Thoughts on playing torch songs on piano

Hey everyone!

This week I’ve been thinking about “torch songs” because our Journey Through The Real Book has brought us to Duke Ellington’s masterpiece “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.”

There are several, varied definitions of the term “torch song” and the I’ve come to understand them is that they are ballads, often with jazzy harmonies or blues elements, and their lyrics speak of unrequited love or a similar sense of yearning for a better relationship than the person currently has in their life.

As someone commented on my YouTube channel today, Frank Sinatra’s “One For My Baby” is a famous example of a torch song. There are many others as well, including “Black Coffee, “The Man That Got Away,” and “Cry Me A River.” I even think of “Lush Life” in the same vein, even though it’s not about love per se. But the same melancholy feeling is there.

Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,” which is the 160th tune in the Real Book, is a classic torch song. Listen to the inimitable Sarah Vaughan sing it as only she can:

Sarah Vaughan: I Got It Bad

Listening to singers like Ms. Vaughan sing torch songs can help us a lot with our jazz piano playing. Here are 5 ways we can dive into the torch song tradition in a deep way:

1. Immerse yourself in the feeling of the lyrics

As pianists, we don’t have to memorize every single word to every song we play, but know at least a few phrases will help us get a feeling for the song in a way that the notes themselves won’t do.

“Never treats me sweet and gentle
the way he should,
I got it bad and that ain’t good.”

2. Tap into the blues feeling

Even though torch songs aren’t 12-bar blues, they are often “lyrical cousins” to the blues. Play some blues phrases or rhythms at some point during a torch song and hear how well it works.

3. Draw your listeners in, instead of overwhelming them

When performing, we often want to “emote” for our audience. Instead, see what happens when we remain understated and draw them in. If you can do this with confidence, you’ll be surprised at how rapt their attention becomes. They’ll be focused on every not you play!

4. This is not the time to “show off”

Torch songs are about the feeling and the song, not how many 64th notes we can play in half a measure. Trust this and reap the benefits.

5. Enjoy the “torch song lineage”

After you learn a tune like “I Got It Bad,” explore some more torch songs. Start with the ones listed above or any others you’ve enjoyed listening to. Absorb each performance you listen to, and bring some of that into your own playing in your unique way.

Here’s my video of “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,” along with a play-by-play analysis of the musical discussion and piano solo.

Real Book 160: I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good

“What is a torch song, and how can it help our piano playing?” 0:00
Becoming familiar with the song’s lyric 0:25
Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad” as an example of a torch song 0:43
Several definitions of “torch song” 0:48
Several examples of torch songs 1:50
Using the feeling of a song’s lyric to help our piano interpretations 2:37
Duke Ellington’s use of motifs in the melody of “I Got It Bad” 2:42
Duke Ellington’s melodic use of upper extensions and alterations 3:33
Adding a C7 to the 1st measure of Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad” 3:47
Adding chromatic chordal motion influenced by the tune’s melody 4:03
A composition assignment Duke Ellington gave to his son, Mercer 4:52
The influence of Duke Ellington on the bebop harmonic concept 5:37
Immersing ourselves in the language of torch songs 5:53
Letting the lyric influence how we play a jazz ballad 6:50
Reharmonizing the melody to “I Got It Bad” 7:51
Chromatic inner voice motion 8:02
A slightly more active pianistic texture 8:23
Displacing melody notes by an octave 8:27
Easing into a slow stride jazz ballad piano style 8:53
A melodic left hand bass fill 9:03
Harmonizing the melody with block chords a la George Shearing 9:06
Using a tritone substitution 9:19
Embellishing the melody in a bluesy way 9:24
Playing the melody with the LH while the RH improvises above it 9:40
Digging into the bluesy rhythms a little more 9:48
A bluesy-based jazz ballad style on piano 9:57
Improvising with upper extensions 10:03
Ellington-like 10ths in the right hand 10:17
Improvising with a motif from the song’s melody 10:23
Ellington-style chromatic chordal motion 10:37
A chromatic left hand run 10:42
Left hand parallel 10ths 10:52
Breaking up the underlying triplet feel with syncopation 11:21
A Duke Ellington-like use of bluesy parallel 6ths 11:43
Bebop soloing 11:54
Blues tremolos 12:09
Coming back to the main melody 12:35
An expansive feel during the bridge 12:48
Using RH octaves 12:52
Moving back into rubato for the ending 13:30
Improvising an ending, and quoting the melody again 13:45
Following the musical thread while playing a jazz ballad 14:00
The benefits of continual musical study 14:22

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

PS – I’ve created a new Patreon page for those of you who are enjoying these Journey Through The Real Book videos and wish to support the project. I doing this as a musical challenge for myself, as a way to give you a vibrant perspective on each tune, and to build a legacy for future jazz pianists. Thank you for your support!

Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration

Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates