A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Iris” is a beautiful composition by Wayne Shorter. It’s on the Miles Davis album E.S.P. from 1965, and was really the turning point towards a freer direction in Miles’ music. In many ways, Shorter revitalized the Miles Davis Quintet and brought a new type of harmonic concept to their music, in which chord progressions didn’t necessarily follow the traditional paths of what’s sometimes known as “functional harmony.” By this, I mean that Wayne’s music doesn’t always clearly define a “tonic,” and that ii/V/I’s which until this point were a hallmark of jazz harmony, became less important and were used less frequently.

Recommended videos/recordings:
(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.)

Miles Davis: E.S.P

Fred Hersch: The Fred Hersch Trio Plays

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Even though “Iris” is considered a jazz ballad, it doesn’t have a typical ballad feel. The quarter notes actually move at a medium tempo, but if you feel it in “one,” you’ll get the overall ballad feel. It’s kind of like a “waltz-ballad.”

“Iris” was composed and recorded at a time in the mid-60s when the Miles Davis group was relaxing the boundaries of how to play jazz. I say “relaxing” because the process was gradual. They still played with a steady jazz pulse, but the pulse wasn’t stated as obviously as before. Tony Williams didn’t play the traditional quarter-8th-8th note ride cymbal pattern. Ron Carter didn’t always play the root of every chord. The chords didn’t have to follow the blues or ii/V/I patterns. The stylistic walls of jazz were gradually becoming porous.

While it’s of course a good idea to practice tunes like “Iris,” at the same time I recommend that you immerse yourself in listening to the music from this period. Spend a half-hour or so each day simply listening to the music from E.S.P. and the other Miles Davis albums from this time, or Shorter’s solo recordings. If you can, lie down, close your eyes, and simply let the sound of the music wash over you. Do this for a few months and you’ll find that this music will become a lot easier to learn. You’ll also begin phrasing it in a way that’s stylistically consistent with the songs themselves. Yes, there’s a bebop influence in the background, but pure bebop won’t help you improvise over these chord changes. Immerse yourself in the music and you’ll gradually start understanding it differently, as it begins to feel more and more “natural.”

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

Further links and resources:
E.S.P. (album): Wikipedia

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