What does a “good jazz pianist” sound like?

When you hear a jazz pianist who “sounds good,” have you ever asked yourself exactly what you like about the way they play? I’m not speaking about some unattainable ideal like Art Tatum or something, but simply about someone who you hear and would like to play like.

The funny thing about this question is that the immediate answers aren’t usually the ones that rally make them sound good. Sure, we may envy a pianist’s fast technique, or cool chord voicings, but these are the icing on the cake, not the real reason why that particular pianist “sounds good.”

After all, there are plenty of mediocre jazz pianists who can “play fast,” and every chord voicing in the book, and they don’t really sound that great. So let’s take the fancy stuff right off the table.

So what is it? What makes a jazz pianist “sound good.”

It’s fluency and rhythmic flexibility.

The ability to improvise in a fluent way, just as you and I can use our language to think and to communicate with others. And what’s more, we have the ability to “think on our feet” and constantly adapt the words we use according to how the conversation is unfolding. In music, this is like having rhythmic flexibility. To put that chord here and that melody note there, all according to how the music’s unfolding at this time, in this moment. Just like with language.

If we really think about it, this is what makes a jazz pianist “sound good,” not the fancy stuff. Yes, the fancy stuff is great and can come later. But it’s not enough in itself. Ironically, though, most aspiring jazz pianists spend far too much time practicing the fancy stuff.

Instead, aim for fluency. Fluency and rhythmic flexibility. Even if you only know one chord and one scale, learn to use them fluently and you’ll sound better than most beginners. And even better yet, you’ll be on your way to “sounding good” much sooner. You can always practice the fancy stuff at the same time if you wish, but spend most of your practice time aiming for fluency, and before you know it, someone will hear you play and say, “Hey, you sound good!”

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