Whether you’re a jazz pianist or a vocalist accompanying yourself, the ability to play great solo piano can translate into more job opportunities and more musical confidence. I first played solo piano in front of an audience with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and have been developing my concept ever since. Here are five things I’ve learned about playing solo jazz piano over the past 25 years.
1. The Groove Is King
Numero Uno for me is always the groove. Drums were my first instrument, and when I switched to piano in my teens I spent many hours practicing with a metronome as well as playing along with records by groove masters like Count Basie, James Brown, and Jimmy Smith. Try to create compelling grooves and bass lines with your left hand, and lock into the time like you’re playing with a rhythm section.
2. Think Like an Arranger
I often visualize the piano as an orchestra, mentally assigning instrument parts to each hand or different fingers. My left hand can be a bass or cello or trombone; my right can be a flute, trumpet or violin; the middle register (shared between both hands) can be saxes, violas, or anything else I can imagine. Actually writing arrangements for various instrumentations and studying scores by master composers and arrangers can give your solo playing added depth and variety.
3. Use All 88 Keys
Most of us tend to avoid the extreme lower and upper registers of the keyboard, considering them too muddy or brittle to be practical. I loved hearing pianist and vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery play solo piano in the late 1980s in New York. He was the first pianist I heard who really made use of these “forbidden” zones in a delightfully musical way. Be fearless.
4. Any Song Is Fair Game
On my concerts or recordings, I enjoy presenting a wide variety of material ranging from contemporary pop covers to jazz standards to free improvisation. My only rule of thumb is this: If a song’s melody and chord progression resonates with me, I’ll play it! Songs with lyrics pose a unique challenge, so I always strive to find a way to convey the feeling and meaning of the poetry from the piano keyboard. Keeping the lyrics in mind helps you with phrasing and timing when playing the melody.
5. Use the Damper Pedal Sparingly
Pushing the sustain pedal to the metal like you’re Mario Andretti can mask improper piano technique, and the colliding overtones can blur the pretty voicings you’re working so hard to create. It also tends to take you into the “cocktail piano” zone pretty quickly. I consciously work on developing a good tone and finger legato, practicing without using pedal. Being able to play fluidly sans pedal is also extremely handy when you’re stuck with an old Rhodes with a broken pedal!
San Diego pianist, composer, and arranger Geoffrey Keezer has performed with virtually all the livings legends of jazz and currently tours as a member of Chris Botti’s band. His new solo album Heart of the Piano is out now. Find out more at geoffreykeezer.com.