I enjoy listening to the car radio while driving, since I get to hear a lot of music I otherwise wouldn't hear. (After all, it's the DJ who picks the songs, not me.) One thing I've noticed in particular is that if I'm listening to jazz, most of the piano solos begin exactly the same way.
If there are a few horn players on the recording, they'll typically play the melody while the pianist plays "comps" behind them. Then the horns or guitarist will probably improvise their solos first, followed by the pianist. Now here's the thing: there's a fair amount of musical momentum built up by the time it gets around for the piano solo, and 99% of the time, the pianist will jump right in by playing 8th note lines in the middle to upper register of the piano (about an octave to a 12th above middle C.)
Nothing wrong with this, of course. These are fine, accomplished musicians I'm speaking about and they play great jazz, no question. But think about it this way: If jazz is about "self-expression," why do all these pianists choose to express themselves in exactly the same way, within this very narrow framework?
They play the same way because we all fall into patterns. "Oh, it's time for my piano solo. I guess I need to start playing something." And they just start playing. Horn players in general avoid this, as do pianists when they play the melody and launch immediately into their solo as when playing in a piano-led trio.
So back to my car ride. A jazz version of the song "Manha de Carnaval" (also known as "A Day In The Life Of A Fool") came on the radio. I hadn't heard this version before, but I could immediately hear that it was played by great musicians. I liked the sax solo and then enjoyed the vibes solo even more. When the vibes solo was ending, I couldn't help imagining that the pianist would start soloing like almost every other pianist does, as I described above.
Wow - was I ever wrong! The beginning of the solo took me entirely by surprise. I was "floored!" It might not sound like much to describe it in print, so I'll let you listen for yourself. Fresh, inspired, and yes, connected with "self-expression!"
Have a listen to "Manhde Carnival" from Dexter Gordon's album Gettin' Around. The piano solo I've been raving about, played by the great Barry Harris, starts at 5:37. Do yourself a favor and listen to the recording from the beginning, so you can hear how Harris begins his solo in a fresh way that sounds different from what came before. It immediately makes us notice him and listen to what he has to say.
Here's the recording:
Manha de Carnaval
See what's possible with improvisation? The music sounds totally fresh and "new," even though he starts out by paraphrasing the melody! And furthermore, he's not doing it to show off or impress. As you'll hear, his solo is actually pretty simple. It speaks to us directly and keeps our interest, because he's in the moment and playing from his heart, without preconceptions.
Here's the truly great news: you can do that too!
If your jazz piano playing is still a struggle for you, my jazz piano course will get you to a new level of fluency and ease.