A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Steps” is a Chick Corea tune from his groundbreaking 1968 album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. This album took the jazz piano world by storm when if first appeared, and I still think it’s a little bit shocking today to listen to how effortlessly Corea plays with such speedy precision and fluidity. Even more impressive than his technique is how he can think and react so quickly, both to his fellow musicians as well as to the intense musical demands of the tunes he chooses to play.

If you’ve played a bunch of the more introductory-level Real Book tunes so far, you’ll really benefit by taking on the challenge of a more challenging tune like “Steps.” In one sense, it doesn’t even matter if you learn it well at first. Practicing “Steps” will give you a foretaste of what you’ll be playing like in a year or so from now, and the hard work you do will actually get you there a little bit sooner!

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

Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Steps” is a fascinating example of how jazz musicians can take a traditional chord progression and change it to fit their own expressive needs. In this case, it’s the 12-bar blues. Simply put, “Steps” is a 12-bar minor blues with substitute chords in the last 4 measures.

And what amazing substitute chords they are!

Chick Corea kept the “standard” minor blues chords for the first 8 measures: Cm7, Fm7, and then back to Cm7. For m.9-12, however, Corea goes way “out of the box.”

The progression is: AbMaj7(#11)/ EMaj7/DbMaj7(#11)/CbMaj7(#11)

This is classic Chick Corea! There’s no “rhyme or reason” for these chords except that they sounded great to Chick when he was writing the tune and that he enjoys improvising on a progression like this. They’re certainly not related by 4ths or by any specific root motion. Instead, think of them as “splashes of color.” The #11 in three of them make this chordal sequence sound very colorful and when Corea composed “Steps” in 1968, this must have sounded like a very “modern” variation on the blues.

The thing you want to avoid is playing something great for the first 8 measures, and then floundering aimlessly for the last four. So in order to really get to know these chords, make sure that you spend a great deal of time becoming comfortable with them. Repeat them over and over without going to the rest of the chord progression. Play them slowly, as a ballad. Then pick up the tempo a bit but hold out each chord for 4 full measures. Then, when you can do this, play them for 2 measures each, and then, finally, for only one measure each as written. I’ve used this technique a lot when I’ve wanted to become comfortable improvising over a challenging chord progression. After all, we can’t use any of our “usual” licks over Corea’s chords, so it’s best to slow them down, extend them, and practice them in any other way we can think of. Only then can we make them “our own” and feel good about how we use them in our improvisations. Have fun with this harmonic variation on the blues.

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

Further links and resources:
The Making Of Chick Corea’s “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”
As told by Chick Corea to Don Heckman

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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