A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Oleo” is based on “Rhythm Changes,” that is, it’s a melody over the chords to George Gershwin’s song “I Got Rhythm.” Sonny Rollins composed “Oleo” in 1954 for a recording with Miles Davis, and the tune remained an integral part of Davis’ repertoire for the next decade or so.

Although there are literally hundreds of jazz standards that are based on “Rhythm Changes,” “Oleo” is at or near the top of the list. Everyone knows it and, once you become accustomed to its melody’s distinctive “start-stop” phrasing, you’ll know it too!

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.)

Miles Davis: Bags Groove

The original recording, from 1954 with composer Sonny Rollins on tenor sax

Sonny Rollins: European Concerts

Herbie Hancock Trio : Newport, 1988 (video)

Keith Jarrett Trio: Tokyo, 1993 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Like fellow bebopper Charlie Parker before him, Sonny Rollins left the bridge of his AABA tune open for soloing. He only wrote a melody for the ‘A’ Sections, not the bridge.

“Rhythm Changes” are pretty straight ahead, but for some reason can be tricky to learn in terms of improvisation. I once asked my jazz piano teacher Billy Taylor about this, and he said “Think of each ‘A’ Section as an 8-Bar Blues.” By this, I think he was telling me that I could view each 8-measure section as being “self-contained,” like a traditional blues chorus could be. I started practicing “Oleo” and other “Rhythm Changes” tunes with this in mind and it helped me a lot. Later on I gradually became able to be freer with my phrasing on “Rhythm Changes.”

Be sure to check out and learn the two piano transcriptions I’ve linked to, below. The Bill Evans solo shows the influence of Lennie Tristano on the young Evans, and the Keith Jarrett solo must be heard to be believed. I love how he occasionally turns the phrasing around and plays games with the accents!

When you learn these solos, don’t just learn the notes from the printed sheets. Listen to the recordings and start singing along with Evans’ and Jarrett’s solos, using scat syllables. This will help you internalize their playing in a way that will eventually come out in your own. Or, if you want to take it even further, you can transcribe the solos yourself and use the PDFs to check your work for accuracy. Either way, have fun learning to improvise on “Oleo” and other tunes that use “Rhythm Changes.” The hard work you put in now will eventually pay off in the ability to play fluent jazz piano!

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

Further links and resources:
A video interview where Sonny Rollins answers questions from young jazz musicians

A transcription of Bill Evan’s piano solo on “Oleo”

A transcription of Keith Jarrett’s piano solo on “Oleo”

What are jazz “Rhythm Changes?”

10 Ways To Learn Bebop Piano

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists

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