Ol’ Man River

To use today’s language in it’s simplest terms…I ❤️ this.

Liane Carroll and Meilana Gillard performing Ol’ Man River in Sligo earlier last month.

I love it for many reasons – but I’m going to focus on just one here. I do recommend listening to the whole piece first before reading on.

In lessons people often ask me about the ‘tasty’ stuff piano players do – by that they often mean those bits that link chords together between melody lines. They are often improvised on the spot which makes them difficult to learn and also sometimes difficult to teach.

Let me have a go – there’s a great example early in this piece.

At 0:46 Liane plays what I hear to be a Bb (add9) chord – ie the Bb major triad with a C added. It seems to be a sound she likes – the previous chord was an F (add9). But listen to her fill after the word Mississippi.


If you don’t read sheet music, the notes in the fill are as follows…A Bb F’ E’ F F E

She starts with a passing note (a note either a semitone above or below a chord tone), then to the root (Bb), up to the 5th (F), another passing note (E), two more 5ths (F – low this time) and finally another E.

This line works firstly because of its shape. It starts on A, which crucially is close to where the first melody phrase ended (F), then jumps up to create a sweet sound but quickly comes back down again to bring you back to where she will start the next melody line (C).

A line can have a nice shape but will only work if the note choice is good however. Here, she chooses to stick to strong chord tones throughout – the root and 5th, and also the notes a semitone below each. The choice of the E is interesting – if taken in the context of a Bb chord it is the #11, and it gives a slightly mysterious Lydian flavour to the line, which is perfect at the start of a song because it gets you interested.

I’m guessing on the spot or in the moment Liane didn’t think about any of this. It was instinctive, what the musician in her brain subconsciously told her fingers to do.

I’m also guessing that not even Liane Carroll could always do things like that instinctively, but she has dedicated her life to this music, and this is the result.

I'm Kieran and I play piano. Actually I do a bit more than just playing - I teach others how to play, and I write music, arrange it and host/produce shows.

3 thoughts on “Ol’ Man River

  1. Hey Matthew – yes Liane is amazing! And I agree that the soul is the key – it sells it to jazz-lovers and jazz-haters alike.


  2. Great post and thanks for pointing me towards Liane. She tears up that song! Makes me think how a white woman has faced a bunch of challenges whether similar or different to those faced by a black man. And then the song is written by two white guys. It’s a unsettling juxtaposition, but somehow the soul she brings to it makes it all work.

    Liked by 1 person

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