A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“When I Fall In Love” is one of the great ballads in The Great American Songbook. It was composed by Victor Young and Edward Heyman in 1952, which is a little later than many of the other vocal ballads, which were composed during the Swing Era. To put this into historical perspective, Elvis Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” a mere four years later. Yes; musical and cultural change was in the air!

Despite changing musical tastes, beautiful ballads will always be part of the pop music scene, and “When I Fall In Love” is one of the best. Even though Miles Davis recorded a famous instrumental rendition (see link below), the song is primarily performed by vocalists. I’ve also provided a link to one of my favorite vocal versions, by The Singers Unlimited. As you listen to them sing it, see if you can follow the inner voice lines in the arrangement. It’s often easier to “hear” these inner lines in a vocal recording than when played on piano, because of the varying timbre of the different singer’s voices. In addition to being a beautiful listening experience, its good ear training for us pianists!

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.)

Miles Davis: Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet

The Singers Unlimited: A Special Blend

Nat King Cole

We pianists can learn a lot about how to phrase a melody from listening to this.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
One fun way to practice a ballad such as “When I Fall In Love” is to play the melody primarily with the 4th and 5th fingers of your right hand, the bass line with the 4th and 5th fingers of your left hand, and for a few times through the song, don’t play any chords in between. Listen carefully to the relationship between the melody and bass notes, almost as if it was in 2-part counterpoint.

At the same time, notice how “empty” it sounds, harmonically, and gradually become more and more aware of what the chords could potentially sound like.

Then, begin playing chord voicings in between the melody and bass notes, divided up between your hands. The specific voicings don’t matter nearly as much as the fact that you took the time to experience the song without harmonies, and now you’re hearing the harmonies that you had imagined filling in that space between the outer voices.

This is an extremely powerful way of experiencing a tune, and I’ve practiced this way a lot. Don’t try to necessarily play “great” voicings all the time. Just keep doing it over and over, and trying new chord voicings until it starts to get easier. This may take an hour, or it may take a month. But that doesn’t matter, right? Because you’ll be having so much fun experimenting and learning the song that you won’t be in a hurry to “move on.”

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

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Bill Evans: Recording and Transcription

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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