A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
The classic recording of “Stolen Moments” is on composer/saxophonist Oliver Nelson’s 1961 album Blues And The Abstract Truth. It’s one of the all-time great jazz albums and I hope you’ll listen to and enjoy the whole album, many times.

Despite being famous, the tune itself isn’t played too much at small-group jam sessions or on gigs. Because the chord voicings in Nelson’s arrangement give the song its distinctive flavor (as opposed to the melody), it’s perhaps better suited to jazz ensembles that contain at least 4 horn players, and big bands. For us pianists, though, this is a good opportunity to create a pianistic arrangement that incorporated some of these ensemble sounds on the keyboard. (See more on this below.)

Recommended videos/recordings:
(for international readers who may not have access to this YouTube link, I’ve indicated the original album name so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Oliver Nelson Septet: Blues And The Abstract Truth

An all-star group, with Bill Evans and Eric Dolphy

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
When we’re looking to put together a musical group, we often look for musician who play the same way that we do. Players with a similar viewpoint. This is fine, of course, and some wonderful groups are like this. The classic Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motion comes to mind here. But this approach can limit us too. We might reject those musicians who have a different musical concept than we ourselves do.

The reason why we need to widen our perspective here is that we sometimes mistake “sameness” for “compatibility.” Just like 2 opposite colors can complement one another, two radically different musicians may possess a potent musical chemistry when put together in the same musical group.

The “Blues And The Abstract Truth” album illustrates this perfectly.

It’s fascinating to hear how differently everyone plays on “Stolen Moments” and the rest of the album. Eric Dolphy’s far-flung tonal excursions on flute and sax couldn’t be more different than Bill Evan’s lyrical piano soloing. And Freddie Hubbard’s exuberance contrasts mightily with Oliver Nelson’s carefully constructed and motivic tenor sax improvisations.

Yet… it works!

I’m not sure we’d all be as daring when assembling our own groups as Oliver Nelson was when creating his. But we don’t have to be. All it takes is a vision and a strong unifying musical vision by the leader.

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

Further links and resources:
Jazz Profiles: Oliver Nelson Interview
A candid and informative interview with the composer, by John Colby

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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