A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Witch Hunt” is one of saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s big tunes. Wayne composed it for his 1966 album Speak No Evil and it has become a true jazz standard over the years, despite the fact that Shorter himself ironically hasn’t performed it concert himself. (This is true of most of his 1960s output as a leader. He’s never performed most of those tunes; they were written just for the studio recordings.)

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: Speak No Evil

Bob Belden: Mysterious Shorter

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
Perhaps the most striking thing about “Witch Hunt” is that it begins with an introduction that’s played at a faster tempo than the rest of the tune. This is very unusual, and in fact, I can’t think of any other jazz tune that does the same thing.

The “new” often comes from the “old,” however, and in a way, this intro fulfills the same function as the introductory verses did in many of the old popular standards. The Real Book doesn’t contain any of these verses, but a great many popular songs, even those in the real book, did have a verse “out front.” It was kind of like the classical recitative/aria combination from opera. The verse “set up” the scene and the chorus, or song itself, expressed what the lyric was about in a direct way (eg: “Somewhere over the rainbow…”)

What Shorter wrote here was an introductory verse, but he did it on an instrumental jazz tune and at a fast tempo. That’s what makes this so unique in the jazz repertoire. As a composer, he tends to think in visual images or movie sequences, so maybe the inspiration came from a story of visual scene of some kind in his mind.

After this wonderful introduction, with its “roving” harmony, the tune itself settles down firmly in the key of C minor. The form is 24 bars long, and to my mind at least, it’s an abstraction of the blues form. If you mentally overlay a double-length blues progression over it, you’ll see what I mean.

The first 8 measures are the same as a traditional blues, but doubled in length as I just mentioned. It’s basically 8 measures of the I chord, Cm7.

In m.9, we’d normally expect a minor blues to go to the iv chord, Fm. Instead, Shorter goes to an Eb7 chord. This can probably be seen several ways, but I see it as fulfilling the same function in the blues as a move to the iv chord, but with an alternate harmony. It’s similar to how in classical music the composers started by modulating to the V chord, and later began going to other keys. Jazz harmony has paralleled the development of classical harmony, so I see it as a parallel with the blues. Instead of going to Fm, Shorter provides contrast with the Eb7.

He then returns to the tonic, Cm7, at exactly the point you’d expect it in a “normal” blues.

After this, Shorter avoids the V harmony altogether with a series of substitute chords (Gb7, F7, E7, Eb7) and provides a deceptive resolution to Abm7 instead of returning to the tonic for the last few measures.

In short, I view “Witch Hunt” as an abstraction of the blues form.

The main point is to explore this for yourself and see what you think after studying the tune thoroughly. Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Transcription of Herbie Hancock’s piano solo on “Witch Hunt”

Wayne Shorter interview
A great interview by pianist Ethan Iverson

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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