A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“House Of Jade” is one of the great Wayne Shorter jazz compositions from the 1960s. Even though Wayne was part for Miles Davis’ group for much of this time, he recorded many albums as a leader. But since these groups were only assembled for the recordings, Shorter didn’t perform these songs live. (“Footprints” is a notable exception, because Shorter also played it with Davis.) Many other musicians, however, wanted to enjoy playing these tunes for themselves, and many have become jazz standards in their own right.

Shorter recorded “House Of Jade” in 1965 on his album “Juju.” The melody is simple to learn, but the chromatic chord progression can be challenging to improvise on. (For an effective way to practice this, see my suggestions below.)

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.)

Wayne Shorter: Juju

Chet Baker Trio: En vivo en Montmartre Jazzhus, 1979

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Improvising over Wayne Shorter’s chord progressions can often be challenging, so let’s try a little experiment to get started with “House Of Jade.”

Begin my putting aside the chords for a minute and simply play the melody for the first 8 bars, slowly. Play it again, a few more times, and just listen to it. Do you notice anything? For one thing, it doesn’t seem complex when you take away the chords. It’s just a diatonic melody, meaning that it’s all in one scale. (Except for the A natural pickup note, every note is part of the C Natural Minor scale, which is the same as the key signature.) The melody, by itself, doesn’t sound so complex.

Now, improvise a little in the same style of the melody, staying within the C Natural Minor scale. Improvise your own melodies without trying to sound too “jazzy.” It’s pretty easy, right? Then come back to the written melody and play it again.

Before we add Shorter’s harmonization, ask yourself what chords would be the most obvious ones to use with this melody? Probably Fm7, Gm7, EbMaj7, Cm7, and other chords that are in the key of C minor. Try playing some of these with your left hand while your right hand plays the melody. Repeat this a few times until you’ve come up with something you like. (Or you can change it each time. Either one is OK.)

Now here’s my point:

Play Shorter’s chords with the melody and listen to how different it sounds.


He’s taken this simple, diatonic melody and made it sound “modern,” “exotic,” “jazzy,” or anyway else you want to describe it. But the melody itself is simple and all in one key.

This is a big clue as to how we can improvise over a tune like “House Of Jade.” If we had started by looking at the chords alone, we’d find it difficult to improvise melodic lines with all that chromaticism going on. Wayne has used chords that aren’t in the key of Cm, and each one implies a different scale or mode. This would be a lot to think about!

One of the hallmarks of Shorter’s improvisational technique, along with his colleagues such as pianist Herbie Hancock, is how he is able to weave a real melody through this type of complex chord progression. He’s shown us how to do this, with his melody, and we can use this technique when improvising, too.

To practice this, slow down the tempo and practice it as a ballad so you have time to think and can hear everything very clearly. Then start improvising simple, diatonic lines over the chord progression as it’s written. What you can do it to identify the mode or scale associated with each chord and only use the notes in it which are also in the C Natural Minor scale. This is, after all, exactly what Wayne did when he composed the melody. Once you can do this comfortably at the ballad tempo, you can start playing it a little faster as a slow swing pace.

This is a great way to “get inside” the style of this music and play it like it’s creators did. And then, yes, you can also bring in all those other notes in each mode, and it will still sound good and within your control.

In summary, the simple activity of playing the melody without the chords shows us a possible approach to improvising over the chords to “House Of Jade.”

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

Further links and resources:

House Of Jade: Journey Through The Real Book #152

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