A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Countdown” first appeared on John Coltrane’s landmark 1960 album, Giant Steps. It’s based on the chords to the Miles Davis composition “Tune Up,” which Coltrane played as the tenor saxophonist in Miles’ classic 1950s quintet. It’s one of the most challenging tunes in The Real Book, and if you want to be able to play it fluently in 5 years, I suggest you start practicing it today (smile)!

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: Giant Steps

Joey Alexander: Serambi Jazz (video)

Brad Mehldau: Trio: Live

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
There’s no nice way to put it: “Countdown” is a really hard tune to play. (But we can find solace in the fact that Coltrane’s sidemen found it hard, too!)

One way I’ve found to learn a tune like this is to become really interested in the chord progression. Slow it down and listen intently to the sound of each chord. Hear how they flow from one to the next and see what musical effect Coltrane was going for.

In “Countdown,” as in other compositions like “Giant Steps,” Coltrane used a series of chord substitutions to make a basic ii/V/I progression much more complicated (or if you prefer, “interesting.”) Take a look at the first 4 measures. At first, it looks unbelievably complex, and yes, it moves through three keys. Now let’s break it down a little. The 4-bar phrase starts on Em7 and ends with A7 – DMaj7. This is a ii/V/I! At this point in his development, John Coltrane was looking for different means of musical expression, and one way he did this was to improvise through chord progressions that change keys very quickly. So he starts on the Em7 chord, and then immediately inserts a V-I in Bb, followed by a V-I in Gb, and finally the V-I in D that completes the overall ii/V/I in the key of D major.

Whew! That’s a lot to improvise on! But it’s very possible, provided that you practice slowly for a long time. I suggest that you practice this at least two ways. First, practice improvising very simple melodies over the chords. You can even use half notes. Think melodically, like you’re playing a lullaby. This will enable you to think melodically through these difficult chord changes so that when you eventually play something more “bebop,” it will still sound logical and melodic. And, at times, practice improvising steady quarter and eighth notes through the tune, so you learn how to successfully navigate all its twists and turns. May the force be with you!

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

Further links and resources:
Coltrane Changes: Wikipedia

A transcription of Coltrane’s tenor sax solo

Countdown: Journey Through The Real Book #75

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