Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Intermediate
15:27

Learning Focus
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Holiday
  • Jazz Swing
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If you enjoy learning to play Christmas tunes with a lounge jazz piano sound, then look no further than today’s Quick Tip on Play We Three Kings—Jazz Piano Style! In this tutorial, Jonny May shows you how to transform this classic holiday tune into the perfect ambient jazz piano solo for your local coffee house. You’ll learn:

Introduction

Believe it or not, We Three Kings is perfectly suited to be played with a jazzy lounge feel. First of all, the tune’s 3/4 meter lends itself perfectly to a jazz waltz groove. Secondly, the tune’s overall minor tonality begs for complex jazz chords like you heard Jonny play in the opening of today’s featured Quick Tip video. We’ll cover all this and more in today’s lesson. But first, let’s take a moment to learn a bit about the origin of this classic Christmas tune.

We Three Kings Song Facts

John H. Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891), an American clergyman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wrote the music and lyrics for “We Three Kings of Orient Are” in 1857. The now famous carol was occasioned by a Christmas pageant while Hopkins was serving as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In fact, “We Three Kings” is the first popular Christmas carol to have been written in America.¹

Other names for this popular tune are “Three Kings of Orient”, “The Quest of the Magi” or simply “We Three Kings.” Tasty jazz versions of this tune that you may enjoy include recordings by The Ramsey Lewis Trio (1964), Dave Brubeck (1992), Jazz at Lincoln Center & Wynton Marsalis (2019), Eddie Higgins Trio (2006) and Ennio Máno (2020).

Next, we’ll consider the traditional melody and chord changes for “We Three Kings” as originally penned by John H. Hopkins, Jr.

We Three Kings Lead Sheet (Traditional)

In this section, we’ll examine the traditional melody and chords for “We Three Kings” before we jazz it up a little later in this lesson. In the lead sheet below, we have the tune set in the key of C minor / E♭ major. These keys are relatives, so they both contain a key signature of 3 flats (B♭, E♭, A♭). Since the verse section is clearly set in C minor while the refrain section emphasizes E♭ major, an argument could be made for either key. If you need a refresher on key signatures and relative keys, visit our Early Beginner Foundations–Level 1 Learning Track.

If you’re a PWJ member, be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF and backing track for this lesson. These materials appear under the Lesson Resources heading at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

We Three Kings Lead Sheet

We Three Kings – Melody & Basic Piano Chords

Next, let’s do an initial play through of the melody with basic piano chords. While this isn’t how we’ll ultimately perform the tune, this is a foundational step in learning the song, especially for beginner piano students. In fact, the following examples include a harmonic analysis of the chord changes.

First, let’s isolate the verse section in C minor.

“We Three Kings” – Verse (Traditional)

Now, let’s examine the refrain in E♭ major.

“We Three Kings” – Refrain (Traditional)

In the next section, we’ll explore important jazz piano techniques that we can use to transform the tune into a jazzy Christmas waltz.

We Three Kings – Jazz Piano Techniques

So how do we actually transform a tune like “We Three Kings” into a jazz arrangement? In this section, we take a closer look at the 3 techniques that Jonny presents in today’s featured Quick Tip video.

Now, let’s consider these techniques one at a time.

Technique #1: Add Chord Colors

The first step in “jazzing up” a traditional song is to find jazz chords that support the melody. Sometimes, this can be as simple as converting the diatonic triads into diatonic 7th chords. However, often times jazz arrangers will draw on more advanced reharmonization techniques to introduce new chord progressions that are more representative of the jazz tradition. In fact, we’ll actually use both of these approaches in today’s lesson. However, in this section, we’re primarily concerned with how to add additional notes to basic piano chords to capture a jazzier sound.

The first example below demonstrates how to convert a C minor triad (C–E♭–G) into a jazzy, 4-note C minor 6 (C–E♭–G–A), which can be represented by the chord symbol Cm6. Minor 6th chords are essentially a minor triad with the addition of a major 6th interval above the root. Jazz musicians often use minor 6th chords for the tonic chord in a minor key. In the example below, check out how rich and jazzy the Cm6 chord sounds as compared to a regular Cm triad.

