As we move through time, further and further away from the historical source of jazz, things tend to become codified. Everyone learns the same A and B chord voicings, everyone develops the same rhythmic feel because everyone jams with the same playalong recordings, and everyone follows the same method books.
Part of this is perhaps inevitable, and it happens in other art forms too, such as classical piano. But, for us, it doesn’t have to be the whole story.
Here are 5 ways you can personalize your jazz piano playing, to reflect who you are individually, as a real person. Enjoy!
1. Express your emotions through the tune
Are you every just plain old silly? Great! Then play something that’s fun and outright silly. Playful? Go for it! Tender? Excellent!
2. Let go of thinking “Is this good enough?”
Our cultural obsession with “Is this good enough?” and it’s close cousin. “Am I good enough?” stifles the creative flow. Yes, keep an ear for sounding your best, but put this thought in it’s proper place, not as a replacement for flow and creative expression.
3. Don’t worry about always playing “hip” stuff.
A friend of mine who’s a well-known jazz vocalist often says, “As soon as I hear a jazz musician use the word ‘hip,’ I know they’re not.” Being hip is not a deep emotion. Playing beautifully is. Or energetically. Or passionately. Or profoundly.
(Side note: I’m always baffled when someone plays a chord and tells me it’s a “hip” voicing.” Why is a C13#9 “hipper” than, say, a triad? Isn’t it all about musical context and intention? If Art Tatum successfully begins his interpretation of “All The Things You Are” with a simple major triad, then that’s “hip” enough for me!)
4. Be inspired by the song’s lyric, if there is one.
We don’t have to know every lyric to every standard song we play, but it helps to at least know the gist of the song. Knowing that “Misty” is about vulnerability, “Fly Me To The Moon” is about elation, and “Gypsy In My Soul” is about a sense of freedom will help bring out out personal, unique feeling about these things through our playing.
5. Use the tune’s musical form to your advantage
Study a tune’s form, and see what’s unique about each section. You can then use this knowledge to try out different pianistic techniques and textures in each section. The original studio recording of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia” is a great example of this, where Dizzy plays the A sections with a certain tone, and then Charlie Parker come in at the bridge in a more passionate way.
You’ll hear all 5 of these ideas in my solo jazz piano interpretation of the great jazz standard, “Gypsy In My Soul.” Check out how I utilized these various approaches, and then give it a try yourself:
Gypsy In My Soul: Journey Through The Real Book #144
Have fun, and “let the music flow!”
Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You'll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration