Letting musical Influences emerge in our piano playing

We all have people who’ve influenced us. Parents, friends, neighbors when we were growing up, and even celebrities. Have you ever made a comment about something and realized that you said it just like your favorite actor would have said it? This has happened to me, and I was surprised at the unexpected influence. Then I chuckled and moved on with my life.

It’s the same way with our music, and we shouldn’t try to avoid it. Keith Jarrett has a good perspective on this type of influence. He basically says that the more we be ourselves, the more we can let these influences come through in our playing without sounding derivative.

It’s true, and we can hear it in Jarrett’s playing. Sometimes he uses the most common blues licks, yet he still sounds unique. Because he’s confident in his own identity as a player.

All of this came to my mind as I performed at the historic United Palace in upper Manhattan last weekend. I was asked to put together a few songs for one of their Open Heart Conversations, before and after the lecture itself. They cover all types of spirituality in the series, and this particular program was about Christianity. So of course I included my favorite Spiritual, called Deep River.

I often play this piece in a kind of Aaron Copland meets Keith Jarrett way, but when actually began the introduction, onstage at the beautiful United Palace, the influence of Duke Ellington unexpectedly popped up.

Although Ellington is one of my favorite pianists, his influence is a little more subtle in my playing. For example, I don’t often use his type of chord voicings. But last weekend I did! I’m not sure why, but they just “happened,” and it was fun. Rather than suppress this and try to play Deep River the way I usually do, I went with it and let the song take me on a journey. A journey to the land of Ellingtonia, with a little Jarrett thrown in for good measure.

You’ll see what I mean on the video. Deep River begins at 1:22:10 and you’ll hear the influence of Duke Ellington right away.

Deep River: from Open Heart Conversation

Who are your favorite pianists? Do you embrace their influence, or try to push it away? Or perhaps you sound too much like them to the point of being derivative. If that’s the case, then how can you bring more of “yourself” into the equation without losing what you’ve learned from their playing?

These are important questions to ask ourselves, particularly during those times when we hear an influence like this begin to emerge from our playing, as it did for me during last week’s performance.

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