A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” is one of the few modern-era pop songs in The Real Book. It was composed and recorded by keyboardist-extraordinaire Stevie Wonder in 1972, and it was probably a favorite of the Berklee College Of Music students who originally compiled The Real Book.

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.)

Stevie Wonder: Talking Book

Carmen McRae

Jackie Terrasson and Stéphane Belmondo: Saint Emilion Jazz Festival, 2013 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Stevie Wonder is one of those “pop” musicians who is universally respected by all musicians. This is partly because of his talent, of course, and I think it’s also because of his stylistic range. As far as jazz goes, he’s thoroughly conversant with the jazz harmonic vocabulary and will use in over various grooves unclosing funk and R&B. His harmonica playing is heavily influenced by the great jazz improvisers, and he’ll occasionally play some straight-ahead piano jazz when he’s in the mood.

“You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” is in the tradition of light pop songs that come from the bossa nova lineage. Bossa nova heavily influenced American popular music when it first appeared in the late 1950s, and songs like “Under The Boardwalk” and “Spanish Harlem” were adaptations of the bossa nova beat to mainstream American tastes. (British rock groups such as the Beatles enjoyed playing bossa nova-like music as well. Listen to Paul McCartney’s “I Will.”)

For us jazz pianists, this means that we can essentially play “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” as a bossa nova, and it will automatically contain elements of both American and Brazillian music. The harmonies, for example are a hybrid of old and newer pop sounds, while the underlying rhythm owes much to the bossa nova style.

Simple, pop-like improvisations sound great on the tune as well as more complex, jazzy solos. And we can also take a cue from how Stevie Wonder improvises on some of his other songs, such as “Isn’t She Lovely,” by using the melody as a guide while embellishing it.

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

Further links and resources:
You Are The Sunshine Of My Life (song): Wikipedia

A collection of Stevie Wonder interviews

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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