Bill Evans’ Bridge on Oleo

The bridge section of the musical form known as “rhythm changes” is a perennial improvisatory playground. The harmony commonly follows a cycle of dominant chords, each resolving down a fifth (or up a fourth), and the tension created by this progression provides fertile ground for melodic inventions.

This week we will look at the the way Bill Evans uses harmony and rhythm to create a unique statement on the bridge of Sonny Rollins’ tune “Oleo.” (This recording is on the album Everybody Dig’s Bill Evans (1958) featuring Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums).


In a typical Bb rhythm changes tune, the bridge begins on D7 and continues to G7, C7, and F7 before resolving back to Bb. Evans takes advantage of the nature of the whole-tone scale and tritone substitution to complete this cycle using a descending half-step motion.

Bill Evans - Oleo Bridge Harmony
I’ve chosen to analyze the first chord as Ab9(#5) to highlight the descending nature of this pattern. You could also think of this as D9 with a raised fourth and fifth. I tend to think of the entire whole-tone scale that fits both interpretations.

Once you are comfortable with the sound and feel of the harmony, it’s time to move on to the…


The hallmark of developed rhythmic improvisors is the ability to freely cross the estabilished bar lines and still create a musically complete phrase. Bill Evans uses a common technique here that can be understood as a repeated three-beat phrase over several bars of 4/4 time.

Bill Evans - Oleo Bridge Rhythm
Tap this pattern with the left and right hands. Use a metronome or count to keep your place in the 4/4 measure. The first eighth note in parentheses is not actually played by Evans, but is useful here to see the pattern.

The brackets identify the three-beat riff and you can see that it takes three full measures of 4/4 before the pattern begins again on beat one. Evans adds additional rhythmic material for variety, but begins another three-beat phrase in bar 5.

Make sure you can feel these rhythms between the hands before you continue.

Putting It All Together

Here is the complete pattern that Bill Evans plays on the bridge to Oleo. Note that if you learned the rhythm above, the right hand is now split between the higher cluster of two notes and the lower single note.

Bill Evans - Oleo Bridge Complete
After listening again, there are several places where the left hand lays out in the recording. I’m leaving them notated here for the ease of practicing the rhythmic pattern.


The moral of this story: never underestimate the power of rhythm in creating unique and exciting musical statements.

Vijay Iyer Redefines the Musical Conversation Metaphor

Vijay Iyer, speaking with Christopher Lydon on the Open Source podcast:

When we say [music is] a conversation, that’s being employed as a metaphor. When we think linguistically about conversation we think about the transmission of information. But that’s not all that conversation is. What it is first is music, which is to say it’s a way of harmonizing with one another. So using the conversation metaphor for music is a little bit backwards to me, because really music came first. That’s the sound of us being together. That’s what music is. So conversation is inherently musical, because it’s about harmonization with another person, it’s about grooving with another person, it’s about improvising. It’s all those things already.

Iyer turns the traditional language metaphor on its head by saying that spoken language mimics music, not the other way around. If I were looking for a definition of “jazz” in the 21st (or any) century, I’d say he’s on to something here.

Kenny Dorham on Blue Bossa

This week’s Transcription Tuesday is the first sixteen bars of Kenny Dorham’s solo on Blue Bossa from Joe Henderson’s debut record Page One (1963).

The tune was written by Dorham and and is the type of tune that you can always call at a jam because everyone will know it (it also tends to get groans from those who feel it has been “worn out”). The harmony is primarily in the key of C minor with bars 9-12 taking a short detour to the key of D-flat major.

If you are not already familiar with the tune, make sure to listen to the original melody in addition to checking out this solo.

I won’t spoil the surprise for those of you who haven’t heard it, but suffice to say this is definitely a solo to study if you have ever wondered how to begin improvising.

Miles Davis on Doxy

This weekend I’ll be playing in the house band for an educational jam session. It’s always a pleasure to work with students as they muster up the courage to improvise on a tune, or confidently showcase the techniques they’ve been working on.

One of our jam tunes this week will be Doxy, written by Sonny Rollins. This tune became an early jazz standard and is often one of the first tunes that beginning improvisers learn.

For this week’s Transcription Tuesday, we’ll look at the beginning of Miles Davis’ solo on Doxy from the album Bag’s Groove released in 1957 (the actual recording took place three years earlier in 1954 and features Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Horace Silver on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums).

If you are new to the jazz language, this is a great solo to learn and to study. You can use the steps outlined in yesterday’s How To Start Transcribing to learn the solo by ear, and then check your work against the notated version below.

Once you’ve learned the sound of the solo, try to make sense of the note choices and rhythms by studying the harmony. I didn’t include the chord changes in the transcription, but careful listening to the bass and piano on the recording will reveal the harmony (or you can surely find a chord chart online).

