A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Wave,” by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, is one of the all-time great tunes in the Bossa Nova style. Jobim and his musical peers created the Bossa Nova sound in Brazil during the late 1950s-early 1960s, and their influence can still be felt in pop music and jazz today.

Have some fun and watch Jobim and Herbie Hancock play “Wave” via the link below. It’s from a live concert where Hancock solos on the same piano that Jobim’s comping on. (A 3-handed duet!) It’s fascinating to hear (and see) how these two great musicians take entirely different approaches to the tune. Jobim’s playing is simple, direct, lyrical and understated. Hancock’s is florid, more rhythmic, and more playful. Also check out how Jobim improvises on the melody instead of ever playing it exactly as written. By doing this, he’s following in the footsteps of the older jazz musicians who freely interpreted the melodies of the standards they played.

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.)

Antonio Carlos Jobim

Antonio Carlos Jobim with Herbie Hancock: All Star Tribute DVD (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
I learned a valuable lesson while playing “Wave” during my college years. At the time, I was in a group with four vocalists and rhythm section. We played a lot of vocal jazz, some instrumentals, and Motown, and a little pop as well. In addition to group numbers, each vocalist sang a few solos which helped give us enough material to play 4-hour club gigs. It was also a fun way to explore more material than we had time to arrange and rehearse for the whole group.

One day, we were choosing these solos and one of the vocalists walked in with “Wave,” which was printed with lyrics in the original Vocal Real Book. She loved the song but had a high voice, and the written key of D felt a little low for her. She asked if we could play it up a whole step to fit her vocal range better.

My first thought was, “What??? The key of E? Are you kidding???”

But somewhere, far in the back of my mind, I’ve always welcomed these challenges because I know that it’ll make me a better player in the long run.

So I simply said, “Sure,” and began learning each chord up a whole step. EMaj7, Cdim7, Bm7, E7(b9), and so on. The bass player and I somehow got through this first rehearsal and learned “Wave” in E major, at least well enough to play it with her at our next club gig.

We ended up playing “Wave” in E for several years together. For a long time, I didn’t like how I played it. The chords felt unfamiliar, the key was uncomfortable, and worst of all, my solos were terrible! But as I said, I’ve been lucky in that something in me welcomes this kind of thing, which is really an opportunity.

After a long time, maybe 6 months or a year, something began to shift. Sure enough, it began to feel more comfortable. The opening vamp of Em7-A7 was probably the first part to feel natural. I’d just simply play it, just as easily as I would play Dm-G7. Then, I noticed that I didn’t have to think about the voicings as much while playing my chordal accompaniment. I began to have fun while playing in the key of E. (Shocking, I know!!! Lol)

My soloing took a little longer, but there’s something magical about “living” in a new key for a while. We do indeed acclimate over time! And there’s nothing like having to suffer your own playing in front of a live audience, week after week after week, to give yourself the adrenaline and motivation to master a difficult musical situation like this.

I’m telling this true story here both to remind myself to keep taking on musical challenges like this, and to hopefully inspire you to do the same. We’re in it for the long run, so anything we can do to help our overall musical development will be worth the effort, sooner or later.

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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