A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Free jazz pioneer and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman included this tune on his 1968 album New York Is Now! Coleman is famous for having his groups abandon preset chord changes during their solos. In other words, they played the melody, with written chords (or at least, a bass line), and then made up the chord progression as they improvised during the solo sections. In a way, this is exactly what classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven did during the development sections in their compositions, and what they themselves did when they improvised. (We know this both from eye witness accounts and from their improvisation-based compositions , such as Fantasias and the like.) But in jazz, this was revolutionary and controversial. The amazing thing about Ornette is that despite his “avant garde” status, his improvised melodies were tuneful and often folksong-like, which reflected the music he heard during his Texas upbringing. As with so many other jazz innovators, his music is old and new at the same time.

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.)

Ornette Coleman: New York Is Now

Simon Lapointe

Denny Zeitlin (not on Youtube, but worth listening to if you can find his version on streaming services)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The Real Book gives only one chord for “Broadway Blues,” Eb7. But if you look closely at the melody, you’ll see that it partially outlines a traditional blues, moving to the IV chord and then to the V. I think it’s fair to say that “anything goes” when playing Ornette Coleman’s music, so try various approaches and see which way you want to go with it.

Most importantly, read what Ornette’s long-time bassist Charlie Haden says in the interview linked to below. He provides many insights that I’ve never read anywhere else!

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

Further links and resources:
Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz (Still) to Come

Defining “Harmolodics”
An interesting overview of Coleman’s “Harmolodic” concept. Includes quotes from Coleman and several of his band members.

Charlie Haden, interviewed by Ethan Iverson
This is the best thing I’ve ever read about how to play Ornette Coleman’s music. Bassist Charlie Haden tells us a lot about his days playing with Ornette and how they approached the written melodies and improvisation.

Broadway Blues: Journey Through The Real Book #46

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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