Jazz ballads are wonderful to play on piano. For inspiration, we can listen to recordings by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Chick Corea and many others. In fact, just about every major jazz pianist in history enjoyed playing songs at slow tempos.
But despite this rich legacy, I’ve found that many jazz pianists don’t fully take advantage of this tradition in their own playing. Here are 5 tips to help you get the most out of playing jazz ballads on piano:
1. Enjoy playing the melody
SLow, lyrical melodies can sound gorgeous on piano. Enjoy every note.
2. Resist the temptation to always go into “double time.”
A ballad is slow for a reason. Relax into the slower feeling and if you do go into double time, let it happen organically. Many drummers will automatically begin playing in double time as soon as the melody is stated.. It’s as if they can’t bear playing slowly for more than 32 bars! But resist this temptation, unless the song wants to go there. If that happens, great. Otherwise, savor the ballad feeling; it’s beautiful.
3. If the song has lyrics, learn them
Unless the song is purely instrumental, learn at least some of the lyrics. You’ll play “Misty” differently if you know it’s about vulnerability. Most great jazz instrumentalists let the lyrics influence their playing, at least sometimes.
4. Use inner voice motion
This can be a little tricky to learn, but a bit of melodic motion inside your chord voicings can add levels of emotion and textural interest that will elevate your playing to a whole new level.
5. Start simply and connect with the sound of the piano
Jazz is not just about the notes; it’s about the sound. Nowhere is this more important than on ballads.
If you already enjoy playing ballads, then these 5 tips will help you play them better. And if you’re new to the world of jazz ballads, you’ll have some good ideas on how to get started. Check out my video of “Alfie” at the top of this post for more inspiration. Good luck!
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