BAM! The influence of Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.”

Jazz pianists who were around in 1965 (I was only a year old at the time!) tell me that they were floored the first time they heard Wayne Shorter’s tune “E.S.P.”

Here’s some context as they’ve described it to me:

You grow up playing swing, bebop and some hard-bop music such as you’ve heard Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers play. And you’ve been following Miles Davis via his recent recordings where his group has been playing around with jazz standards in new ways. You especially enjoy hearing what they did on their recent live album from MYC’s Philharmonic Hall (released as Four and More and My Funny Valentine.) You’ve tried to emulate some of pianist Herbie Hancock’s chord voicings and the piano textures he uses while accompanying Miles.

And then 1965 comes around and you put the new Miles album E.S.P. on your turntable, drop the needle on the title track, and…. BAM! You’re blown away. “What is that????!!!” You’ve never heard anything quite like this before. It’s fast, exciting… and you have no idea what’s going on!

Are they playing chords? Is that melody in 4ths? Wayne Shorter composed this??? (It doesn’t sound like the stuff he used to write for Art Blakey!)

OK.. time to take a deep breath and begin the process of listening to this over and over again, absorbing it and then attempting to figure out exactly what they’re playing.

Yes – that’s how I’ve been told it was for an entire generation of jazz pianists.

“E.S.P” is a historically important tune in the development of jazz, and it’s influence was magnified by the fact that it was the first tune on the Miles Davis Quintet’s groundbreaking album of the same name. It was literally the first time anyone had heard anything like this!

Five decades later, the tune is as wonderful as ever, and luckily for us, it’s a little more approachable than it was when it first appeared. Because it was so influential, we’ve played tunes with similar harmonies, and its melodic use of perfect 4ths has long since become mainstream.

At the same time, “E.S.P.” remains as fresh today as it’s always been, and it gives us the opportunity to enter into the musical imagination of Wayne Shorter, which is always a broadening experience.

Here’s my solo piano version of “E.S.P.” I give a some tips on how to approach the piece, and then I begin by playing it rubato, to savor the luscious harmonies before moving into the fast, exciting tempo with which Miles Davis and company played it themselves

E.S.P.: Journey Through The Real Book #112

Good luck with your jazz piano playing, enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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