Oleo is a bebop tune by Sonny Rollins, as mischievous as anything that flew off the reed of Charlie Parker. Clearly on a mission to weave an interesting new tune around the overworked chords of I Got Rhythm, Rollins deployed shifting, syncopated patterns, with short and long phrases, gaps where you don’t expect them, and no gaps where you do.
Playing Oleo fast has become a bit of a competitive sport, jazz’s answer to the jalapeño-eating contest. It’s a good tune for cutting cocky students down to size – though after seeing the film, I think Whiplash has the edge.
Rollins himself takes Oleo so fast that, to my merely human ears, some of the rhythmic subtlety is lost. At speed, the A section can feel a bit like driving down a steep hill with a misfiring engine. The bridge, however, is unscored apart from four dominant chords, and players can relax and blow streams of notes ad lib. It’s as if the road is briefly straight and level, the carburettor has cleared and the engine is purring.
The graphic is a literal encoding of the first A section of Oleo using shape and colour. On another page there is an explanation of the code, but you can probably figure it out for yourself. It’s nothing very complicated. It might even help you to master Oleo if you are not a great reader of standard music notation.