, start playing it very slowly, walking a bass line with your left hand while playing chords with your right hand using simple rhythms, like whole and half notes. Gradually increase the tempo and start varying your right hand rhythms, playing the chord on the “and” of beat 2, for instance. Once you can keep the walking bass going at a medium-fast tempo while comping in your right hand with a good deal of rhythmic independence, you’ll be ready to play the tune with jazz vocalists. Don’t underestimate this skill, since every jazz vocalists needs and appreciates having a good piano accompanist. Playing vocal accompaniment is also a good way to make a living as a jazz pianist!

After you’ve done that, spend some time with the melody. The short, 2-note motifs are fun to play and will give you flavor to your interpretation that’s a little bit different from the way you play the longer melodic lines in tunes like “Donna Lee” and “There Will Never Be Another You.”

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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