A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Miyako” is a waltz-like ballad that Wayne Shorter dedicated to his daughter, Miyako. It appeared on his 1967 album Schizophrenia.

Shorter did something a little unusual on most of his 1960’s Blue Note albums as leader. Even though they usually feature 2 or 3 horn players, Shorter liked to include one slow tune in which he just played his tenor sax along with the rhythm section, as a quartet. These ballads are some of my all-time favorite Shorter recordings. They bring an intimacy to the recordings that contrast nicely with the horn-dominated arrangements of the rest of the albums.

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 the recordings on music streaming services, etc.)

Wayne Shorter: Schizophrenia

Fred Hersch: Songs Without Words

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
We can learn a lot about a composer by look at their chord progressions. Take the first three chords of “Miyako,” for example. They’re fascinating! It starts with an Em7, and goes to A7. Easy, right? A standard ii-V in the key of D, which jazz composers have been using since the beginnings of jazz.

The key concept here is that when you start with an Em7 and then play an A7, it sets up a strong expectation that the next chord will be a D major chord, which is the tonic in the key of D. But does Shorter go there? Not a chance! He moves to C#m7 instead! At this point in musical history we’re so used to random and shifting harmonies that we may easily gloss over this harmonic sequence, but it’s pretty shocking when we play the chords slowly and really “take them in.” Just play them on piano a few times and really listen to them. Do you hear what I mean? The Em7 leads to the A7, but instead of resolving to a D major harmony, Shorter surprises us with a C#m7 sound. It comes out of nowhere. Even a more traditional “deceptive resolution” would lead to a Bm or Bb major chord, or sometimes even B major. But C#m7? And with the F# in the bass, it’s even more colorful.

This isn’t as random as it may seem. Shorter is doing something radical here. He’s intentionally surprising us here by setting up a harmonic expectation and then pulling the carpet out from under us. And what’s more, he’s doing it in the very first measure of the tune!!!

This is also an example of how the development of jazz harmony has paralleled that of classical music. After centuries of composers clearly establishing the tonic key at the beginning of a piece, Beethoven began his 1st Symphony by starting with a dominant 7th chord but on the tonic note. Listeners of his time couldn’t believe their ears and some critics thought this wasn’t even real music. It was disorienting to them.

Jazz began doing the same thing, and Wayne Shorter reveled in these harmonic shifts. It’s like he’s taking us on a roller coaster where each turn delights and surprises us.

Spend some time just playing the chords to “Miyako,” and following the harmonic journey. Sensitize your ears to hearing each chord vibrantly, and listen to how one harmony comes after another, sometimes as expected and sometimes not. Then, begin improvising simple melodic lines over these harmonies. Make it a voyage of discovery for you, just as it was for Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and the other musicians of this time.

Practicing in this way will also help keep the music fresh and alive for you for a every long time. Enter into the chord progression.

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

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

Ron Carter: Bass transcription
Even though we usually don’t play bass lines this complex on piano, it can be interesting (and eye-opening) to study exactly what a great bass player like Ron Carter did.

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