Ideas for Wayne Shorter’s “Mahjong” as a jazz piano solo

Hey Improvisers,

While I was in college during the 1980s, I used to drive from Connecticut into Manhattan a few times per year to take jazz piano lessons with Harold Danko. Harold, besides being a really nice guy, had played with Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and was a genuine connection with the professional jazz world for me. Harold eventually recommended me to be Gerry Mulligan’s band assistant, which also helped shape my musical development.

Harold suggested that I learn some Wayne Shorter tunes, since they are wonderful compositions and also provide an excellent entryway into the world of modern jazz. I started with tunes like “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” and went on to “Footprints” and “Ana Maria.”

“Shorter’s “Mahjong” is another of these great tunes, and gives us pianists some real challenges along with its musical rewards. Here are some ideas for how to play the tune yourself.

The first thing to do is to learn the chords and melody. The tune follows a standard AABA musical form, and, as with many of Wayne’s compositions, it contrasts some modern harmonic elements with more traditional ones. The ‘A’ sections, for example, are modal, while the bridge is more hardbop and contain a couple of ii/V chord progressions.

The groove is a little trickier, since Shorter’s recording features John Coltrane’s unique rhythm section. Pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Elvin Jones create a swirling, multi-layered sound that contains polyrhythms upon polyrhythms. A good approach to playing this on piano is to immerse yourself in the recording, and then experiment with implying the overall groove on piano, without trying to play as densely as the complete rhythm section does. After some time, you’ll find your own personal way of doing this.

“Mahjong” is a wonderful, satisfying tune to play, and I’ve made this video to show you how the above ideas can be implemented at the piano.

Mahjong: Journey Through The Real Book #223



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