A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Stuff” is from the Miles Davis album Miles In The Sky. By the time this was recorded, in 1968, the great 1960s Miles Davis Quintet of Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams was firmly moving away from “swing 8ths” into the more straight-8th note rhythms of rock and funk music.

You probably won’t encounter “Stuff” at too many jam sessions. Although the Miles Davis Quintet’s recording is considered a classic, the tune itself never really became a jazz standard or part of the repertoire. Despite this, it’s a lot of fun to play and can lead you to explore the innovations of this classic group more thoroughly, particularly the techniques that pianist Herbie Hancock was pioneering at the time.

Recommended recording:
(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.)

Miles Davis: Miles In The Sky

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Looking back in history to a recording like “Stuff,” we tend to forget that, at the time, this style of playing was very new. It was uncharted territory and the performers were literally “making it up as they went along.”

One interesting point is that in the late 1960s, jazz and rock were coming closer together than they had previously been. Rock groups such as The Doors were using modes in their extended improvisations, and jazz groups like The Miles Davis Quintet were playing straight-8th grooves. This “musical merging” resulted in both types of groups playing modal music over rock rhythms.

If we look at the scene from this perspective, we may expect to hear some fairly straight ahead playing from the jazzers. After all, they were aiming to reach a more youthful audience and stay “current,” which is a big reason they moved towards the rock sound. One listen to “Stuff” tells us otherwise, however. Miles, Herbie, Wayne, Ron, and Tony had become accustomed to play highly complex jazz and they brought this harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic sophistication to this music too. So even though they may be playing a simple C7 chord for 20 bars, they’re using lots of the same chromaticism, polyrhythms, and advanced melodic techniques that they used while playing post-bop. (Later on they would begin to simplify at times.)

What does this mean for us pianists today? Simple: Don’t feel like you have to play a tune like “Stuff” with all of Herbie Hancock’s techniques. Play it at your current level, even if you’re a beginner, and enjoy doing that. As your overall playing level improves, you’ll be able to do more with the basic chords of “Stuff.” But you don’t have to start there. After all, Herbie and the group had already reached the pinnacle of jazz by this time. But the tune itself doesn’t necessarily need all that fancy “stuff” to sound good (pun intended!!!). Have fun and start jamming!

Further links and resources:
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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