Holding your own on a jazz tune like “Airegin”

Perhaps the hardest thing about playing the Sonny Rollins tune “Airegin” is to forget all about Sonny Rollins!

For one thing, Sonny played it so well that it’s a losing battle to compare yourself to him. You’ll never be able to play “Airegin” as good as him on his terms. That’s the key here. If you’re comparing yourself to him, as most players do on some level, you’re on his turf. The goal is to move the playing field so you’re on your turf, not anyone else’s.

In fact, this is exactly what Sonny himself does and part of what makes him such a great performer. I once saw a video interview with Sonny where he said that you should practice diligently and then, when you’re playing, forget it all and just play. But as much as jazz musicians say they do this, I don’t think it’s that easy. No one wants to sound bad so most players put only about 20% effort into “being themselves” and the other 80% into “sounding good enough so nobody criticizes them.” And this often means that in the back of their minds they’re comparing themselves to players like Sonny Rollins, especially when they’re playing one of his tunes.

The truth is that we’ll never sound as good as we’re capable of when we do this. To play our very best, we have to really and truly “be ourselves,” just as players like Sonny Rollins play like “themselves.” Sonny was influenced by everyone from Coleman Hawkins to Charlie Parker and manages to put that aside and trust in his own uniqueness. You can do that too. Find your own voice and play tunes like “Airegin” with your own sound, style, and viewpoint.

When you don’t compare yourself to players like Sonny Rollins, you’ll find that something amazing and wonderful happens: People start listening to you.

Here’s a video I recently made of me playing “Airegin” on piano. Believe me, if I had compared myself to Sonny Rollins, I never would have played the first note. And nobody wants this for us, least of all Mr. Rollins himself. (By the way, I used to teach piano with his cousin, who was a fine pianist. She confirmed that he did indeed practice as much as legend says he did!)

Here’s the video, as part of my Journey Through The Real Book series. Enjoy!

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