A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
The Beatles “Yesterday” is one of the most widely-recorded songs in history. The song apparently came to composer Paul McCartney in a dream, with the lyric, “Scrambled eggs. Oh my baby how I love your legs…” Even though the melody and chords came to him in their complete form, it took McCartney quite a while to come up with better lyrics. He eventually wrote the song’s now-familiar words, and recorded it without the other members of the Beatles. George Martin arranged a string quartet accompaniment and the rest is musical history.
(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.)
Ray Charles: Good Old Times, Vol. 1
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Unlike most rock-era pop songs, “Yesterday” follows the same classic AABA 32-bar song from that most of the jazz standards in The Real Book use. This isn’t too surprising, since Paul McCartney grew up listening to the music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and their musical contemporaries. In fact, he would sit at the piano and accompany family sing-alongs during holiday gatherings.
One big difference, though, between “Yesterday” and the older Real Book standards is that “Yesterday” primarily uses triads instead of 7th chords and jazzy harmonic extensions. Also, the rhythm is in straight 8ths, not swing.
The song is wonderful, but it’s not jazz in any way, shape, or form. Perhaps the Berklee College of Music students who originally created The Real Book were simply looking to include a few rock or pop tunes, to give some variety to their collection. It’s certainly a classic, and as “perfect” a song as anything that Gershwin or Porter ever wrote. In any case, it’s a fun song to play as a pop ballad or perhaps with a gospel touch. The Major Blues Scale (F, G, Ab, A, C, D) is a good scale choice to start improvising with on “Yesterday.”
If you want to try and play a jazz solo over the chord progression, be sure to do it in a way that sounds appropriate to the song. There are some notable precedents to this approach, such as Billy Joel’s song “Just The Way You Are” which featured a jazzy alto sax solo by Phil Woods. In the right hands, this can sound wonderful. But I’ve found this to be the exception, and I’ve heard many fine jazz musicians play jazzy solos that sounded inappropriate and out-of-place on pop tunes. As always, use your own personal taste and judgement as a guide.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
Yesterday: The Song That Started As Scrambled Eggs
A fun (and true!) story about how Paul McCartney composed the song
Yesterday: Complete Beatles Piano #5
The Best Way To Use The Real Book
How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively
Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists
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