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Jazz chops - synonymous with “being good”?


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Bit of a personal post. Posting this here because you may be one of the few communities online who get what I’m taking about. 
 

disclaimer: This is a long post. Sorry.  
 

preface: forgive my wide ranging and vague use of the word “jazz” in this post. I’m aware of how broad a category it is. 
 

From growing up in the college music scene where “good” was synonymous with having jazz chops, where college lecturers (incidentally, usually the non-instrumentalist tutors) would comment that they were looking for “faster lines” to get a better grade, to the current cancerous Instagram music culture where people with the most out-there chops get the most views and get most attention from the algorithms. 
 

I don’t want to be a jazzer, but for a lot of my peers, jazz is the be all and end all. And the truth is that in the genres I really connect with (blues, funk, gospel), there’s a hell of a lot of overlap with mainstream jazz. Players who are good at one are usually good at the other. 
 

I’m in a hotel room just now watching a documentary about Clapton, and hell, say what you want about him, but I’d probably enjoy playing sets like that night after night more than anything I had to do in college to fit in.
 

During my time in college I got invited into the city’s main jazz circle once, where all the best musicians are, and was asked to fill in for someone at a straight jazz gig. I never got asked back, and promptly removed myself from that scene afterwards. It just wasn’t me, and the result was that I didn’t get to know the music scene here in the same way a lot of my peers did. I still played regularly, and was sought after for other reasons, but never for my chops. Problem is now that I’m in a place where I actually want some chops, I still don’t want to play jazz. 
 

The problem I have is that it’s hard to find a non-jazz musician who knows their stuff and CAN’T also play jazz well. “Oh great, he’s a blues guy, he’s really good at what he does and he doesn’t seem to have many jazz ch— oh look here’s a video of him playing Actual Proof with one hand” is common. 

 

That’s the thing that discourages me. Just now I’m mostly liking rhythm based guys - guys who’s music is based mostly

off of making melody and grooves…but if you look them up on YouTube chances are you’ll find those same guys shredding through Giant Steps changes like it’s nothing. 
 

Which brings me to the peak of my rant: do you have to do jazz to be “good”? Are there examples of killer players who never touched a jazz standard in their life? Guys who could express themselves

melodically and technically, but who didn’t get into the jazz scene?
 

Another example: Two weeks ago a guitar lecturer at a local college subbed in for us. He got a solo during a song that just vamps on Am, and I don’t think he touched the tonic once, but it sounded so fluid, musical and simply better than everyone else (at least to the musicians on stage - I don’t think the punters agreed 😂).  I caught myself thinking “man I wish I could play like that” but then I remembered he’s also a jazzer who could play something melodic over a room full of monkeys banging on 100 pianos. I’ve a good enough ear and know my theory well enough to recognise what modes and tone centres he was playing in, but do I have to dedicate my time to learning straight jazz to sound like that?? 
 

I mean take something like “are you going my way” by Methany. Not a whole lot going on in that tune harmonically…but Mays and Methany made something so wonderful out of it; would they have been able to do that if they weren’t jazzers at heart? Mays was always so melodic and thoughtful in much of his playing, but the guy could shred over anything if you let him. Was the former because of the latter? 
 

Now don’t get me wrong. Minor blues standards I can dig. I love taking something like “isn’t she lovely” and figuring out ways to reharm it and make something different out of it (and figuring out how to play something melodic and interesting over it). 

 

Fusion I can get, reharm I do for fun, outside licks and transcribing I do occasionally, but I don’t want to have to force myself to play through standards and learn stuff I don’t want to play simply because it’s a good musical exercise. I’d rather spend the limited time I now have playing music I actually enjoy. 
 

Anyone able to empathise or offer a word of advice? 
 

Watching Clapton just now and seeing the various ages of the guys in his band is reminding me that if I spend the next 10 years focusing on what I actually like playing, there’s plenty of time for me to be half the musician I want to be by my mid-40s. I’m very fortunate in that , God willing, I’ve still a a lot of years left to play and improve at what I want to, and that I’m nowhere near my prime yet. 
 

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Anyone able to empathise? What’s your experience with this? 

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"Are there examples of killer players who never touched a jazz standard in their life?"

I can't think of many, but Benmont Tench comes to mind. (although I have no idea if he has never played a jazz standard, he's certainly not known for it).

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I'm in the UK where jazz just doesn't carry that same weight and try as I might I have never been able to get into it, to the extent I can barely even hack most of those Nord posts on social media. I can appreciate the musicianship of course, but I'd just say never try to force anything musically. You are what you are and you like what you like, life's too short.

