A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Three Flowers” is the kind of hidden gem in Real Book that most musicians have probably overlooked, but is wonderful once you discover it. This is natural, of course, because there are so many tunes in the book that are more famous or more commonly played at gigs and jam sessions. In fact, I can’t even imagine a gig were the leader would casually say “Hey, let’s play Three Flowers.” All they’d get would be a bunch of blank stares!

The reason for this is that “Three Flowers” is one of those tunes that is mostly played by the composers themselves. It’s not a huge “standard,” but it does express something very nice, and obviously very personal to McCoy Tyner, who wrote it.

By 1964, Tyner had become famous as a member of tenor sax titan John Coltrane’s quartet. And as was often the case, he was asked to record some albums as leader. And he did what many other jazz musicians also did in these situations: he composed some tunes for the album. This was a great way for him to not only put more of a personal stamp on the group’s “sound,” but to earn some composer’s royalties as well! But after the initial recording, on his album Today and Tomorrow (see link below), not many other jazz musicians began playing the tune, despite it’s beauty. Simply put, it didn’t catch on. But McCoy himself would still perform it, and even record it again at a later date, this time on solo piano (see 2nd link below). Lots of famous musicians keep their own compositions alive in this way. Ron Carter and Wynton Marsalis also come to mind in this regard.

For us, learning a tune like “Three Flowers’ is a wonderful way to explore a new melody and chord progression, it’s also a way to become a little closer to the musical perspective and personality of a great pianist like McCoy Tyner. Start by learning “Three Flowers,” and then listen to some of Tyner’s other recordings, both with Coltrane and on his own. He’s a big part of jazz history and his legacy can still be heard and felt today.

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.)

McCoy Tyner: Today and Tomorrow

Tyner’s original recording of the tune, with a sextet

McCoy Tyner: Soliloquy

Tyner’s solo piano rendition (Great name for a solo piano album!)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The process of learning to play a tune like “Three Flowers’ is a good example of the phrase “you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” For starters, it’s a jazz waltz. So, if you’ve played other jazz waltzes, such as the famous “Someday My Prince Will Come,” then you’ve already worked out the details of how to play a jazz waltz. To transfer this experience t “Three Flowers,” all you have to do is learn the new melody, follow the chords, and do the same thing that you did on “Someday My Prince Will Come.” It’s that easy! (Yes, really!!!)

Now, once you’ve done that, you can begin to explore exactly what makes McCoy’s tune special unto itself. The shape of the melody, the rhythmic life in the phrasing, the modal nature of the Eb-to-Db alternation (and later on, E-to-D). All these things are part of Tyner’s musical vibe and yes, they are different from what makes his tune different from “Someday My Prince Will Come.” That’s the great thing about jazz: what we learn one day helps us play something else the next day.

Have fun with this wonderful tune, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Today and Tomorrow (album): Wikipedia

McCoy Tyner interview
Focuses on the A Love Supreme album and how Tyner began playing with John Coltrane

McCoy Tyner on Piano Jazz
And excellent audio performance/interview with Tyner, by jazz pianist Marian McPartland

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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