A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Chelsea Bells” is from the 1975 Gary Burton album Hotel Hello, on which composer Steve Swallow played bass and piano. The recording is now hard to find, and indeed, I couldn’t find it on either YouTube or Spotify.

Like Steve Swallow’s other tunes in The Real Book, such as “Arise, Her Eyes”, and “Hullo Bolinas,” “Chelsea Bells” gives us an opportunity to develop our ears by improvising over non-traditional chord changes. Swallow keeps the harmonic motion beautiful yet unpredictable, and you’ll need to practice this tune a lot before you become comfortable improvising melodically with any sense of confidence. The effort is well worth it, however, and playing tunes like this can keep your playing fresh and inspired. (And bebop tunes will seem easier after you’ve spent an hour with this one!)

Here is recommended recording:
(for international readers who may not have access to this YouTube link, I’ve indicated the original album name so you can listen to it on music streaming services, etc.)

Corbini – Franceschini Quintet: Amazing

A wonderful, expansive version of the piece.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Start by listening to the above recording a few times. Then, go to the piano and simply play the melody and bass line with chord voicings in between, spread between your hands, chorale-style. (The first voicing could be: Ab F/Db Ab Eb)

Play the tune like this a few times and just get used to the melody and how the harmonies sound. Then, begin improvising simple melodies of your own, and gradually let them become more complex as your ear becomes more accustomed to the harmonic progression. Stay with this daily for a week or so and you’ll see how it becomes more natural to you over time. Enjoy!!!

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

Further links and resources:
Hotel Hello (album): Wikipedia

Expert Testimony: Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow tells the story of how his tunes were included in The Real Book

Chelsea Bells: Journey Through The Real Book #58

Notice how just as I was about to begin playing the tune, I paused and decided to start with an improvised introduction based on church bell-like voicings. I've always enjoyed these types of chord voicings, and I've been influenced by Art Tatum's use of them in a jazz context as well as the overall sound of much of Aaron Copland's classical compositions. Although Copland doesn't use overtly bell-like sounds in the same way as Tatum did, his use of independent voice-leading often results in these evocative and resonant sounds. Bells typically contain a rich array of overtones and it's fun to try to recreate these sounds on piano. Notice how the overall sound of the improvised intro ended up coloring and influencing the entire performance.

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