If you're just beginning to enter the world of jazz piano, you may find that it's exciting and a bit overwhelming at the same time. Exciting, because the music sounds great and offers us so much freedom, and a bit overwhelming because there's so much to learn!
Let's start by taking a deep breath....
First of all, remember that no one learns it all at once. Simply take step at a time and enjoy it. Then you'll enjoy the next step, and the one after that. (This is key.)
Now.. with that in mind, let's get started with The Real Book.
The Real Book is a collection of jazz tunes, in leadsheet form. This means that the melody and chords are on the page, and it's up to us to come up with a piano arrangement of each song. Again, a lot of freedom which can be a bit overwhelming at first.
Most people begin with The Real Book in the wrong way. They pick a tune, like the popular "Autumn Leaves," and they try to play it with all sorts of scales, modes, and fancy chord voicings right away. Or, if they don't, they subconsciously think that they're not playing it well enough because they're not doing all that stuff.
Unless you're Art Tatum, this approach will hold you back. You'll join the other thousands of beginning jazz pianists who get stuck on one tune for much too long.
Let's try a better way.
Instead of trying to do everything possible on one tune, choose a specific technique to learn. Like playing melodies. Or getting very familiar with 7th chords in root position. Or, if you're up for it, playing a walking bass line with your left hand while your right hand "comps" with chords.
Then, make a list of 5 tunes to practice this technique on.
The beauty of this approach is that it keeps you moving through lots of tunes, so you begin to learn more repertoire while getting really good at that specific technique. And just to keep things in perspective, playing melodies is a great place to start. Think about it: this is what horn players do all the time. They never play chords and melody at the same time! We pianists can benefit by doing this too. Wouldn't it be fun to be able to play 5 jazz melodies really well? From this point of view it doesn't even matter if you know the chords yet. By playing the melodies you'll be getting to know essential jazz repertoire, you'll be preparing your hand to improvise solos using the same melodic language as these melodies, you'll be experiencing jazz rhythm in real time (which you can't always do when you're practicing advanced material), and most of all, you'll be doing something which is attainable for you at your current level.
This is a big point that most beginners miss. They aim too high in too short a time. Because ironically, by choosing a simpler technique and practicing it on 5 songs, you'll improve faster because you'll be developing a more solid foundation for what comes next for you.
Here are 5 good Real Book songs to begin with:
1. Autumn Leaves
3. Blue Bossa
4. All Of Me
5. It Don't Mean A Thing
Take your left hand playing to a new level with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You'll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration