Building an arrangement and knowing how to incorporate various harmonic devices is a major part of developing your cocktail piano repertoire. It's also an essential skill that can be practiced at an easy, intermediate, and advanced level. In this article we'll take a very popular cocktail piano piece - George Gershwin's "Summertime" - and show you a step-by-step approach to build a basic arrangement. Along the way we'll even sprinkle in some more advanced tips to help you achieve that professional sound.
It may seem obvious, but an important first step in building an arrangement is to listen to the song. Listen repeatedly and to different versions played by different artists. Listen at the gym, in the car, at work, in the shower, while eating dinner, etc. "Summertime" has been recorded by many artists, so there are a number of various interpretations of the song.
The goal is to become very familiar with the song before you ever even start to play the song. With repeated listenings you should start to get familiar with the melody, tempo, meter, form, and chord progression.
Here are the first 4 measures of "Summertime":
As a first step, let's simply play the melody in the right hand and add in some chord shells in the left hand.
A general rule of harmony in jazz is that we can precede dominant 'V' chords with the 'ii' chord. Look at measure four and notice that we have an A7 chord. Since this A7 is a 'V' chord, we can precede this chord with a 'ii' chord which will be an E minor 7 chord.
Tritone substitution is a device used quite often in jazz. The rule for tritone substitutions is that you can substitute one dominant chord for another dominant chord a tritone away from the first. As we look at our arrangement we notice that we have two dominant 7th chords - Bb7 (in measure 2) and A7 (measure 4). Using our tritone substitution rule, we can substitute Bb7 with an E7 chord, and A7 with an Eb7 chord. Just because we can do this does not mean that we have to, or even should, do this. Sometimes tritone substitutions sound great. Other times they don't really sound appropriate. The idea is to try them out and listen to the options, then choose whichever sound you most prefer.
In the example above our right hand is still just playing a single-note melody. We can start to flesh out the melody by filling in (or expanding) the harmony. Below is one possible example which was created by simply filling the chords in with chord tones.
As a final step we can add some rhythmic variety to our arrangement without having to change any of the notes or harmonies that we have created.