A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Chippie” is on Ornette Coleman’s debut album, Something Else!!!, from 1958. (See link below listen to the recording.) Something Else!!! Must be one of the bigger understatements in all of jazz. Coleman and his fellow musicians shocked the jazz world by abandoning pre-set chord changes during their solos. Simply put, after they played the melody, they made up the chord progression as their solos unfolded. Sometimes the bass line was in the same key as the soloist, and sometimes it wasn’t.

It’s a little difficult for us to fully appreciate how controversial this approach was at the time. From the perspective of history, the music on this album sounds much more like mainstream bebop than Ornette’s “free jazz” did just a few years later. But at the time, listeners would walk out of the group’s performers, at the same time as others proclaimed Coleman a “genius.” Early supporters of this music were the classical composer, conductor Leonard Bernstein and pianist John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet. In a sense, Coleman’s approach is akin to the development section in a piece of classical music, where the composer invents a new chord progression as he or she spins out variations and transformations of the piece’s main melodies.

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

Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!

This recording, with pianist Walter Norris, is one of the few Ornette Coleman recordings to use piano. Ornette preferred the freedom to make up the harmonies as he went along, without any chordal instrument backing him up.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Be sure to read the Charlie Haden interview I’ve linked to below. Haden played bass in the classic Ornette Coleman quartet and gives more insights into how to play Ornette’s music than I’ve ever read anywhere else. It’s a “must-read” if you want to play this music.

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

Further links and resources:
This is our mystic
An excellent and insightful discussion of Ornette Coleman and his music by Ethan Iverson

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.

Chippie: Journey Through The Real Book #64

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