A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Blue Trane” was composed and recorded by the tenor sax titan John Coltrane on his 1958 Blue Note album of the same name. Harmonically, it’s the simplest piece on the album since this was a period when Coltrane was experimenting with very complex chord progressions, which culminated on his next album, “Giant Steps.”

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

John Coltrane: Blue Train

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
John Coltrane was always searching for something in his music. Always trying new things and never standing still. “Blue Train” is a prime example of how Coltrane, at this point in his development, was layering extremely complex soloing techniques over increasingly simple chord progressions while playing the blues. He did this, in part, to give his sidemen a break from struggling with complex chord patterns like he used on “Giant Steps” and other original tunes from the period. (His fellow saxophonist Ornette Coleman reportedly advised his to do this.) I also think that he began using simpler chords to root his music in the past more deeply, even as it began to sound increasingly “modern.”

Notice how “Blue Train” only uses the most basic blues chords: I, IV, and V. Just like blues musicians used in the earliest days of the music. Gone are the complex ii/V substitutions favored during the bebop era. But on top of this simple harmonic structure, Coltrane would layer on his “sheets of sound,” with ii/V patterns superimposed melodically and an increasingly free use of pentatonics and other scales, with varying degrees of chromaticism.

Try this for yourself. Begin by playing a very basic blues solo, and then bring in some bebop and beyond. Then you can develop your own individual approach to soloing on this classic Coltrane tune.

Listen to Coltrane's tenor sax solo about 30 times. Sometimes, just let the sounds wash over you and at other times, try to follow every single note. This will both develop your musical ear and also help you absorb his phrasing which will eventually come out in your own playing.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
John Coltrane: Blue Train
A discussion between A. B. Spellman and Murray Horwitz on the importance of the “Blue Train” album.

Blue Train: Journey Through The Real Book #40

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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