A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Pianist Herbie Hancock composed “The Sorcerer” for the 1967 Miles Davis album of the same name. It’s a wonderful tune that’s not played as much as it should be. In fact, even the Miles Davis Quintet didn’t play “The Sorcerer” (or most of the rest of the album) in their live performances. But since it has a catchy melody and an easier set of chords than most of the group’s material from the same time period, I encourage you to learn it and play it at jam sessions and on gigs.

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: Sorcerer

Herbie Hancock: Speak Like A Child

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“The Sorcerer” was written at a time when Herbie Hancock and his fellow bandmates in The Miles Davis Quintet were looking for new ways to play the music. As Hancock has stated, a big part of this was avoiding traditional jazz harmonic pathways such as the ii/V/I progression in their compositions. (You won’t find any of them in “The Sorcerer.”)

Reflecting this, the chords that Hancock came up with tend to surprise us by moving to new chords that aren’t necessarily related in a traditional way, such as by being in the same key. DbMaj7 followed by DMaj7.  Abm7 followed by Gm7.  Herbie also used some chords that are very colorful in themselves, such as an Eb Maj7th with a flatted 5th.

All of this might sound great, but it makes for a somewhat tortuous path while improvising! How to approach such a disjunct chord progression? Well, there is an underlying logic to it, and it lies in how the chords sound as you actually play each one in turn. But you can’t rely on any of your usual licks or even on any common scales. But you can seek out and use any notes that 2 adjacent scale might have in common.

This is an important concept so let’s look at it a little more closely. The first 2 chords, DbMaj7 and DMaj7, aren’t in the same key and are totally unrelated according to traditional harmony. But we can use a Db major scale on the DbMaj7 and a D major scale on the DMaj7. Do these 2 scales have any common notes? Yes, they both have a Gb/F# and a Db/C#. That’s not much, but it’s a start. If we use a D Lydian scale on the DMaj7 chord, we get a third common note: Ab/C#.

Now all of a sudden we have 3 common tones: F#, G#, and C#. You could use these in several ways. One way would be to simply hold out any of them throughout measures 1 and 2. The harmonies would change but the improvised melodic note would stay the same. Try it and hear how good this sounds! Another effective technique is to play a brief melodic phrase on the first chord, and land on one of these three common tones right when you switch to the new chord in m. 2. For example, you could play Eb Db C Bb as quarter notes in m. 1, and then Ab as a whole note in m.2 over the DMaj7 chord. Your melodic line would sound extremely logical and “inevitable,” but the changing harmony would give a fresh sound to the end of the phrase.

This is what Herbie, Wayne Shorter, and their peers do so well, and you can learn how to do it too. Take the above concepts and practice them on the whole chord progression to “The Sorcerer,” as well as any other Hancock or Shorter composition you enjoy listening to. After a while you’ll find it easier and easier to get out of your musical comfort zone and improvise over these exciting tunes.

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

Further links and resources:
The Sorcerer (album): Wikipedia

The classic mid-1960s Miles Davis Quintet
An excellent and insightful discussion of the group’s music

Herbie Hancock solo and transcription
Transcription by Remi Boldu, from Directions In Music

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