A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
This composition is a minor blues, dedicated to bassist Paul Chambers (he’s the “Mr. P.C. of the title). Coltrane recorded the tune with his quartet in 1959. To give you some historical perspective on this, 1959 is the same year that Coltrane recorded the landmark album Kind Of Blue with Miles Davis. The “feel” of the two recordings couldn’t be farther apart!
(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
Dave Liebman and Wayne Shorter: Tribute To John Coltrane (video)
Richie Beirach on piano
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Since the melody and chords to “Mr. P.C.” are pretty simple, the main challenge in playing the tune is that it’s so fast. Rather than shying away from this difficulty, let’s become interested in it. After all, it’s by becoming interested in something that we get the energy and enthusiasm to practice it again and again, with an approach that stays continually fresh over time.
So… let’s begin with a question: “How you we become comfortable improvising at extremely fast tempos?”
This is the kind of question that can lead us to practice in ways that we might not initially think of. One way you can begin is with the traditional approach. Just like with classical piano, you can solo on “Mr. P.C.” slowly and gradually increase the tempo. Set your metronome to 40 beats per minute and improvise a chorus of C minor blues. You’ll find it’s slow enough at that tempo that you can clearly hear each note and you have time to think about what to play next. Then, increase the metronome to quarter note=42 and play another chorus. At some point you’ll hit a “wall” where it becomes difficult to go further. At this point, go a little slower again and increase the tempo over the course of a few days until you can go faster than before. Keep going until you can play it very fast. (This might take you days, weeks, or even months, so be sure to enjoy the process at each step. You’ll be happier that way!)
Now, here’s where things get interesting. At some point, you’ll discover that you can’t play the exact same lines at a fast tempo that you can play slowly. And, the swing feel might change a little, with your 8th notes becoming more even as the tempo increases. This is natural and if you listen to fast jazz recordings, like Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.,” you’ll hear that the 8th notes are generally more even at fast tempos. But the phrases are different too. Ask yourself how they are different. Thinking in terms of gesture and hand motion will help you play at fast tempos, since the tempo moves too fast to follow the same intricate finger movement that are possible at slower speeds. Again, listen to some of your favorite pianists play at different tempos, and see what they do that’s the same, and what do they do that’s different. And, if you find that you don’t enjoy improvising at extremely fast tempos at all, realize that you’re not alone. The great jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and John Lewis didn’t either!
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book
How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively
Jazz Piano Video Course
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