A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
As a composer, Wayne Shorter brought a new energy to the Miles Davis group when he joined in 1964. 1967’s “Prince Of Darkness” is a great example of this. Wayne’s use of silence, harmonic shifts, and natural melodicism served as a perfect springboard as the group pushed the musical boundaries of jazz on both originals and standards. Davis, who usually altered his sidemen’s compositions, apparently loved Shorter’s tunes so much that he never changed them at all.

Even though it’s a wonderful tune, “Prince Of Darkness” isn’t actually played that much. It’s a little too abstract for most players and unless someone’s made a detailed study of the music of the 1960’s Miles Davis Quintet, they probably don’t know it very well. This doesn’t mean that you won’t benefit from learning it, though. By improvising through Shorter’s challenging harmonic road, you’ll play melodic lines that you normally don’t play and this will breathe fresh life into your jazz piano playing. Just remember to enjoy every step of the way; the challenges as well as the “easy stuff!”

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: The Sorcerer

Gil Evans: Monday Night Orchestra At Sweet Basil

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The chords to “Prince Of Darkness” don’t move in traditional ways, but composer Wayne Shorts has shown mercy on us by extending most of them for 2 full measures. This makes it a little easier to begin improvising on the tune!

To get started, identify the corresponding mode for each chord (use Dorian for the minor chords). I like to practice these kind of chord progressions out-of-tempo, spending as much times as I wish on each chord.

Begin by playing a Cm7 chord with your left hand, and improvise with your right hand using the C Dorian mode (C D Eb F G A Bb). Don’t be in any hurry to get to the next chord. Just take a relaxed breath, and spin out simple melodies using the notes in the scale. Stepwise with maybe a few wider intervals if you hear them. When you’re comfortable improvising over the Cm7 chord, move o to the Gm7 and do the same thing. After a while it will get easier and you’ll be ready to start improvising over a slow, steady tempo which you can gradually increase over time. The tune’s melody, by the way, is wonderful and surprisingly catchy, so be sure to enjoy playing it as well.

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

Further links and resources:
Sorcerer (album): Wikipedia

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

How To Learn Jazz Piano
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Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

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