What’s your “angle” when playing jazz ballads on piano?

Have you ever noticed how differently different jazz pianists play ballads? Listening to, say, Art Tatum and Keith Jarrett play the same tune, it almost seems like they’re in entirely different genres. A big part of this is because different pianists emphasize different aspects of the music in their playing. They have a different “angle” on playing. Different priorities.

What’s your personal approach to playing jazz ballads?

One way to go about it is to emphasize melody above all else. “Sing” the melody with a smooth, legato touch. Improvise a beautiful melodic solo, aiming for simplicity and purity of phrase.

Another approach is to explore reharmonization. Find lots of creative chord substitutions that will take you and your listeners on a harmonic journey through chordal color, tension and release, and fresh combinations of sounds.

Still another “angle” is that of pianistic texture. Left hand arpeggios, right hand tremolos, rhythmic interplay between the hands, slow stride, block chords, inner-voice motion, counterpoint, open voicings, etc. The piano is an orchestra unto itself and we can take full advantage of its textural possibilities.

Most pianists emphasize one of these angles over the others. Bill Evans emphasizes melody. Herbie Hancock values reharmonization. Art Tatum; pianistic texture. Yes, they usually incorporate the other elements as well, but there is a personal preference and this emphasis may shift at times.

What’s your priority when playing jazz ballads? Are you a melodicist? Are you fascinated by alternate harmonies? Or do you love to explore the piano’s textural possibilities?

Looking into each of these singly and in combination will yield a lifetime of fresh, creative growth for us as pianists. And ballads are a perfect place for us to do this because they move slowly and give us plenty of time to think, listen, and reflect.

I recently did this myself, on the great Henry Mancini ballad “Dreamsville.” Mancini was so popular for his movie music (“The Pink Panther,” “Moon River,” “Baby Elephant Walk”) that his talent for jazz is sometimes overlooked. If you haven’t heard “Dreamsville” before, have a listen. See which of the above musical elements I explore at different times, and then try it yourself on this song or another of your choice.

Dreamsville: Journey Through The Real Book #102

Have fun, enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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