A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Impressions” is basically an original melody by John Coltrane over the chords to “So What.”

Coltrane had played tenor sax on the famous studio version of “So What” with Miles Davis in 1959. He had performed it nightly with Miles’ group as well. It was just the type of modal tune that gave Coltrane the freedom he wanted to superimpose other tonalities over the long sections of Dm and the Ebm bridge. He continues playing it with his own group after he left Miles, but wrote his own melody to replace the distinctive bass line of “So What.” The funny thing is that he apparently kept calling it “So What,” even though it was now a different composition because of his new melody. As his June 20, 1962 recording sessions drew near, however, Coltrane realized that he needed to come up with a new title, so “Impressions” was born!

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: Impressions

John Coltrane Quartet: TV appearance (video)

M. Brecker/D. Liebman/G. Garzone/J. Redman:
A Tenor Supreme Coltrane Tribute (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
I you can play a solo on “So What,” you can play a solo on “Impressions.” It’s a simple as that! The chord progression is identical and they both use a medium-fast swing beat with a walking bass line underneath.

The scales are the same, too: D Dorian mode for the Dm7 chord and Eb Dorian for the Ebm7 chord.

As a general way to begin playing modally over long stretches of chords like on “Impressions,” a melodic approach often works best. Don’t try to be “jazzy” right away. Instead, just spin out simple melodies over the underlying groove. Not only is this a lot easier than starting with “licks,” but you’ll probably sound a lot better this way too! Be patient too, and enjoy improvising this way. Over time, you’ll become so comfortable with this melodic approach that it will be very easy to try using other scales, like pentatonics, and also playing “outside.”

It’s pretty tempting to become impatient with what we perceive as a “lack of progress” in our own playing. But remember: Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and the other great improvisers in this style spent years playing these tunes. Every night. For years! They didn’t just wake up one morning after playing the tune for a week and decide to get more “advanced.” Their progress and development happened gradually. Some of these jazz greats played “inside” for years and years before they started playing “outside.” The main thing is to play how you feel and use the notes that you hear in your head. Always let that be your guide and you can’t go wrong!

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

Further links and resources:
What was John Coltrane searching for with his music?

Impressions: Wikipedia

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