Playing solo piano can be a daunting and difficult task, and finding effective ways of practicing solo piano can be elusive, as well. After many years of listening to the great solo pianists throughout jazz history—Errol Garner, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Brad Mehldau—I realized that the basic physical aspects of solo playing could largely be broken down to four approaches. Learning to a play a tune using each of these approaches is a highly effective way to develop your solo-piano concept.
I’ve taken the first four measures of the popular jazz standard “Stella By Starlight” to demonstrate how to orchestrate it using each approach. Although they are shown here separately, the great pianists combine, alternate, and intertwine the various approaches in creative ways to get a complete, varied, and fully orchestrated sound from the piano.
1. The Hymnal/Chorale Approach
Perhaps the most fundamental approach, shown in Ex. 1, largely has the left hand pinky playing bass/root notes, the right hand pinky and/or fourth finger playing the melody, and the harmony split between the rest of the two hands, similar to the way church hymns are played. When first working on a tune in this way, keep things simple, with little to no rhythmic activity, and with all notes of the chords typically being played at the same time. Aim for good voice leading and tight movement in the inner notes. This style often has the left hand playing the root and seventh of the chord, with the right hand playing the third, extension(s), and melody on top (as in bars 2 and 4). When using more close-position chords, you may have to omit fundamental chord tones such as thirds and sevenths (bars 1 and 3) to get a less cluttered sound. Look for common tones (bars 3 and 4), half step resolutions (bars 1 and 2, 3, and 4), stable shapes such as triads to balance the chord (bars 1 and 3), and minor and major seconds to add tension to the chord (bars 2 and 4).
2. The Stride Approach
Stride playing was the original style of solo jazz piano, and it emerged largely out of Ragtime music. This style in its most basic format involves the left hand alternating between root/bass notes and chords, with the right hand playing melody and improvised lines (single note, in octaves, or with an added note or two for harmony). Traditional stride typically has bass notes on beats one and three, and chords on beats two and four. “Broken stride,” which I’ve used here in Ex. 2, uses the same basic format, but breaks away rhythmically by adding more syncopated and rhythmic elements to the left hand.
3. The Trio Style Approach
The third approach, seen here in Ex. 3, has the left hand playing largely rootless voicings, with the right hand playing a single note melody, as you would in a trio setting. Work on using a variety of rootless voicings in the left hand, and be creative rhythmically with how the accompaniment and melody interact. Use this simpler texture to experiment with new ways of phrasing the melody.
4. The Accompaniment-Style Approach
The last approach is a great one to practice, as it will improve your duo playing as well as help you to develop interesting things to play in between melodic phrases in a solo piano context. The style, seen here in Ex. 4, has the left hand playing root/bass notes and the right hand playing both rootless voicings and melodic fills (but no melody). Use this style as an opportunity to get creative with your bass lines by finding interesting chord tones to use in the bass, and by creating melodic lines with the bass movement (bars 1 and 2).
The final step involves combining all of these approaches in different and creative ways to come up with your own unique arrangement. First, write out the arrangement, and as you get more comfortable with the approaches, practice improvising in this manner. This will allow you to vary the texture of your solo playing effortlessly, while still maintaining a full, complete sound. As a simple example, you might play the first few bars trio-style to start out with a thinner/lighter texture, then expand to hymnal style, and finally to stride style to get a more full, robust sound. Make sure to practice each approach throughout the entire tune, so that when you’re in the heat of the moment of performance, you can switch textures easily in any section because you’ve already worked out the technical problems of playing in those styles.
“When it comes to playing solo piano, we often settle for things that are physically comfortable and familiar to play, rather than expanding our material and enhancing the creativity of our playing,” says jazz pianist, composer, and educator Martin Bejerano, who has been a member of drummer Roy Haynes’ quartet for 14 years and performed and recorded with Christian McBride, Pat Metheny, and Dave Holland, among others. Bejerano currently heads the jazz piano department at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami, and he can be heard on his recent album Potential Energy. Find out more at martinbejerano.com.