A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Kelo” is a medium tempo bebop tune composed by the trombone player J.J. Johnson. It appeared on one of Miles Davis’ first recordings as leader (with Johnson on trombone) in 1953.

“Kelo” is a good tune to learn if you want to expand your bebop repertoire beyond the common tunes and play something a little different. The version in the Real Book is a little more than just a typical leadsheet. There are drum breaks indicated in the introductory verse, and you’ll also see rhythmic “hits notated above the melody throughout. These rhythms can be played by the rhythm section while the horns, guitar, or piano RH play the melody.

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 the recording on music streaming services, etc.)

Miles Davis: Volume 2

Featuring what may be the world’s shortest piano solo, by Horace Silver!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
I really like the fact that the Real Book version of “Kelo” is ready-made for a small jazz ensemble. The leadsheet already has elements of an arrangement in it, so we don’t have to create an arrangement “from the ground up.”

The tune starts out with a 16-measure intro, or “verse,” which consists of bits of melody with drum fills in between. Or, seen another way, it’s a drum solo with melodic punctuation. Either way, it has an ensemble dimension right from the beginning. (The chords are interesting, too. There’s circle of 4th movement, triton substitutions, and lots of altered dominant 7ths.)

The main melody starts at letter A, and this is where the solos begin, too. It’s in the key of F minor but there’s a fair amount of bass line motion and some harmonic surprises, too, like the E7#9 and A7b9 at the end of the first A Section (instead of resolving from C7 to Fm as expected). The bridge is more straight forward, and consists of a series of ii-Vs, which was very popular during the bebop era of the 1940s and early 1950s.

As with all uptempo tunes, be sure to practice improvising over a slow tempo. This will help you clearly “hear” your way through the chord changes so you have more control over your phrases when you eventually play it at faster speeds.

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

Further links and resources:
J.J. Johnson: Wikipedia

A transcription of J.J. Johnson’s trombone solo on “Kelo”

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