Tim's Top 10 Tips for Playing Jazz Piano
1. Listen to as much jazz as possible
The sheer diversity of styles that fall under the banner of 'jazz' can be overwhelming. Get familiar with some of the big names, past and present. If you don't know many names, make it your business to check out some of the greats, eg:
Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner,
Chick Corea, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, etc,
to mention only pianists.
Many of the above are featured in my 'Jazz Piano Library' PODCASTS on MORLEY RADIO. The SUGGESTED LISTENING sections in all my books also feature further useful pointers. Immerse yourself in the music - you can't expect to learn a language without hearing it spoken!
2. Prioritise timing over notes
Playing with a good groove and achieving a continuous flow is just as important as playing the right notes. If you find yourself hesitating at changes of chord or correcting mistakes in mid-flow, this interrupts the pulse and makes the music unlistenable. Cure this bad habit by choosing slow to medium tempos until you can play the piece accurately.
Breaking the piece down into smaller 2-or 4-bar sections is often helpful; loop any tricky passages over and over until any fingering or coordination issues are solved. Bear in mind that jazz is generally played with a metronomic pulse or 'groove' and it is not acceptable to slow down or speed up; nor should you let the music 'breathe' at cadences, as sometimes heard in classical pieces.
3. Deal with syncopation
Jazz melodies often include notes that are off-the-beat. Practise with a metronome and get into the habit of tapping a steady pulse with your foot, so as to create your own inner metronome. 'Straightening out' syncopation (placing off-beat notes ON the beat) is one of the most common errors, even with otherwise quite advanced players.
Work out which notes are ON the beat and which are OFF, and make sure any off-beat notes are played in-between the click or foot-tap. With any passages that have tricky timing, count and clap the rhythms, saying 'and' for any off-beat notes.
Almost all jazz recordings include a large proportion of improvisation; this is true of much blues and Latin music also. To embrace the jazz musician's mindset stop relying so much on the written music and strive to be creative within the framework of your piece.
Start with simple ideas, playing short one- or two-bar phrases, which make it hard to get lost. Try placing your hand over a group of 3, 4 or 5 notes and practise making up phrases based on these notes, changing their order or rhythm until you exhaust the possibilities.
5. Check your quaver feel
In STRAIGHT 8s the beat is divided evenly into two; this is common in Latin, rock or funk styles. If the piece is marked SWING 8s, pairs of quavers (eighth-notes) must be played long/short alternating, dividing the beat into three (triplet feel).
When improvising, note values should be a subdivision of the pulse, rather than floating around randomly above it. To start with, don't play anything faster than eighth-notes. Check your quaver feel and make sure it's locking in with the metronome or foot-tap. One of the most common pitfalls with beginners is the lack of a convincing swing feel.
6. Understand the harmony
If the piece has chord symbols, make sure you look at them, rather than just reading the notes; they're giving you important harmonic information. Understand the difference between major, minor and dominant chords, and look out for common sequences such as II - V - I or I - II - III. Jazz solos generally follow the harmonic structure of the piece, so you'll need to refer to the chord symbols to build your solo.
The most 'foolproof' way of improvising over any chord sequence is to stick to notes of the chords (root, 3rd, 5th, 7th), changing as necessary as the chords move by. Practising arpeggio and broken chord patterns is a useful way to prepare for your solo.
7. Hear ideas in your head
Most improvising musicians 'pre-hear' ideas a split second before playing them. Unless you hear the contour of a phrase before playing, there's a danger you'll sound like you're just moving your fingers at random! Avoid long strings of notes; give yourself time between phrases to pre-hear the next idea, just like you do when having a conversation.
The SING & PLAY tracks in the 'Beginning Jazz Piano' book are designed to help you develop this connection between hearing and playing.
8. Play with others
If you know anyone who can sing, play bass, guitar, drums, or a wind instrument, meet up and play together regularly. Make a list of the tunes you'd like to play and take turns accompanying while the other plays the melody or takes a solo. Playing bass lines on the piano is a useful accompaniment skill and will consolidate your grasp of harmony - that's why every piece in 'Beginning Jazz Piano' has a bass line provided for a friend or teacher to play.
The next best thing is to use a play-along or backing track featuring bass and drums. All my books come with downloadable audio tracks, including backings to practise with. Another great educational resource is the popular iREAL-PRO app, which allows you to select the key, tempo and feel of the backing. Playing regularly with another person or a backing track is the best way to improve your ability to play in time - and to groove.
9. Get a Fake Book
Jazz musicians rarely read from sheet music arrangements, they prefer to use LEAD SHEETS, showing just the melody line with chord symbols. For pianists these give you a lot of choice, as you have to decide what to do with the left hand. If you gave the same lead sheet to a dozen pianists they would all interpert it in different ways.
A collection of lead sheets is called a 'fake' book. The original fake book was the REAL BOOK, a bootleg publication in three volumes containing over 1000 tunes. Several legal versions are now available, published by Hal Leonard, Sher Music and others.
10. Have fun!
Don't be afraid to experiment, to take chances and be spontaneous. Jazz is the most adaptable of music forms - it's not the end of the world if you play a wrong note, or get lost, or lose the timing. The important thing is what you do next!