A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Wayne Shorter’s “Mahjong” reminds us of how prolific a composer he is. Shorter has written many, many wonderful tunes like this, and “Mahjong” is a typical example of the writing for his Blue Note albums in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Included on Shorter’s 1965 album Juju, “Mahjong” features an Afro/Latin groove that’s similar to the type of rhythms that Shorter’s friend and fellow tenor saxophonist John Coltrane frequently used. In fact, MyCoy Tyner was playing in Coltrane’s band when he recorded JuJu with Shorter.

Because of its repeating chords and simple melody, “Mahjong” is one of the easier Wayne Shorter compositions to learn, along with his classic “Footprints.”

Recommended recording:
(for international readers who may not have access to this YouTube link, I’ve indicated the original album name so you can listen to the recording on music streaming services, etc.)

Wayne Shorter: Juju

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Mahjong” is primarily constructed of pairs of chords, which repeat for entire sections. The first ‘A’ Section is Fm11 - Eb6/9, and the second ‘A’ is Dbmaj9 – Eb6-9. The first pair comes back at the very end of the tune, after a short 4-measure bridge.

The advantage to improvising over repeating pairs of chords like this is that you play modally while still having some harmonic variety. It gives you the “best of both worlds.”

Pentatonic scales also work well over these chords. One way to use them is to find a pentatonic scale that sounds good over both chords and use it for the whole section. For Fm11 - Eb6/9, you could use a Bb Pentatonic scale. Or Ab Pentatonic. Or you could use one for a while and switch to the other at some point.

I generally use a mixture of modes, pentatonics, and more chordal-based improvisational techniques when playing a tune like this. After all, “Mahjong” was composed at a time when the “old” met the “new” in a wonderful way, and it’s exciting to revisit this time period of jazz. And who better to lead us there than the great Wayne Shorter?

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

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Juju (album): Wikipedia

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