A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Nefertiti” is a fascinating tune. Composed by Wayne Shorter, it was first performed by the Miles Davis Quintet at their recording session for the group’s 1968 album, Nefertiti. The most unusual aspect of the recording is that Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter play the melody together over and over, and there are no improvised solos. Instead, the rhythm section improvises underneath the melody. But at the same time, Davis’ trumpet and Shorter’s tenor sax don’t keep playing the melody exactly as written. They gradually loosen up the rhythm and go in and out of sync with each other in a compelling way. It kind of reminds me of those Cubist paintings of someone walking down a staircase. You see multiple images at the same time, just like on “Nefertiti” we hear multiple phrasings of the melody at the same time!

Taken by itself, this “cubist approach to melody” was already being used by jazz musicians since at least the late 1950s. You’ll hear it in the music or Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and other progressive jazz musicians. Even though it was very “new” at this time, this approach to melody may have been right there at the very beginnings of jazz. In his book Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller interviews the early jazz musician George Morrison, who reports that jazz began by one musician playing the melody as written while another musician embellished re-phrased the same melody. SO at least in this sense, musicians like Davis, Shorter, Coleman and Mingus were in fact evoking the early days of jazz polyphony but playing their melodies in this manner.

(By the way, just because the Miles Davis Quintet didn’t improvise on their recording of “Nefertiti” doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy soloing on it yourself. Some of the other recordings I’ve linked to below do contain improvised solos, even by Wayne Shorter himself!)

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: Nefertiti

Miles Davis: Live in Antibes, France, 1969

With Chick Corea on piano

Herbie Hancock: River

The Manhattan Project: TV appearance (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
As with many Wayne Shorter tunes, it can take a bit of detective work to figure out what the real chords to “Nefertiti” actually are. Part of this is because Shorter sometimes writes out chord voicings instead of chord symbols. It’s also partly because he likes to change his tunes around over time, so there may not be one definitive version.

I have 3 suggestions in order for you to learn “Nefertiti”:

1. Listen to the recording 10 times in a row. (Listen to all the instruments individually and in combination.)

2. Read the Herbie Hancock interview below in which he discusses “Nefertiti” and provides the correct chords. Compare these to the Real Book version and pencil in any changes you want to make to the leadsheet.

3. Play the tune until it starts to feel natural. (It may take a while, but it eventually will if you’re patient yet persistent!)

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

Further links and resources:
Herbie Hancock: The Nefertiti interview
A “must read” if you want to play “Nefertiti.” Herbie discusses the chord changes in great detail!

Todd Coolman’s liner notes to the Miles Davis 1965-1968 recordings
An excellent overview of the great 1960s Miles Davis Quintet and their recordings

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists

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