A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Most of Wayne Shorter’s albums of leader contained a stunning ballad, and 1964’s Night Dreamer was no exception. “Virgo” is a gem! It’s a 32-bar tune, similar to the standard “All Of Me” in form, and was written at just the time when Shorter was developing more of a personal, innovative style as a composer.

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.)

Wayne Shorter: Night Dreamer

Dave Lincoln

Listen to how beautifully the jazz guitarist Dave Lincoln plays Shorter’s melody. We pianists can learn from hearing how much care he puts into each and every note!

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
To get some insight into “Virgo,” let’s pretend that we’re composing the tune ourselves. Sit down at the piano, play and Fmaj7 chord, and ask yourself, “Where can I go with this over the course of the next 4 bars?” This is really the big question, isn’t it? Ask 10 composers this question and we’ll get 10 different progressions.

So.. play that Fmaj7 and ask yourself where it’s going to go next. Does it stay in the key of F major, perhaps with a ii-V of some sort? Or does it turn into an F7 and, functioning as a secondary dominant, lead us to a Bb chord? Or does it go elsewhere? Try a few things, and then we’ll see where Shorter took it.

Ok… back to the tune!

Wayne chooses to follow the F chord with Bbm7/Eb7. It’s a ii-V, but going towards the “flat side” of the Circle of 5ths implying the key of Ab major. In fact, he could have easily and logically followed this with an actual Ab major chord and it would have made perfect sense. But does he? No, and this is what he’s going after all along: harmonic ambiguity and surprise. Shorter leads us through a Dm7(b5) and Bb7(#11) in quick succession before resolving down a half-step to an Amaj7, which is on the “sharp side” of the Circle of 5ths. And all this in just 4 measures!!!

Study each 4 measure phrase like this, taking your time to really hear how each chord goes to the next, and you’ll already be well on your way to internalizing this wonderful but challenging tune. And the better you can mentally “hear” the chords, the better you’ll be able to improvise over them.

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

Further links and resources:
Wayne Shorter on Miles Davis, Kanye West, and the music of the Future
One of the many wonderful, insightful interviews with the master himself.

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