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Without having any real jazz chops, I have come up with some jazzy sounding chromatic wiggly things that sound like I'm good. And I can successfully play them in a 251 but that's all I can do or ever hope to do in jazz. Or want to do.

I guess I'd rather be a jazzy blueser than a bluesy jazzer. 

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Jazz players tend to overemphasize harmony, chords and voicing and it gets overbearing for anyone not interested in jazz which is basically everybody 😀 I needed 20 years to realize that. Non-jazz players lack these sophisticated chord-scale abilities but as with anything in life compensate by specializing in rhythmic and melodic playing. Similar to how a classical pianist would make a classical piece “sing” just because he needs to translate the fixed notes into an emotion instead of having to come up with the notes in the first place. 

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I'm not a hardcore member of the Church of Jazz-is-the-only-Music, but I have a pretty steady lifestyle of open stage jams and basement jam sessions with some top players in Charlotte.

 

The open stages tend to be more anything goes and that could mean any form of album rock from the last 5 decades.  Even if you are not a straight ahead jazz player, you still have to know some staples that are going to get called out that you'd probably say are jazz standards -- you'd have to know stuff like Chameleon, Mercy Mercy Mercy, Cantaloupe Island, Take Five, Stratus, Pick Up The Pieces, The Chicken, Cold Duck Time, Blue Bossa, Sunny and be ready for the occasional Steely Dan tune like "Josie" if someone calls it.   You don't have to be a dedicated jazz player to get through these staples at some of the open stages, but it does serve you a lot better if you are familiar with the changes and can play through them.

 

At the basement jams I do, the players are a step up from the randomness of open stage, so we expect that we can ask each other to know a tune like "Spain" or "Room 351" by Larry Carlton, "Birdland", "Some Skunk Funk" and to have some homework to be ready to play it.

 

This, of course, is in the context of anything else we could end up playing from Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Pink Floyd or The Police.  Old regular jazz tunes in the mix of everything else, if that helps.

 

But I like to play with people who have enough fluency in time signatures outside of 4/4 or 3/4, the modal scales, or a chord with a 9th, 11th or 13th in it.  But I still wouldn't call myself a jazz player that it's my identity or something I am particularly dedicated to being.

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Jazz chops - synonymous with “being good”?

 

In my humble opinion, NO.  Taste, Artistry, Beauty, Nuance, Subtlety, all mean more to me than chops, especially because so many musicians who's focus is on chops, seem to think that speed is the ultimate proof of "good", and too many Jazz (and Bluegrass) players let taste and nuance take a back seat to speed.  I find that kind of playing feels like being stuck in the corner of the ring with Mike Tyson beating my brains out.  The truly great Jazz players have it all, but they are the cream.

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My take is that jazz players (a label I'll accept :)), like classical players, tend to have a little more formal music training in their background.  Take me, for example: I took piano lessons for several years during middle school, then got to high school where there were, essentially, two tracks you could take: concert band (i.e. classical) and jazz band.  In neither of these tracks were you asked to invent or "make up" new music (setting aside jazz soloing for the moment), unlike kids who were playing in a garage band who would do that all afternoon -- after school.  Instead, we were asked to read notated, arranged charts -- and lots of them -- every day.  So the jazz/concert band players tended to grow up being better music readers than the garage band players, and were exposed to more complex chords, rhythms, time-signatures, etc., and more basic music theory.

 

The garage band players weren't always inferior musicians - I grew up with lots of friends who had great ears and killer chops, but had no idea what to do with notated music.  I tended to be the opposite, I wanted charts to play from, even if they were just chord sketches without actual notes.  Later in life, I gravitated to "jazz" rather than "rock" (If you'll allow me those two, broad camps), precisely because the rock guys rarely tried to write anything down, preferring to rely on their ears and their memory.  It was no less creative or rigorous, but it was the antithesis of how I'd learned to approach music, so I just didn't run in those circles.  Musical theater, where I also work a lot, is often even more complex, notational, and structured than jazz.

 

Painting with a very broad brush, I used to tell kids who were thinking about becoming career musicians: Only a fraction of players in the world make a living playing their own music.  If you want to shoot for that super-stardom, by all means apply yourself; but if you don't want to starve while you're on that journey, learn to read music so you can get work playing other people's music, too.

 

 

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20 minutes ago, Steve Nathan said:

Jazz chops - synonymous with “being good”?

 

In my humble opinion, NO.  Taste, Artistry, Beauty, Nuance, Subtlety, all mean more to me than chops....

Agreed. 

 

Chops which basically comes down to technical facility mainly impress other musicians. Otherwise, it's just an exercise to keep the fingers in shape.