Ex. 1: Convert Minor Triads into Minor 6th Chords

Minor 6th Jazz Piano Chords for We Three Kings of Orient Are

Next, we’ll explore a different way to transform a basic C minor triad into a rich jazz piano chord. In this case, we’ll create a C minor 11 (Cm11) by stacking 3rds until we reach the 11th above the root. Therefore, Cm11 contains the notes C–E♭–G–B♭–D–F. Check out the following example to hear what this sounds like.

Ex. 2: Convert Minor Triads into Minor 11th Chords

Minor 11th Jazz Piano Chords for We Three Kings of Orient Are

Now, let’s consider a different type of chord altogether. How about the Ⅴ7 chord in C minor—G dominant 7 (G–B–D–F). In minor keys, jazz pianists like to use altered dominant chords which have a darker, more complex sound. The term altered dominant chords is an umbrella term for any dominant chord that contains one or more chord alterations, such as the ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 or ♭13. In the example below, notice that G7(♭13) contains the note E♭, which is already in the key signature of C minor. Thus, G7(♭13) inherently implies the harmonic DNA of C minor.

Ex. 3: Convert Dominant 7ths into Altered Dominants

Altered Dominant Chords for We Three Kings - Christmas Holiday Jazz Piano

So far, we’ve looked at three examples of how to add additional notes to piano triads to get a more complex jazz sound. For a deep dive on this topic, be sure to check out the following courses:

Now, let’s check out the next jazz piano technique that we can use in “We Three Kings.”

Technique #2: Break Up the Chords

In Technique #1, you learned how to add additional notes to triads for a more colorful jazz piano sound. However, that doesn’t mean that we should always play all the notes simultaneously. In fact, by breaking up the notes of a chord using a technique called “inner-outer,” we can begin to add characteristic jazz rhythms to our playing. By “inner-outer,” we simply mean playing the top and bottom notes together and then playing the inner notes afterward.

To illustrate this technique, first, let’s play a simple Ⅰm6→Ⅴm9 progression in C minor in 3/4 time with blocked chords. The chords for this progression are Cm6→Gm9.

Blocked Chords

Blocked Chords

Now, let’s apply the inner-outer approach. To do so, we’ll place the outer notes on beat 1. Then, we’ll play the inner notes on the “and of 1” and on beat 3. Check it out:

Broken Chords

Broken Chords on Piano for We Three Kings Christmas song

As you can hear, this allows you to take a simple chord progression and turn it into a jazz groove!

Now, let’s check out another related jazz piano technique.

Technique #3: Swing Feel

The third jazz piano technique that we’ll consider is how to add a swing feel to “We Three Kings.” In today’s lesson, Jonny demonstrates how you can add a swing feel in either the right hand or the left hand.

In the example below, we’ve used the inner-outer technique to add “chord pops” in the right hand below the melody. These rhythmic stabs help imply a jazz waltz feel.

Ex. 1: Swing Feel in Right Hand

We Three Kings - RH Swing Feel Sheet Music

Another alternative is to add notes in the left hand that suggest a jazz waltz feel. Here, we’ll use the root and 5th of the chord to place notes on beat 1, the “and of 1,” the “and of 2,” and on beat 3. It’s important to point out that all of these notes shouldn’t be the same volume. The primary notes are on those that land on beat 1 and beat 3. Therefore, we can play the notes on the “off beats” as ghost notes—notes that add rhythm and texture, but don’t have a discernible pitch. Ghost notes are usually played quickly and quietly and are often described as being “felt rather than heard.”

Ex. 2: Swing Feel in Left Hand

We Three Kings - LH Swing Feel Sheet Music

For additional examples like these on how to subtly add more swing in your playing, check out our Quick Tip on Jazz Articulation with Ghost Notes (Int).

