A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Ecclusiastics” is one of the few Charles Mingus compositions that are commonly played. It seems that even though Mingus was highly influential as a bassist, bandleader and composer, most of his tunes are either too intricate or were too tied to his personal performing style to be of interest to many jazz musicians anymore.

The tune was first recorded by Mingus in 1961 for his album “Oh Yeah,” released the following year. Mingus forged a highly personal style which managed to incorporate the entire history of jazz in it, so his music is well worth our time and study. He’s a musical powerhouse and this comes across in a tune like “Ecclusiastics.”

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.)

Charles Mingus: Oh Yeah

Charles Mingus: The Complete 1961-1962 Birdland Broadcasts

The great bassist plays an expansive piano intro in this live performance from the original Birdland jazz club in NYC.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Rahsaan

With the Benny Golson Orchestra

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Ecclusiastics” was one of my favorite jam session tunes in college. My friends and I would cram into a small practice room that had an upright piano, open a Real Book, and play for hours! I liked how “Ecclusiastics” has two rhythmic grooves, moving from a ballad feel into the livelier gospel rhythm. Since The Real Book version is just a lead sheet, you’ll have to listen to the Mingus recording to hear how to play the gospel groove. You’ll hear what to do right away, and then you can start bringing the tune to jam sessions and showing your friends how to play it too.

In true Charles Mingus fashion, the chords to “Ecclusiastics” move around a lot. It can be challenging to improvise a cohesive melodic line over a chord progression like this, but I suggest that you “go with the flow” and find something that goes with each chord. Look at Mingus’s melody to see how he himself did this. He didn’t mind it if the chords brought his melody to unusual places. Follow his example and have fun finding ways to navigate these chords, particularly during the ‘B’ Section where the progression moves follows the Circle of 4ths just a little bit longer than you think it will!

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

Further links and resources:
Oh Yeah (album): Wikipedia

A discussion of Ecclusiastics and its relation to church music

A biographical sketch of Mingus

A beginner’s guide to Charles Mingus and his music

Ecclusiastics: Journey Through The Real Book #106

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