 

Regardless of genre/style, the average listener who actually consumes it i.e. pays to see and/or hear artists and musicians wants to hear *good* music.

 

IMO, learning how to play songs/tunes tastefully and having a huge repertoire of them in the bag should be the main goal.

 

Being able to play a variety of songs/tunes and being able to improvise over a groove either on solo piano or with others is the real secret to playing music. 😎

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IMHO jazz chops aren’t needed to be good. I’ve never heard some of my favorite keyboard players play jazz —. Billy Payne, Chuck Leavell, and Billy Preston come to mind — but don’t know for sure that they can’t.


I know accomplished jazz players who are in awe of great blues players (who often don’t have a jazz background or even care for jazz). To me, a solid blues background is more important than a good jazz background because the blues is the mother of many other styles of music (including jazz).

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Even though I very rarely play the Great American Songbook anymore, my training in the music we call jazz has undoubtedly helped in everything else that I do. Rhythmically I think of most grooves as having a certain type or degree of swing. Navigating the harmonic movement of standards and compositions of the great American composers from Ellington to Shorter to Monk prepared me for anything that might happen in a Stevie Wonder or Paul Simon tune. Transcribing various solos opened my ears and improvisational situations allowed me to be on my toes when things go sideways on a more structured "pop" gig.

 

Even if you don't ever want to perform that type of music in public, I think getting a handle on how (particularly) standards & bebop work on a harmonic and melodic level is absolutely vital to 20th & 21st century Western music. Especially considering the type of music the OP cites as inspiring and mystifying, I think the answers to all of that language lie in bebop and hard bop.

 

EDIT: for those who remain allergic to jazz, for whatever reason, I would say 75% of those same harmonic answers lie in Bach chorales and hymnals.

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1 hour ago, nadroj said:

And the truth is that in the genres I really connect with (blues, funk, gospel), there’s a hell of a lot of overlap with mainstream jazz. Players who are good at one are usually good at the other. 

 

2 hours ago, nadroj said:

Watching Clapton just now and seeing the various ages of the guys in his band is reminding me that if I spend the next 10 years focusing on what I actually like playing, there’s plenty of time for me to be half the musician I want to be by my mid-40s. I’m very fortunate in that , God willing, I’ve still a a lot of years left to play and improve at what I want to, and that I’m nowhere near my prime yet. 

 

There is a shared history and culture there with jazz, blues, gospel, soul, funk, R&B, etc. I'm guessing that's why really skilled musicians in that musical landscape will often also have studied jazz. In other cultures, it will be different. There are also great musicians that have been influenced by jazz musicians or styles of jazz but that don't actually play jazz music. 

 

I think Brad Kaenel hit on the key point. You need to ask yourself what you want to achieve musically and if you're trying to make a career out of it. Making a career of something often means having to put time aside to work at some mundane/mechanical stuff that you don't always want to be doing. 

 

If you just want to enjoy playing music with others (in the blues/funk/gospel vibe) and keep growing musically, then you can probably find musicians that, like you, may know some jazz, but where jazz is not their main thing. Like the jams jeffinpghpa was talking about. Places like that can be good for meeting people that are on the same page and then starting musical projects that are more focused. In that way, you will be motivated to get better at playing material you enjoy playing.

 

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It’s easy to beat ourselves up about our musical shortcomings.  And to an extent that can be helpful - like a kick in the pants to go practice.  But we’re all on a different musical journey and the roads we travel differ depending on where we want to go.  Is your music making a job, a side gig, a hobby, a diversion, one of many artistic endeavors.  Having an idea about where you’re headed will help with decisions about where and what to spend your time on.  
 

I always felt that I wanted to be well rounded.  To be able to sit in with everyone - for work, fun, to make music with people who share my love for it.  My musical tastes are really wide.  So I’m happy to play classical, Broadway, jazz, blues, gospel, rock, pop, country, etc. And I also enjoy to sing and play other instruments (none of which I’m as comfortable with as the piano keyboard).   But, because I’ve split my proverbial “10,000” hours up I guess I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none - unless there’s bonus points for just being useful.  I do read notation pretty well, lead sheets, chord charts, have tunes I just know, improvise, take a solo.  I like to think I’m a good listener and I enjoy accompanying a singer, sax, violin or whatever.  Point being, I’m not losing sleep because serious jazzers aren’t calling me to play serious jazz.

 

To the OP, as suggested already - life is short.  Make the music you love. The more you play, the more gigs you take, the more experiences you have, the more comfortable you become in your own skin. And in the end, we all get as far as we’re fortunate enough to get.  

