Playing Solo Jazz Piano
By Marian McPartland
Continuing our celebration of 40 years of Keyboard, we'll present some of our old -- but still very relevant -- lessons for our Weekend Chops Builder exercises. This one comes to you from our January 1977 issue. Enjoy.
Playing solo piano, as I am now doing at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, requires an entirely different approach to the keyboard than if I were working with my trio. In some ways, it is much freer; it allows me to change key, change tempo, and experiment with new tunes whenever I feel like it. In some ways, however, it takes more discipline, because you have to keep the rhythmic flow moving at all times (unless you are playing a rubato piece), and this is harder to do alone. Let ‘s look at some of the ways to maintain a solid rhythmic flow in a solo piano context, and apply them to the beginning of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" [Jowcol Music,BMII.
One approach involves playing a bass part with your left hand, using the kind of line a bass player would play (see Ex. 1). Doing this has made me realize how exacting this must be for bass players, getting the roots of the chords and the passing tones in the most strategic places in the tune. Remember that with a texture like this, the right hand has the task of articulating the melody and filling in the harmonic structure. (By the way, in all the examples here, I have indicated only the most basic form of the chord structure in the symbols above the music.)
Another approach involves playing the same voicings you would play in the left hand if the bass player were there. Try to hear the bass line just as if it were being played, and keep the rhythmic flow (see Ex. 2). Take care not to overplay (too many notes or busy figures) or let the tempo get away from you. Up tempo tunes are harder to improvise on when you are playing alone. There is so much to do, what with keeping the ideas coming and keeping the rhythm moving a long.
Setting the tempo in a fast tune is very important. Think it out before you start to play, so that you don't get stuck with some impossibly frantic tempo that you can't keep up (I've done this so I know!). You don't have to go much beyond ♩=208. Then you have time to think and keep the tune swinging. That's the main idea; to create a good feeling so that you can relax and let the music flow.
Occasionally I use a stride piano texture. It's really hard to hit those bass notes accurately! James P. Johnson and pianists like him must have been tremendous technicians; and listen to Eubie Blake sometime—he's still doing it! I would be more likely to play a chorus of stride piano in a song like "Fascinatin' Rhythm" by George Gershwin than I would on Coltrane’s "Giant Steps" (although I heard Dick Wellstood do it and it was fabulous), but it really is a matter of personal taste and choice. Stride piano texture works quite well in ballad treatments of songs (see Ex. 3), as well as in up-tempo versions.
Years ago, I used to be scared to play solo in a club, apart from a few out-of-tempo pieces. The drums and bass were my security blanket, and I felt that I couldn't play rhythmic pieces without them. Now that’s all changed. I still play with the trio frequently, but I think that having done some solo work has made me a better all-around player. Now I certainly wouldn't flip if the rhythm section failed to show up! The more solo playing you do the more ideas will come to you.
There are many solo records available by some of the great players: Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Jess Stacy, Jimmy Rowles, Dave McKenna, Keith Jarrett, and many more—something for everybody’s taste. These are piano stylists in the finest tradition, and listening to any one of them can stimulate you into further explorations of the intricacies of solo playing.