A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Unity Village” is a medium-tempo, straight-8th note tune from Pat Metheny’s debut album as leader, Bright Size Life. Recorded in 1976, Bright Size Life is one of the all-time great jazz trio albums. Besides Metheny on guitar, it features electric bassist Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses on drums. Since the sound of this trio is so light and “open,” we pianists can enjoy playing along with their recordings as if we were part of the group!

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.)

Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life

Pat Metheny: Umbria Jazz (Live video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Unity Village” uses many of the same musical elements as “Bright Size Life” and the other Pat Metheny tunes in The Real Book. The harmonic foundation uses a jazz vocabulary, but Metheny also like to throw in triads, pedal tones, and inversions. Metheny’s lyrical melodicism is on full display here, even with the large intervallic leaps that are easier played on guitar than on piano.

It’s interesting to start at the beginning of the chord progression and see exactly what happens as we move from chord to chord throughout the piece.

Metheny begins with the tonic chord, Am. The A minor triad sounds great here, but so does Am7 or Am9. Take your pick! After firmly establishing the tonic, we go to the dominant E7. Now let’s think about this for a minute… The traditional way to follow this would be to return to the Am tonic chord (I-V-I). But what does Metheny do? He resolves deceptively up to the bVI chord, FMaj7. Beautiful and slightly surprising. Expansive.

The second phrase repeats the same three chords, but follows this up by moving around the Circle of 4ths, to BbMaj7b5 (the b5 is in the melody at that point).

Many composers would stay close to the tonic key of A minor for the next section, or at least using a related key. Metheny chooses to do something different and delights us by moving to an A major chord, which turns out to be the IV chord in E major. And when he does get to the new tonic of E major, he alternates the bass notes between the expected E and the unexpected C.

The final 8-bar section harmonizes a largely diatonic melody with a wide array of harmonies, some related and some (seemingly) unrelated.

All in all, Metheny invites us to go along with him on a twisty and turny harmonic path that presents challenges and musical rewards in each phrase. Practice improvising over each 4- and 8-measure section until you can “hear” the chords clearly. This will enable your musical ear to hear melodies that flow in and out of the harmonies in a way that expresses your musical individuality, instead of just playing anything you can to sound OK. Eventually, tunes like this become real easy.

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

Further links and resources:
Bright Size Life: Wikipedia

An interview with Pat Metheny
Contains nice insights into the difference between live performances and studio recordings

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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