The musical benefits of playing Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace”

When I was first learning jazz piano, there were some tunes I’d avoid playing. These included all of Steve Swallow’s tunes. I’d turn the page in my Real Book, see one of his tunes like “Falling Grace,” and keep turning the page to get to the next tune as quickly as possible?

Why did I avoid them? It was the chord progressions. They made no sense to me. Swallow didn’t follow each chord with the ones I expected and I felt lost when I tried to improvise over his progressions.

Luckily for me, however, circumstances forced me to look at his music from time to time. A sax player would say “Hey, have you heard Falling Grace?” and a classmate of mine once opened the Real Book to a Swallow tune and said, “Let’s play something by my bass teacher.” Yes, he had taken a few lessons from Steve Swallow himself! (Swallow told my friend to play Bach’s Cello Suites on electric bass.)

I was intrigued.

What was I missing? What did my friends know that I didn’t? And most of all; how was I ever going to learn this hard music???

It took a long time, but over the course of a few years, the chord changes in Steve Swallow’s music began to make sense to me. I began to detect their inner logic and my ear began to anticipate what the next phrase would sound like. And most surprisingly (to me), my solos began improving as well!

Now, Steve Swallow’s tunes are like old friends. I don’t play them every day, but when I do, I greet them with a sense of familiarity and comfort that I didn’t think possible during my high school and college years.

The reason I’m saying all this is because we usually practice a jazz tune or technique in order to learn it in the short run. We want to learn a certain tune by next week, or to be able to play bebop in a year from now.

But some music, like I’ve found with Swallow’s pieces, can take much longer. And we need to start becoming familiar with them now if we want to be able to play them in a few years. It’s a slightly different way of looking at our practicing, and viewing our musical development in terms of the “long run” will guarantee our continued musical growth for a long, long time.

If you’ve never yet played a Steve Swallow tune, “Falling Grace” is a good place to start. It’s one of his earliest compositions and has a good deal of traditional jazz harmony interspersed with the unusual harmonic transitions that characterize much of his music.

Falling Grace: Journey Through The Real Book #114

There’s a good reason why jazz greats such as Chick Corea and Pat Metheny were highly influenced by Swallow’s writing. It’s beautiful music and well worth the effort it takes us to learn how to play it. But we have to begin “now,” not “tomorrow.”

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

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