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Jazz Piano Music: 8 Great Song to Learn

great jazz piano tunes - george whitty

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As I travel around the world doing jazz piano clinics and workshops, one question I’m often asked is: “what tunes should I learn?”

That’s a really broad question. I’d like to narrow it down to 8 jazz piano tunes that are a big part of the standard repertoire you might encounter at a gig or a jam session, and also are tunes that I’ve most enjoyed sitting down and playing over the years, inspired by some killer performances of said tunes that sort of launched me off. 

SO in no particular order, here are 8 jazz piano tunes I get a huge kick out of playing, along with the performance that inspired me to learn them and gave me something to shoot for. Usually there’s something cool about the harmony that propels the tune forward, and a really well-turned melody that’s got something unusual about it:

"Someday My Prince Will Come"

What a great tune from the Disney canon. All the way back to 1937 for this one, first sung by Snow White in the animated feature

Great jazz piano chords that seem to really lay well under the fingers, and a melody that makes excellent use of “jazz harmony”. It lands on buzzy notes like the A over the Eb in the 3rd bar, (or for that matter the Bb in the melody over the D7alt in the 2nd bar) and skips some wide intervals to give it kind of a soaring quality. 

It’s hard to beat this version played by Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, clearly having the time of their lives turning it inside out, yet still “playing the tune”. 

Whenever I play this tune I think about this killer kinetic version from the Columbia disc of their duo performances in the ‘70s and all the ways they milk that harmony!

"All the Things You Are" 

If you want to play jazz piano, you gotta know this one by Jerome Kern from 1939

Here we have a classic jazz chord progression built almost entirely on a serious sequence of chords moving in 5ths. That weird intro, too, which always sounded like it was a beat off from where it actually is. 

And oh, the key centers we visit (it even takes a little trip to E major in the bridge), but how naturally they flow. And we don’t actually get to the tonic chord until the very last bar. 

On this one, as I’ve mentioned before, Keith Jarrett’s performance is just so great, especially the crazy intro he plays on the CD “Tribute”.  And his phrasing and dynamics on it give it a great surging quality that really uses the chords well.  A must-learn tune, this one!

"Dolphin Dance"

This is Herbie in what I think of as a kind of Bill Evans writing mood, another really satisfying piece that doesn’t work the way you quite expect it to.

Ebmaj7 to Bb-7 right at the top, and  C-7 to Ab7 like that have a nice blue flavor to them.  And the business in bars 9-12 is hooked into the melody in such a great way. Through-composed (as opposed to A-A-B-A or any such form), and perfectly lyrical.

I think the thing I like about this one is that there’s something particularly satisfying about navigating these changes because each cadence leads to another one that I’m looking forward to. The whole piece develops nicely into a sort of meditation toward the end. 

Typical of Herbie, this tune is a great vehicle for him to expand on. Beautiful swinging version on “Maiden Voyage”, which is also an essential disc to own!

"Waltz for Debbie"

Gotta have a Bill Evans tune in here, and this one is a beauty. One of his best-known compositions, and a prime example of something that I really value in good writing: keeping things in motion by not putting the root of the chord on the bottom. 

There’s something about having the bass play the root of the chord as a progression develops that wastes the potential to keep the harmony developing and pushing forward through the tune. It wastes momentum, to me, and most of my own writing is “slash chords”, chords over a different note than the root. 

And this tune is a great example of fresh, innovative jazz writing from Bill Evans;  check the great progressions he has with something other than the root in the bottom, especially where he’s creating a chromatic bass line with this technique; a chromatic resolution is such a strong sound.

Beautifully played in its original incarnation on “New Jazz Conceptions” all the way back in 1956, this kind of writing foreshadowed a lot of modern jazz writing as it moved away from II-V-I-based harmony.

"Round Midnight"

And of course we’ve got to have a tune from this most original and influential of jazz composers.  And it’s one of my favorite tunes, period;  it really captures the mood of the title and has been played beautifully by a hundred different piano players.  Check the angular melody line that still manages to be so lyrical and evocative and the Monk-only harmony that’s distinctly his yet has such a great blues feel to it. 

When we get to the end of the first 8 and it’s time to take a breath, I get this feeling of real satisfaction, like we’ve said a lot of important things so perfectly clearly for 8 bars. 

Let’s multiply the genius of Monk by the genius of Oscar Peterson, who also does a great rap about Monk at the beginning of this video. 

"On A Clear Day"

This tune isn’t as “standard” as a lot of other jazz standards, but it is huge fun to play and I have a particular fondness for it because it’s one of the first standards that really lit me up, by way of an incredibly swinging performance of it by Red Garland, Sam Jones and Al Foster, about as cool of a rhythm section as you could ever compile. 

It’s on a disc called “Feelin’ Red”, and I won that record by being the 7th caller to my little local radio station on its 2-hour weekly “jazz hour” (I have a feeling that I was also callers 1 through 6). And this reading of it is just the joy of jazz personified. 

Changes are pretty simple, and they hang on these really well-placed 7#11 chords that are fun places to hit.  And the way Burton Lane closes out the melody is a real study in how to use motivic development to take things higher.  FWIW, Sam Jones and Al Foster are always a deep, swinging rhythm section (see Dexter Gordon’s great disc “Biting the Apple”, among many others)

"Sweet Georgia Brown"

Into the way-back machine for this classic gem from 1925.  Fun changes to blow on that give you plenty of time to weave your thing on there, 4 bars per chord for a lot of it.  And for reference, let’s go to a guy who I consider to be one of the most under-sung piano players ever, Gene Harris.  I first heard Gene Harris playing on the PA at a coffee shop years ago and had to go find out who that was, the playing was so incredibly swinging, the touch so totally commanding, and the blues aspect was so great and greasy. 

And the version here with the Ray Brown trio, on Ray’s CD “Soular Energy” is a unique twist on it.  In its original incarnation it was kind of an up-tempo novelty tune; here these guys are playing it as a slower blues tune, and they are just swinging the hell out of it.  The whole CD is fantastic and an object lesson in how to swing a piano track!

"Softly As In a Morning Sunrise"

Let’s put a modal tune on this list, and there’s none more commonly called than “Softly”, with the possible exception of “Impressions”.  You’re basically playing in C minor for 3/4 of the thing, although the changes actually show a lot of minor II-Vs to the C minor.  But once we’re done with the head, it’s really C minor with a bridge that has a nice propulsive release to it, again something that falls really easily under the fingers. 

I’m going to go just a touch off the farm for a track on this one because I have loved Larry Young’s version since I first heard it 30 years ago.  It’s on a disc called “Unity” with Elvin Jones on drums, Joe Henderson on tenor and a very young Woody Shaw on trumpet.  And Larry’s exceptional left hand and left foot on bass.  And he is cooking this thing in a way that only a great organ player can. 

So there's 8 jazz piano tunes to work on, with 8 great versions to inspire you!  

- George Whitty

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