A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Juju” is the title track of tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s 1965 album of the same name. Shorter was playing in Miles Davis’ quintet at the time, and the albums he made as a leader in the 1960s served as an outlet for his many compositions, such as “Juju.”

It’s a fun tune to play, although I don’t think I’ve ever played it with other musicians. There have been periods when I’ve played it a lot at home, on solo piano, since I enjoy Wayne Shorter’s compositions and the musical challenges they present.

In a way, Shorter’s pieces are like Thelonious Monk’s, in that each one has a unique melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic concept. It’s as if Shorter, like Monk, creates a mini-musical-universe in each piece. You can’t simply open The Real Book to a Shorter or Monk tune and start playing, as you can with a Charlie Parker tune or older jazz standard. Each piece’s unique means of expression forces us to step back for a moment, take a deep breath, and try to understand what’s going on with the piece.

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.)

Wayne Shorter: Juju

Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano Sound Prints: Live at New Morning (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Wayne Shorter is my favorite saxophone player, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this is so. What is it about his playing that resonates with me?

What I do know is that I feel something very special from the first note he plays on any given tune. This holds true on recordings and also when I’ve seen him play in concert. (It was also true when I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him backstage. I got to speak with him one-on-one, just the two of us, in the “green room” at NYC’s Blue Note jazz club!)

I’ve gradually realized that my love of Shorter’s playing has less to do with the actual notes he plays, and more with his “sound.” Whether he’s playing straight-ahead bebop, or jazz fusion, or holding out a long note on a Joni Mitchell album, he’s putting everything he’s got into the music. Every note counts, in a way that it doesn’t with most players. For whatever reason, Shorter has developed the ability to go deep into the music he plays, reaching down into the very depths of his being and letting it be expressed through his horn.

This is what resonates with me.

Listen to “Juju” and Wayne’s other work from this perspective. And then sit down at the piano and try it for yourself. Play the melody to your favorite tune. How are you playing it? What sound are you producing? Is it merely a pleasant piano sound, or is it coming from deep within you? Keith Jarrett does this too, as did Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk before him. Bud Powell did this more and more as he got older.

What’s your sound? (We’d like to hear it.)

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

Further links and resources:
Juju (album): Wikipedia

An Introduction To Wayne Shorter In 10 Records
A good overview of some of Shorter’s important recordings

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