A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“The Sphinx” is from saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s first album. Although when this music appeared in 1958 is apparently sounded very strange and unusual, it’s interesting that now, decades later, it sounds tuneful and firmly in the bebop tradition.

If you’re interested in Ornette’s music and want to learn “The Sphinx,” you’ll definitely want to check out the links I discuss below. They will provide you with a “door” into this great world of music!

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.)

Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!

Ornette Coleman: The Lenox School Jazz Concert

(A live recording, from 1959. Listen to how Ornette plays the first note of his solo!)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
While The Real Book is a wonderful resource, jazz has always had an “oral tradition” aspect and nowhere is this more true than in the music of Ornette Coleman. Before you learn “The Sphinx,” I strongly advise that you listen to Ornette’s recording of it many times. Then, listen to it many more times! Get the melody and phrasing into your ears by singing along with it. And, it you want to take it a step further, try transcribing the melody for yourself and check your notes and against what’s in The Real Book. (The rhythms will be a little more challenging to notate; the 5th measure is in 5/4 time.)

Coleman and his bandmates didn’t use the tune’s chords during their solos. Instead, they made up new chord progressions as they went along. While this was new to jazz at the time, it’s really the same thing that Mozart and Beethoven did in the development sections of their sonatas, and when they themselves improvised on the piano. But Ornette and his group did this together. That’s what was so revolutionary about “free jazz.” They couldn’t rely on any preconceptions as to there the chords would go. The chord progression was always new!

As to how to improvise with Ornette’s approach, I can’t come near to explaining it as well as the great bassist Charlie Haden does in his interview with Ethan Iverson which I’ve linked to below. Haden was right there at the very beginning, and Iverson does a wonderful job of getting him to speak about it in detail. This is by far the best explanation about Ornette Coleman’s musical concept that I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend that you spend some “quality time” with this interview if you’re interested in playing “The Sphinx” or any of Ornette’s other compositions. (Also read Iverson’s two other articles below as well.) It’s a lifelong study!

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

Further links and resources:
Something Else!!!! (album): Wikipedia

Ornette 1: Form and Sounds
by Ethan Iverson

Ornette 2: This is Our Mystic
A continuation of Iverson’s above article

Interview with Charlie Haden
Ethan Iverson asks the great bassist about his experiences in Ornette’s group

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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