How to put your “individual touch” on a jazz tune

One of our biggest challenges as jazz musicians is putting our “individual touch” on the jazz tunes we play.

It’s even a challenge for some very accomplished players. A jazz pianist will sound like Bill Evans on “Autumn Leaves,” Thelonious Monk on “Rhythm-a-ning,” and Horace Silver on “Song For My Father,” all in the same set!

There’s nothing really wrong with this, of course. They’re still making the world a better place. But isn’t jazz supposed to be about finding your individual sound? It can be difficult to do this if we have strong musical associations for each tune we play.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to get around this and express myself through jazz is to start a tune with an improvised introduction. I don’t mean a typical 4- or 8-measure intro, but an extended intro where I can play whatever I like. This enables me to dig deep into my own musicality without immediately falling into patterns I’ve learned from listening to another pianist play the tune I’m leading into.

Here’s a good example of what I’m describing. It’s a performance of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia,” played by myself and the wonderful bassist Phil Glowa. Phil and I decided to play a tune during an informal lunchtime concert at The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. We didn’t rehearse, but before we went onstage I asked Phil to play an improvised, extended intro. Phil must have been inspired by the song’s title as he brought some Mediterranean flavor into his beautiful improvisation. Best of all, the nature of his intro led us both to play the tune in an entirely unique manner. It was very much “in the moment” and different than I usually play the song. (For one thing, I think this was the first time I ever played “piano percussion!”)

Here’s our rendition of A Night In Tunisia.

I hope it inspires you to explore using improvised introductions as a way to express yourself more individually on the tunes you play. Enjoy!

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