A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“What Was” is a jazz waltz by Chick Corea, written for his landmark 1968 album, “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.” Corea recorded this album with a trio that also included Miroslav Vitrous on bass and bebopper Roy Haynes on drums, and the results were extraordinary. This trio had a profound influence on much of the jazz piano music that came in the decades after it.

The tune itself isn’t played very often, even by Corea himself. I think this may be because it has a Spanish “Phrygian mode” sound, which Corea used more famously in his later composition “La Fiesta.” Simply put, musicians tend to play “La Fiesta” is they want to play Spanish-type jazz waltz by Chick Corea. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a fun and musically rewarding tune to play. Give it a try!

Recommended videos/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.)

Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs

(“What Was” begins at 7:28)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The first 8 measure of “What Was” alternate between the Amaj7(#11) and Gm7 harmonies. Use an E major scale over them both, which gives a Phrygian sound. (A Lydian to G# Phrygian.) The half-step root movement, combined with these modes, is what gives it such a Spanish vibe.

Chick begins the 3rd phrase (m.9) the same way, but goes to a Bmaj7 chord instead, for variety. He then uses this as a jumping off point to wend his way through some very “Chick-sounding” harmonies in measures 13-20. It’s amazing that he carved out such an identifiable style at such an early age!

The first section repeats, and is then followed by the last 16 measures of the tune which move through several key centers. One of Chick’s special talents is how easily he makes it sound to improvise over roaming harmonies such as these. See if you can learn to do the same thing in your own improvising!

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

Further links and resources:
The Making of Chick Corea’s “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”
Includes some quotes from Chick Corea

Rediscover: Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
A nice, informative introduction to this groundbreaking album

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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