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Matt Johnson (jamiroquai) is a pretty good keys player (IMO) and afaik, he has not much of a jazz background - I am sure there are many others....Rick Wakeman, again afaik, didn't really come from a jazz background , Keith Emerson...so no I do not think coming from a full on jazz background is necessary, au contraire, I sometime think it gets in the way, and those that have can often miss some really tasty players simply because they turn their noses up and diss em, coz? No jazz background "like them"

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I empathize.

 

I grew up playing rock/blues/R&B/top 40 sax and rhythm guitar. I started playing keyboard in blues-rock groups about 15 years ago. I've tried to listen to jazz but it's just not my thing. In jams I've played all the soul jazz, blues jazz, funk jazz, fusion jazz standards -- Mercy Mercy Mercy, Chameleon, Maiden Voyage, The Chicken, Blue Bossa, Song For My Father, Put It Where You Want It, Cantaloupe Island, Cold Duck Time, Sunny, etc. I can do a pretty credible soulful keys solo on most of those. But I'm not very interested in playing American Songbook Jazz Standards. I'm in a regular jazz jam now where we read from Real book charts so I'm playing keys on some straight ahead jazz tunes. But I really get more into tunes like What's Going On, tunes that are based on modern or pop or rock changes. It's what I grew up on, it's what I hear in my head. I don't hear bop styles or old skool changes from 75 years ago. 50 years ago - yes. :)  I'm a much better sax player than I am a keys player. I don't play any straight ahead jazz on sax, but I can play a very good sax solo on an old soul tune, much better than some jazzers I've heard try the same thing. It's about feeling the music and having played and absorbed it all your life. 

 

Do you have to do jazz to be “good”? Definitely NO. There are lots of rock and blues players who are not jazzers who are very good. 

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These are only my opinions, not supported by any actual knowledge, experience, or expertise.
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Thanks for the replies folks, read through them all and they’re pretty encouraging. I actually do enjoy playing some of the tunes mentioned above. Are they jazz? Who knows. Throwing labels around isn’t helpful, but it’s good to have perspective about the kind of player I’d be happy being.
 

More than happy to dedicate my time to knowing a handful of tunes well, rather than half-assing a bunch of tunes for the sake of it.

 

Regarding goals, my aim just now is to get to the point where I can express myself musically. Not being locked in, but being able to play what I hear in my head and play in a way that reflects me. Not there yet, but that’s my goal. My ambitions of making a living off of music full time are long past lol. Actually did that when I was a student (music paid the bills back then) but with a young family, I can’t do that now. Day job needed for that. Personal satisfaction and a handful of good experiences is the aim of the game. 

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"jazz chops"? ! ? ! ? 

 

I suggest the whole point of "jazz" is to go beyond "chops" to communicate in a musical language.  IMO, "jazz chops" is a contradiction of terms, like "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence".  I have spent my time transcribing Charlie Parker solos into all keys, all while my teacher was telling me the goal of this work was to fill my head with CP's sound, not reproduce his notes later.

 

I suggest the repetitive and formulaic use of the pentatonic scale with the bending of the 5th note so characteristic of blues and rock is "chops", and if you want to play blues and rock, you had better work on your "blues and rock chops".

 

I suggest to the OP that the musician plays the notes first, and only afterwards does someone come along to say "that is jazz", "that is pop", "that is good", "that is bad", etc.  And I further suggest that we only find "good" music when we ignore all those labels and search for ourselves for what interests and excites us, and then we  play that.  And when we fully commit to the music that interests and excites us (regardless of labels), then we are playing great.  

 

Remember: those punk rockers couldn't play their instruments worth a damn.  It was their passion and energy for what they were doing which made the music remarkable, and created an entire new genre.

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I get the sense reading your posts that that there's a tension between a desire for respect from a certain peer group on the one hand and your own passions on the other.  Money shouldn't be a factor, because there's not much of that in playing jazz.  I'd say follow your passions and if those true jazz players cross to the other side of the street when they see you coming, so be it.

 

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It’s the mass craftization of jazz (just came up with that word) that gradually made me almost a jazz hater. That’s a strong word to make my point, I can still appreciate fine jazz from the greats but the fact is jazz has been dissected to death (pun intended) and anyone more inclined in learning the craft from now countless offline/online/institutional sources will become at least a convincingly sounding jazzman. And a very boring one. In most modern and well-crafted jazz music it’s all about a cerebral satisfaction rather than emotional appeal. It’s been exhausted completely into a homogenous mass that is still a very smart and intellectually prepared music that has its audience but it’s also very rarely creative nowadays. This is just my very biased and certainly outrageous opinion 🙂 

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17 hours ago, nadroj said:

Anyone able to empathise or offer a word of advice?

