A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
If you’re comfortable playing swing and bebop tunes like “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “Groovin’ High,” you’re ready to start learning some more complex tunes like “Moment’s Notice.” During the mid-to-late 1950’s, John Coltrane became very interested in improvising over difficult chord progressions and the tunes he composed during this period reflect this interest. “Moment’s Notice” is one of these tunes.

Don’t just start out learning to play this one tune however. Immerse yourself by listening to Coltrane’s albums from this period, such as Blue Train, which includes “Moment’s Notice,” and other recordings like Giant Steps from a couple of years later. This will help you get the “sound” of this music in your ears and you’ll be able to learn “Moment’s Notice” and other Coltrane tunes easier.

Recommended videos/recordings:
(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: Blue Train

A Tribute To John Coltrane: Newport Jazz Festival, 2004 (video)

SF Jazz Collective: SF Jazz Collective 2

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
For many years, I was scared of “Moment’s Notice.” For one thing, it’s fast. For another, it moves from one key to another very quickly. And finally, Coltrane played it with such a high level of mastery and fluency that can be intimidating. (It may comfort us to know that even the musicians in his band sometimes felt the same way when they played with him!)

But at some point, I realized something about how to play fast. And this realization came from teaching a very young piano student of mine.

Here’s what happened.

One fine day, a 6-year old piano student of mine arrived for her lesson, sat down at the piano, and played her song for me. It was a simple, slow piece, and she played it perfectly. She then surprised me by asking, “Can I play it for you fast?” Of course I said “Yes” and she proceeded to play it very quickly and still note-perfectly. I couldn’t believe it, and naturally assumed that she had practiced it by gradually increasing the tempo until she could play it at light-speed. But when I asked her about it, she told me that no, she had never practiced it like that. What happened was that she was at a friend’s house and simply decided to play it fast for her friend, and that she found that she could do it!

I became extremely interested in this and found that I could do the same thing. I opened a book of Beethoven piano sonatas and found that I could play the slow movements at fast tempos, even though I had never practiced them at those speeds. Both my young student and I had found that when we spend a great deal of time practicing something very slowly, we can sometimes take a “quantum leap” and immediately play it fast, and our fingers know exactly where to go?

We can experiment with practicing jazz like this. Take a ballad you know really well and have played for years, like “Misty” of a similar standard. Can you play it a medium or fast speed? You’ll probably find that you can, even if you’ve never played it at that tempo before. It’s actually quite amazing once you realize this.

Try approaching “Moment’s Notice” in this way. Learn it as a ballad and enjoy improvising over it very slowly. Just make up beautiful melodies and luxuriate on the slow tempo. Pretend it’s meant to be played that way. Do this for about a month, and then try playing it faster. You may or may not be able to instantly jump to a fast tempo with a song as complex as this. But one thing is for sure. You’ll have a lot easier time working your way up to tempo now that you already know the tune thoroughly.

This technique for learning fast tunes, which I learned by accent with the help of my young piano student, is an often-overlooked way of learning to become a great jazz player. I hope it helps you become the fluent jazz pianist you aspire to become.

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

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Transcription of John Coltrane’s solo on “Moment’s Notice”

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