5 ways to become a great jazz piano accompanist

Becoming a good jazz piano accompanist has many rewards. Whether you’re accompanying a vocalist or instrumentalist, here are 5 tips on how to play your best and not only “get the gig” but keep it too!

1.Learn lots of jazz tunes.  Memorize them, and transpose each one to a few different keys.

Start by learning tunes in their original key, and then down a perfect 4th. I’ve found that many female jazz singers have a vocal range that is about a 4th lower than the published key for many jazz standards. Learn tunes a 4th lower; you’ll be glad you did!

2. Absorb the “sound” of the singer’s voice (this works with instrumental soloists too.)

I’ve never seen this written about before, but it’s a big part of accompanying. Let the sound of the singer’s voice enter your ears and come out in your own playing. I hear so many jazz piano/vocal recordings where I wonder if the pianist is even listening to the singer. Blend your sound with theirs, from the inside of the sound. Not only is this the musical thing to do, but the vocalist will feel supported by your piano playing and feel good about collaborating with you.

3. Be pleasant to hang out with (yes, the extra-musical things count!)

A good portion of a typical gig is spent hanging out, during breaks and before and after the gig. Remember: people tend to hire people they like to hang out with. Be pleasant and the leader will want to work with you again.

4. Show up on time.

You’d think this one’s a “no-brainer,” but it isn’t. Showing up on time will automatically set you apart from some of the other pianists the soloist has worked with. The result is that you’ll get called again to do the next gig and gain more and more experience.

5. Solo within the world the singer has created (You don’t need to do this as much in an all-instrumental context, but singers will feel more comfortable with you for doing this.)

This is a personal preference of mine; you’ll find that singers will enjoy performing with you more if you do this. It means that when you take your piano solo, express yourself creatively within the musical context that the singer has established. Saxophonist John Coltrane did this when he played with Johnny Hartman, for example. After Hartman sang a ballad with that low, rich voice of his, Coltrane came in with a warm, melodic tenor solo that continued the musical “vibe” that Hartman had created. Coltrane put aside his signature “sheets of sound” approach and worked with Hartman, not against him. Yes, other approaches can work, but singers will love you if you do this. I promise!

Try these ideas out when you’re playing with instrumental soloists and vocalists. and see what works best for you in each specific musical situation you’re in. Have fun and good luck with your jazz playing!

If you want to become a more fluent jazz pianist, you can visit me here.

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