 

Yes, I empathize.

 

Advice: Have you read "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner?  Good music has little to do with chops or jazz.

 

I once heard a story that Miles told Scofield, who was playing with him at the time, "When you get through playing what you know, play something."

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"In most modern and well-crafted jazz music it’s all about a cerebral satisfaction rather than emotional appeal. It’s been exhausted completely into a homogenous mass that is still a very smart and intellectually prepared music that has its audience but it’s also very rarely creative nowadays."

That's complete nonsense. You need to listen to better music.

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2 hours ago, CyberGene said:

It’s the mass craftization of jazz (just came up with that word) that gradually made me almost a jazz hater. That’s a strong word to make my point, I can still appreciate fine jazz from the greats but the fact is jazz has been dissected to death (pun intended) and anyone more inclined in learning the craft from now countless offline/online/institutional sources will become at least a convincingly sounding jazzman. And a very boring one. In most modern and well-crafted jazz music it’s all about a cerebral satisfaction rather than emotional appeal. It’s been exhausted completely into a homogenous mass that is still a very smart and intellectually prepared music that has its audience but it’s also very rarely creative nowadays. This is just my very biased and certainly outrageous opinion 🙂 

 

I don't have feelings strong as this but I remind myself with some frequency that much early jazz was dance music.  The genre loses appeal for me proportionally to how far it strays from those roots.

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There’s that line from ‘The Night They Drove Ol Dixie Down’…

 

“you can take what you need but leave the rest.”

 

(I appreciated brother Timwat’s post from a few years ago when he said he likes to play with people who are ‘jazz aware’.)

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16 hours ago, Al Quinn said:

IMHO jazz chops aren’t needed to be good. I’ve never heard some of my favorite keyboard players play jazz —......Chuck Leavell

 

chuck leavell playing jazz ....

 

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2 hours ago, ChoppedHam said:

I once heard a story that Miles told Scofield, who was playing with him at the time, "When you get through playing what you know, play something."

Miles Davis was a brilliant musician. Obviously, he could play his azz off. Also, he could recognize talent. Most importantly, he could get what he wanted out of the musicians with whom he chose to play.

 

Take a look at the roster of musicians who played with Miles Davis.  Quite a few of them didn't have jazz chops in the technical sense. 

 

With Miles Davis, it was always about exploring the sound of music. The cats who were fortunate enough to play with him carried that throughout their careers. 😎

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1 hour ago, GovernorSilver said:

Taking the liberty of posting some Gene Harris.  A jazz pianist who never forgot about groove or jazz's close relationship to the blues

 

As a CyberGene I really appreciate that performance of Gene Harris who was not known to me, thank you! 👍🏻 Indeed, it immediately made me tap with my foot! 🕺🏻

 

To clarify regarding some of my previous statements. I had been a HUGE jazz for something like 20+ years. I used to listen all day long almost 95% to jazz and swallow everything I got my ears on, starting from early jazz and blues through bebop, post-bop, fusion, funk, acid-jazz but mostly gravitating towards modern post-bop on one hand, and worldy/new-agey jazz on other, with Oregon (the band) getting a lot of play on my Walkman as well as most of the European jazz and ECM stuff. Heck, I was devastated and cried so much when Esbjörn Svensson died in that scuba diving accident, he was my favorite pianist 😢 Along with Chick and Herbie of course. And some Dave Grusin.

 

So, blame it on this total overdo with jazz music, and most importantly the newest plethora of excellent post-bop pianists and bands that seemed like growing from every corner that made jazz for me a boring and even obnoxious music. As silly as it may sound, I was finally able to understand all these friends of mine who used to mock jazz, kind of got what they disliked so much about jazz, despite fiercely arguing with them and defending jazz 😲

 

I understand my point of view is extreme... Apologies if some people take it as insulting. I tend to overemphasize my written emotions (also probably due to the fact I"m not a native English speaker and can't precisely see the actual weight of the words I use...)

 

I'm now mostly dedicated to classical music, with Scriabin being my big love. But what is funny is I "rediscover" stuff like The Doors. Stuff like Break On Through, Riders on the Storm and Light My Fire would bring me much more enjoyment than most of jazz. Apparently it's rather raw, primitive and unpolished when compared to jazz, yet it has such powerful emotion! Go figure 🧐

 

P.S. There are three jazz records that I will never stop loving: Kind of Blue and In a Silent Way. And (probably surprising...) Premonition by Paul McCandless (with Lyle Mays on the piano)! 

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