A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Orbits” is a tune that Wayne Shorter wrote for the Miles Davis Quintet’s 1967 album, Miles Smiles, on which Shorter played tenor sax. The piece fits that group’s approach perfectly, and the high level of musical abstraction needed to play music like this seems to have discouraged most other jazz musicians from even attempting to play it. It’s a hard tune!

Wayne Shorter is a melodic composer, and the melody to “Orbits” is catchy. Bt the chord changes are very challenging, and to make things even harder, the Miles Davis group took a “free yet rigorous” approach to improvising on this and other tunes in their repertoire at the time they recorded “Orbits.” They improvised on what Shorter called “the song’s DNA.” For more insight into this, check out the interview with Wayne Shorter that I’ve linked to below.

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: Miles Smiles

Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without A Net

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
In “Orbits,” it almost seems as though Wayne Shorter went out of his way to set up harmonic expectations only to veer off in unexpected directions with the next chord.

To see this, let’s follow the sequence of chords, playing each one on the piano if you can while reading this.

Start by playing the first chord, C7, and then the next, A7(b9). This is a standard I-VI in the key of C major, right? What does your ear expect to hear next? Dm. But Wayne doesn’t give us this, does he? No, he throws in an unrelated chord, Ebm7 instead. It’s like he’s playing a musical joke on us. He sets up the Dm but goes up a half step, to Ebm, surprising us with this harmony. Then, he sets up a typical ii-V in the key of F minor (Gm7b5/C7), but the C7 turns out to be a reprise of the beginning, with the first 3 chords repeating here. After unexpectedly holding out the Ebm7 a measure “too long,” he repeats the C7/A7b9 again, this time finally going to a D (ii) chord but making it dominant instead. This would normally lead to the V chord, G7, and while Shorter “throws us a bone” by going to a G chord, he makes it a minor 7th instead. It’s kind of like “musical cubism.” Familiar yet different.

It can be real challenging to improvise over a chord progressions like this, but think of the unexpected twists and turns as “part of the fun,” like you’re on a musical roller coaster. This is the spirit in which this music was created and first interpreted by the 1960s Miles Davis Quintet. If you enjoy the process of navigating these chord changes, you’ll have a better chance of eventually mastering them. Wayne Shorter’s music represents the spirit of adventure and he invites us all to go along for the ride!

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

Further links and resources:
Miles Smiles (album): Wikipedia

Interview with Herbie Hancock
Includes some fascinating advice Miles Davis gave to Hancock

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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