In the next section, we’ll apply the 3 jazz piano techniques from this section to “We Three Kings” in its entirety.

We Three Kings – Jazz Piano Application

Now that we’ve learned how to add some jazzy chords and rhythms to our playing, let’s look at Jonny’s full arrangement of “We Three Kings” from today’s lesson sheet.

We Three Kings Jazz Piano Intro

First, we’ll set up the arrangement with a jazzy intro that establishes the 3/4 meter. To do so, we’ll alternate between Cm6 and Gm9, or Ⅰm6→Ⅴm9 in C minor.

“We Three Kings” – Intro (Jazz Piano Style)

We Three Kings Jazz Piano Sheet Music Intro

As we consider this intro, it’s important to note that there are two different Ⅴ chords that we can use in a minor key. We can either play some type of minor Ⅴ chord like Gm7 or Gm9, or we can play some type of dominant Ⅴ chord like G7(♭13) or G7(♭9♭13). This is because we have more than one type of minor scale to work with. For example, the C natural minor scale (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭) gives us a Gm7 chord while the C harmonic minor scale (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–B♮) gives us a G7 chord. Of these two options, G7 contains more harmonic tension and is best suited for cadential moments in the tune, such as the conclusion of the verse section. On the other hand, Gm7 has a more tenuous harmonic character that works well in passing, or when a cadential dominant sound is not necessary, like the intro example above.

We Three Kings Jazz Piano Verse

Next, let’s look at how we might arrange the melody of “We Three Kings” for jazz piano. For the sake of accessibility, the examples in this section contain minimal swing embellishments. However, as you become more comfortable with the chord pops and ghost note techniques from the previous section, feel free to add these elements to either hand while playing.

Here’s the verse section. Notice how we’ve included both Cm7 and Cm6 for the Ⅰ chord in C minor. Also, check out how we’ve used Gm7 for the first two phrases and saved G7(♭13) for the final cadence in C minor in fourth phrase.

“We Three Kings” – Verse (Jazz Piano Style)

Earlier in this lesson, we mentioned that arrangers will sometimes reharmonize a tune to incorporate more common jazz chord progressions. Well, we actually have that going on in the example above. For example, did you notice the Dm7(♭5) chord in the fourth phrase? Originally, this chord was an Fm, and the overall progression was Fm→G→Cm, or Ⅳm→Ⅴ→Ⅰm in C minor. However, by replacing Fm with Dm7(♭5)—which can also be written as Dø7 for short—the progression becomes Dø7→G7(♭13)→Cm6. The result is a minor 2-5-1 progression in C minor, a staple of jazz harmony!

We Three Kings Jazz Piano Refrain

Now, let’s check out the refrain section. Here, Jonny converts the E♭ triads to E♭(add2) chords. In addition, he inverts this chord to E♭(add2)/G as it approaches the Ⅳ chord. Incidentally, the Ⅳ chord has also been changed. Instead of an A♭ triad, we now have A♭▵7.

“We Three Kings” – Refrain (Jazz Piano Style)

In the third phrase of the refrain, Jonny uses E♭9 to approach A♭, a secondary dominant chord substitution. In addition, John uses a B♭9(sus4) at the end of the third phrase to lead back to E♭ at the start of the fourth phrase. Don’t worry, all of these chord substitutions are documented in the “We Three Kings” jazz lead sheet in the next section.

We Three Kings Jazz Lead Sheet

Before we close out today’s lesson, let’s get a bird’s-eye view of Jonny’s approach to “We Three Kings” for jazz piano with a jazz lead sheet.

We Three Kings Jazz Lead Sheet

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Play We Three Kings—Jazz Piano Style. With the tips and tricks that you’ve picked up in today’s lesson, you’ll be ready to set the mood for holiday cheer at any Christmas gathering this season!

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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¹ Kandra, Greg. “Following yonder star: The story behind the writing of ‘We Three Kings.’” Aleteia.org, 7 Jan. 2017.

 


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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