A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“500 Miles High” is a Chick Corea tune from the 1972 album Light As A Feather, which was the first album released by his group, Return To Forever. The whole album is important, since it heralded in a whole new era of jazz which was as influenced by rock and Latin music as it was by traditional jazz. (If you listen closely to Chick’s Fender Rhodes solo on the tune “Spain,” for instance, you’ll hear him phrasing at times more like a rock guitarist than a jazz pianist!)

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(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.)

Chick Corea and Return To Forever: Light As A Feather

Chick Corea Trio: Pittsburgh Jazz Fest, 2016 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
When you listen to the original recording of “500 Miles High” on Light As A Feather, you’ll notice that it doesn’t start out at a “Medium Latin” tempo, as indicated on the leadsheet. Instead, it begin rubato, or out-of-tempo.

Rubato playing is an extremely important part of jazz piano playing, particularly when you’re accompanying vocalists, yet many pianists don’t really learn to do this well. Corea’s playing here is a good introduction to the style, but remember that he’s able to play fast keyboard fills because vocalist Flora Purim is an accomplished professional and won’t get confused by anything he plays. When you’re accompanying singers, it’s generally best to keep your playing simple and clear, at least while you’re still getting to know how they sing. If they’re confident and have a good sense of rhythm, you can play a more complex piano part, provided it enhances the song.

After playing a full rubato chorus with just electric piano and vocals, the rest of the rhythm section kicks in and they repeat the tune with a medium Latin groove. This is a good way to provide interest and contrast in a performance, and it would work well on other jazz standards, too. How about using this technique on “Autumn Leaves,” for example? You could play the entire tune out of tempo, and then go into a steady groove as you play the final phrase. Having a few “tricks” like this can go a long way towards helping your performances shine!

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

Further links and resources:
Light As A Feather (album): Wikipedia

Melodic analysis of Chick Corea’s solo on “500 Miles High,” by Don Glanden

500 Miles High: Journey Through The Real Book #118

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