Bringing everything you have to jazz standards

A lot of aspiring jazz pianists think that they have to stay within a certain style when playing particular tunes. Usually, this style is closely associated with either the composer of the tune or a favorite musician who recorded it.

This means that a Bud Powell tune like “Celia” will always be played with bebop phrases and comping with the left hand. And that “Cherokee” is “really a swing tune but can also be played bebop because Charlie Parker played it so much.” And that “Satin Doll” equals Duke Ellington and swing. “No bebop lines on that one!”

However, I’ve noticed two interesting things about this approach:

1. None of the jazz greats followed it.


2. It greatly limits beginning and intermediate jazz pianists.

Instead, it’s much better to use the approach taken by the jazz greats, which is:

Bring everything you have to the music

If Bud Powell wanted to play a stride left hand pattern, he played it. If he wanted to play a ballad like a cocktail pianist would, he did that too. And if he wanted to play Bach-like counterpoint, he did that as well.

It’s like this for beginners too. If you know a certain technique, please feel free to use it on any tune you like. If it sounds good and you enjoy it, then keep on using it. And if it doesn’t sound good, then use that moment as the catalyst towards learning a different technique to use on that tune.

The main thing is to express what you yourself have to offer, musically.

It took me a long time to realize this for myself, and I used to become a little frustrated when a bebop tune I was playing began to sound a little more Swing-Era style. Or when my version of a Herbie Hancock composition didn‘t sound quite like Herbie himself.

Now, however, I’ve embraced this attitude because I’ve realized it’s my greatest asset as a musician. I’ve always been interested in a wide variety of music and I now let it all come out in my playing when I have a choice of how to play a tune. (It’s different if you’ve been hired to play in a certain style.)

You can see this concept “in action” in my latest two Journey Through The Real Book performances. If you like, choose the tune that interests you the most (or both) and follow the flow of musical techniques as you watch my hands on the keyboard.

In fact, see if you can identify when I use the flowing musical techniques on each tune. This kind of focused listing is a lot of fun and teaches us a great deal that we can then further learn and use in our own interpretations. Here’s what to listen for:

In “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” listen for:

Parallel triads over a pedal tone
Stride left hand
Big band trumpet-style riffs
Varying the actual musical form itself (I explain this one after the performance.)

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

In “Donna Lee,” see if you can find:

Rubato playing
Bach-like imitation
Beethoven-like development of short motifs (inspired by his late string quartets, which I love)
Bebop improv
LH countermelodies
LH trills instead of comping
A complex rhythmic texture between the two hands

Donna Lee

I hope you have fun with this type of active, analytic listening. And then give yourself permission to bring anything you like to jazz standards.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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