Lesson: Solo Piano—Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You”

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(This article originally appeared in the June ’97 issue of Keyboard magazine.) 
In last month’s column [May 1997, covering "Blue Monk"], we began a journey into the strange and beautiful musical world of Thelonious Monk. I hope that you were inspired enough to check out some of the great Monk recordings or to try to play some of his masterpieces. I recently spent a few days in the studio recording solo piano versions of Monk tunes along with a dozen or so compositions by Bill Evans. (Though many would consider these two artists polar opposites of jazz piano, there are more similarities than you might think.) The date inspired me to analyze one of Monk’s gems, “I Mean You.”

Many times, I have heard my piano students complain that they can’t think of anything to play or that they run out of ideas in the middle of a solo. One of many elements that I have pilfered from classical composition is thematic improvisation. The great structurally oriented composers such as Brahms, Beethoven, and Stravinsky could generate entire sonatas and symphonies from one melodic cell. Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Monk, the master thematic improvisers of jazz, were often able to unify long solos by making maximum use of the elements of their theme. The ability to work with the materials they are given is the hallmark of a great artist (including visual artists).

Let’s extract whatever we can from these themes and investigate how we can use them for better soloing—and in the process, we’ll gain some insight into some important compositional elements that you can use in your own composing. Look at Example 1, a basic two-hand arrangement of “I Mean You.”

Ex. 1. The first eight bars of “I Mean You” is based on the first three notes, shown here in brackets. These notes are repeated down an octave in the second half of the first bar, connected by an A. (This note is used later to great effect.) In the pickup to bar 3, Monk plays the motif backwards, then syncopates it and moves it up by a half-step. Bar starts out like bar 1, but the connecting A is repeated in bar 6, followed by the backwards motif. (You can almost hear the words of the title as the notes repeat…) The backwards motif is used as a pickup into the bridge, followed by some new material in the descending fourth and triton in the second bar of the bridge) and new rhythms (the triplets). The pickup is repeated, the descending phrase is altered intervallically, and the bridge ends with some ascending triplet half-steps, which take us back to F. As Spock would say, “Highly logical.”

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You might be thinking, “This all very interesting from a theoretical standpoint, but what does it have to do with my playing?” For starters, try working the three-note motif through the changes, modifying it from time to time (Examples 2, 3, and 4).

Ex. 2. Take the three-note motif through the changes of the tune. Keep going, even if you mess up. Developing an idea requires development. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

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Ex. 3. Now try displacing some of the pitches by octaves.

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Ex. 4. Use broken octaves for another development idea.

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These are just a few ways that you can use the theme and structure of a composition to make your improvising more cohesive and interesting, and you’ll be improving your piano technique in the process. Remember to play at a comfortable, but steady tempo, and keep going—I promise it will get easier. Spend some time analyzing other tunes, even your own. I’ve always found that the more time you invest in learning and thinking about material you’re playing, the more satisfaction you’ll get when you let go and just play.

Bio: At the time this lesson was first published, the author had just recorded Fred Hersch Plays Monk for Nonesuch, released in 1997. Visit Fred Hersch's website for more details.