A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Composed by Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin for Herbie’s 1974 album Thrust, “Butterfly” is perhaps what we would now call “Smooth Jazz” (or at least an early influence on Smooth Jazz). At the time, it would have been called “Jazz Fusion,” or perhaps Hancock himself thought of it as a kind of instrumental R&B.

This was the kind of music that many jazz musicians of the early 1970s considered to be “too commercial,” and they accused Hancock of “selling out.” But listening to it now, I’m struck by how creative and non-commercial it really was. Yes, it used a straight-8th beat that was akin to pop music, and an electric piano. But listen to how the melody is orchestrated using woodwinds! And the Gil Evans-like voicings that Hancock used! Very creative music, from an inspired period in Herbie Hancock’s career.

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.)

Herbie Hancock: Thrust

Herbie Hancock: Tokyo Jazz Festival, 2005 (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Like much of the jazz fusion of the 1970s, and smooth jazz since, “Thrust” uses relatively few chords and can be approached modally. In fact, if you look at the end of the leadsheet, it says to use an Fm7 chord for your entire solo. You can improvise using one scale, like the F Dorian mode, or you can go “outside” and superimpose other scales over the underlying F minor harmony. Experiment with this and see what you come up with.

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

Further links and resources:
Butterfly: Critical Analysis Of Covers
This provides a nice “play-by-play” of Hancock’s recording

Herbie Hancock on Piano Jazz
Radio host Marian McPartland interviews Hancock. (also features piano solos and duets)

Butterfly: Journey Through The Real Book #49

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

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