I find the simplicity and clarity of this excerpt inspiring and the tune overall is fun to play. I encourage you to try using some of this language in your own playing.

How to Start Transcribing

Staff Paper

I remember trying to play along with recordings in high school (I fell in love with the melody to Desafinado and tried to figure it out), but it wasn’t until I got into college that I set out to methodically transcribe parts of solos or entire solos. The pause and rewind buttons were my best friends. In fact, the printing on the pause and rewind buttons of the boombox I schlepped to the practice room each day are mostly worn off from use!

For my students, I recommend the following process to begin transcribing a solo:

  • Listen to the solo many times to become familiar with it. You will eventually be able to sing or hum the solo even without the recording.
  • Begin by just trying to hear the first note. Hit the pause button right after the first note is played, such that you can still hear it ringing in your tonal imagination
  • Try singing the first note. Once you can accurately sing the note, you’ve got it made; keep singing the note and try to find it on your instrument.

Repeat the process to get the second note, the third note, etc. You may find that you are soon able to hear several notes or whole phrases at a time. Stick with it; like most things worth doing in life, it takes time and practice to gain skill.

Wynton Kelly on Freddie Freeloader



If you are not already familiar with the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, do yourself a favor and go listen right now. As one of the most popular and best-selling jazz albums of all time—it went quadruple platinum in 2008—any jazz fan should at least be aware of this great work.

For this Transcription Tuesday, I chose to focus on the first chorus of the piano solo on Freddie Freeloader. While Bill Evans is the pianist for most of the album, this track features the great Wynton Kelly instead.

I love Kelly’s touch and bouncy time feel, as well as his melodic blues-based language. Pay attention to the way he uses chord tones as arrival points for the melody.

One of my favorite parts of this chorus is the final two bars. The form is generally based on a 12-bar blues in Bb, with an unusual Ab7 chord in bars 11 and 12. Kelly arpeggiates a Bb major triad over the Ab7 harmony creating a wonderful polychordal sound that can by described as Ab13#11. Once you wrap your ears around how this chord works, you will begin hearing it in countless other tunes that have been recorded since.

Descending Bass Line Intro

Listening to a playlist of Christmas music, I heard a bass line that I knew I had heard before in a different context. The line uses a descending “major bebop” scale which is essentially a major scale with an added half-step between the fifth and sixth scale degrees.

As a bass line, playing this scale in a descending pattern over the span of two octaves can fill four bars of 4/4 time and makes for a nice intro.

This first example is played by John Clayton on Diana Krall’s Christmas Songs album on the tune “Winter Wonderland.”


The second example is played by Sam Jones and is used not as the actual intro but as the first four bars of the head on “Sleepin’ Bee” from the album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley (1961).


Here is the transcription of both lines. I have boxed the scale degrees that are essentially the same in both lines. Jones and Clayton each embellish and end the line slightly differently, but the primary pattern is quite effective and recognizable.

Descending Bass Line Intro - C Instruments

Transcription Tuesday: Donald Byrd on “On It”

Donald Byrd’s solo on Elmo Hope’s “On It” is a particularly clear example of the hard bop aesthetic. Over the 12-bar blues structure Byrd deftly incorporates both bebop vocabulary and elements of the blues language.

For this transcription, I’ve included three versions—For C, Bb, and Eb instruments. You can flip through them using the arrows.

Update: a previous version of this post had the transcriptions in the wrong key. This should be fixed now.

Transcription Tuesday: Sonny Rollins on St. Thomas

Sonny Rollins is known for his motivic development and this excerpt from his solo on “St. Thomas” is one of his most famous recorded examples.

Ted Gioia writes in The History of Jazz that:

“Rollins excelled in using these [simple musical motives] as thematic material—restating them, varying them, elaborating on them—a jazz equivalent of the development section in sonata form.”

Beginning with the short two-note motive, Rollins masterfully uses all three of these methods—restating, varying, and elaborating—to tell an engaging and original story.

Sonny Rollins on St Thomas



Transcription Tuesday: Billy Higgins on The Sidewinder calls Billy Higgins “reportedly the most recorded jazz drummer in history, and certainly one of the most beloved.”

Here is an excerpt from “The Sidewinder,” one of his classic grooves, (iTunes link).

Some things to note:

  1. The time feel is famously somewhere between straight and swing.
  2. Seemingly insignificant details make it work. For instance, Higgins lays out on the very first beat of the head and enters on beat 2.
  3. Higgins sticks the exact same groove with no improvisation until partway through the first solo. Sometimes simple is best.

Billy Higgins on Sidewinder