A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“You Are Too Beautiful” is a, well…. “beautiful” song by the great songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. It dates from 1932 and stood the test of time.

The song sounds great as both a slow ballad and a medium tempo swing tune. Check out how Rodgers has constructed the melody using just a few motifs. The ‘A’ sections use a wave-like motif that simply keeps rising and falling, and the bridge introduces a contrasting phrase that’s a little more complex. The combination gives just enough variety to keep the song interesting while it’s similar enough to sound related.

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.)

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Earl Hines: At Home

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
One way to become a better jazz pianist is to simplify your approach a bit. Sometimes we focus so much on playing “great” solos that we lose sight of things like basic melodicism.

I first realized this when I was once listening to Oscar Peterson being interviewed by Marian McPartland, on her Piano Jazz radio show. Peterson, who was one of the fastest pianists ever, demonstrated something by playing very simply. I couldn’t believe it! Not only was it fascinating to hear Peterson actually slow down and play something that I myself could improvise, but his musical phrase was perfectly shaped, like a Mozart melody. I then realized that this is exactly what made Peterson’s lightning-fast solos sound so good. Even though they sounded to me like flurries of notes, they had the same internal logic that his simple phrases had. I realized that Oscar could play fast so well because he could play slow so well.

This was a revelation to me, and I decided to spend more time practicing slowly. A lot more time.

We can benefit from practicing a tune such as “You Are Too Beautiful” like this. Start by playing the melody over a chordal LH accompaniment. Then take a solo that’s no more complex than the melody. In fact, you can think of it as making up your own melody, in the style of Richard Rodgers. Simple, tuneful, and melodic.

The first thing you’ll notice is that this type of simple melodic improvisation might actually sound better than your usual attempts at soloing. And the second thing you may realize, after you’ve spent a few days or weeks practicing like this, is that your faster solos will begin to sound better too. More logical and melodic too.

Have fun with this approach. After all, if it worked for Oscar Peterson, it can work for us too. Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Rodgers & Hart Reconsidered
An insightful article about the songwriting team, partly drawn from interviews with Mary Rodgers, the composer’s daughter

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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