A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Out Of Nowhere” was composed by the great songwriting team of Johnny Green and Edward Heyman (who also contributed to “Body And Soul”). The song was composed in the early 1930s and became a favorite of the beboppers over a decade later. Part of it’s appeal to jazzers may lie in the surprising harmonic shift that happens in measures 3-4. (The new key comes “out of nowhere.” Get it?)

The tune is still a jam session favorite today, so be sure to memorize it and add it to your repertoire. It’s usually played at a medium-swing tempo, but as you’ll hear on the Charlie Parker recording below, it sounds great as a ballad 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.)

Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Django Reinhardt

Charlie Parker

Parker was a master ballad at playing ballads!

Gerry Mulligan

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
I was recently doing some shopping when “Out Of Nowhere” came over the store’s music system. While thoughts of Charlie Parker flooded into my mind, I looked around and realized that I was probably one of the few shoppers that recognized the tune, which was once such a big hit. One the one hand, it’s a little sad to realized how much we’ve lost in our culture. But on the other hand, all of these great songs (and musicians) are easily available to those who are interested. The more interested we are, the more we’ll learn!

The chord progression to “Out Of Nowhere” is fairly straightforward to improvise on. It starts out with 2 measures on the tonic chord (GMaj7) before moving to a ii-V sequence in a new key (Bbm7 – Eb7). Perhaps it was the ii-Vs throughout the progression that appealed so much to Charlie Parker and his compatriots. The melody is beautiful, too, and can be played very lyrically if desired.

One of the aspect of chord progressions that’s very rarely talked about in jazz is called “harmonic rhythm,” which simply means how fast the chords change in a progression. The Miles Davis tune “So What,” for instance, has a very slow harmonic rhythm, while John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” has a fast rate of harmonic change.

Looking at the chord progression to “Out Of Nowhere” in this way helps us understand the song from a fresh perspective. Check out the first ‘A’ Section. Do you see how the each chord is held out for 1 or 2 measures? Same thing for the first ending, with the exception of one measure which has two chords. But now look at the end of the song. During the last 8 measures (the 2nd ending), the changing of chords speeds up. No chord lasts for 2 full measures anymore, and there are several measures which contain 2 chords, each for only 2 beats. In other words, the “harmonic rhythm” has sped up over the course of the tune. It’s just like in some movies, where the camera edits come faster towards the end. It’s a way of increasing the viewers/ listeners excitement over time.

Now that you’ve noticed how the harmonic rhythm of “Out Of Nowhere” increases towards the end of the form, you’ll begin to notice this same technique used in many songs. (Not all, but many.) Try it yourself on the next tune you compose.

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

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

A Charlie Parker gem you might have missed

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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