Reflections on Solo Piano

The following was originally divided between eight posts.  I’ve combined them for better fluency.

– – – –

A few weeks ago, Peter Hum sent me some questions on playing solo piano.  My answers are here.

Performing solo piano has a number of challenges.  Performing solo piano regularly means more challenges.  I’d like to reflect on these in the next few posts, expand on my answers to Peter’s questions and pose a few of my own.

“What do I do with my left-hand!?”

It’s a common question that comes from pianists first getting acquainted with playing solo piano. A pianist’s answer will reveal much about his/her solo-piano concept and approach, and specifically, how he/she balances prepared music with improvised music.

Side note: I wish more pianists would ask this question when playing with a trio/ensemble!

In my opinion, the degree in which jazz pianists balance prepared music with improvised music is often miscalculated.  This is particularity true with solo playing and to a lesser extent, trio playing.

My transcriptions have shown that the balance often leans more toward prepared music than listeners may think.  For example, take a look at my transcription of Bud Powell’s Parisian Thoroughfare; every A-section, head-in and head-out, is played virtually the same every time!  What does this say about Powell’s concept and approach?

My interpretation is that we’re listening to something that’s a result of many hours of reading, studying, listening, transcribing, brainstorming, deconstructing, crafting, recording, practicing, practicing and practicing. Most excitingly: it’s also evolving!  Most importantly, this performance is not completely ‘off-the-cuff.’  Powell had some things prepared and worked out.

Another example: Isn’t it ironic that YouTube’s most watched, solo-piano video by one of the world’s greatest improvisers is heavily prepared?

What is Keith’s left-hand doing?  How do you think he worked that out?

There’s no magic formula, only practice.

(Part 2)

The jazz tradition is known for improvisation and spontaneity, but the tradition has also accepted certain degrees of prepared music; the community doesn’t always realize this!

Every improviser has, and is experimenting with his/her own balance between the two.  Personally, I’m interested in how solo pianists keep this balance.  I’m finding that compared to other instrumentalists they’re more often exploring and wrestling with the two extremities.

With all this in mind, I use these three solutions to answer the question I posed in the previous post (“What do I do with my left-hand!?”):

  1. I give my left-hand something specific to play (prepared)
  2. I give my left-hand something to play within a concept (prepared/improvised)
  3. I just play (improvised)

In my responses to Peter’s questions I mentioned that improvisation is a creative act of regurgitating vocabulary.  This means giving my left-hand something specific to play (like in Keith’s YouTube video) may be part of a grander process of acquiring vocabulary.  If my goal is to eventually improvise with my left hand, I need to build a more extensive vocabulary so that I can either freely regurgitate within a particular concept, or feel comfortable regurgitating something ‘off-the-cuff.’

Side note: I wish more pianists would ask: “What do I do with my right-hand!?”

Let me clarify the word “vocabulary.”  In this context, it seems to insinuate harmonic vocabulary, melodic vocabulary and rhythmic vocabulary, but I intend it to represent much more including phrasing, form, energy, touch, balance, shape, range, control, performance practices and every music-making variable that could apply to improvisation and performing. If pianists want to hold their own playing two sets of solo piano, I would encourage them to acquire vocabulary that includes all of these things.

Sometimes that means reaching into a tradition that extends beyond jazz.

(Part 3)

Jazz piano is only an extension of a much broader, 300+ year old keyboard tradition (an extension that could use more exploring, I might add!).  There are many non-jazz composers and pianists who have contributed to a massive body of repertoire that explores every extremity of piano playing.

Is it necessary to check out the classical piano tradition to play meaningful music?  No.

Is it necessary to check out the classical piano tradition to understand and appreciate the piano to its fullest capacity?  Yes!  I should add that just as the jazz community listens for acknowledgement of the jazz tradition, the piano community listens for acknowledgement of the piano tradition.

For this reason, my practice schedule usually includes music from two pianists, one from the jazz community and one from the broader piano community. This is where traditions collide: jazz and classical, improvised and written music. Currently, it’s Bud Powell and George Gershwin.  Previously, it has been Fred Hersch and Glenn Gould (J.S. Bach).  Later this year, I think it will be Monk and Stravinsky.  I check ‘em out until I can’t take ‘em anymore!

My view is that building vocabulary trumps all considerations regarding jazz vs. classical, or improvised vs. written music.  If it moves me, I don’t hesitate to study it, learn it and maybe incorporate it into my performing repertoire.  Of course, this requires an extra consideration, as I mentioned in my answers for Peter:

“I ask myself two things:  1) Does this composition move me?  2) Am I capable of sharing/re-creating this experience for my audiences?  If the answer to both questions is “yes,” I’ll take steps to incorporate that composition into my performance rep.”

But it all gets incorporated into my vocabulary:  Music vocab, piano vocab, improvisatory vocab or otherwise!

(Part 4)

The question I ask in “Which is More Impressive?” is a bit loaded.  Both options are honourable undertakings that require serious discipline and have their own set of challenges.  But besides building vocabulary, there’s another reason why performing written music is important to me.

Through studying written music, I’ve gained an appreciation and often strive for a perfect realization in a score.  A perfect score means that every music-making material is in perfect synchronicity with one’s tastes.  Personally, if I consider a score perfect, I wouldn’t dare waiver from the written music; it doesn’t require any amount of improvisation or embellishment; it’s perfect just the way it is!  It just requires execution.

Side Note: Striving for a perfect realization has implications for composing too, but these posts will only deal with performing.

My experience as a solo pianist has shown that performing written music or heavily prepared music poses some problems. I’m always wrestling with physical issues, aesthetical issues with audiences and subsequently, issues getting gigs.  I’d like to reflect on these in the next few posts.

Beginning with a physical issue:

Performance repertoire that’s written or heavily prepared requires maintenance. And harder music means more maintenance.  Memory fades!  Maintenance is unavoidable, but there are things you can do to minimize it.  Here are my answers to Peter’s questions:

“I wish I could have my entire performance repertoire in my immediate repertoire, but memory fades and maintenance can be very time-consuming…It’s a balancing act. If I put more tunes in my immediate rep, then I won’t have as much time to learn new rep.  If I spend more time on new rep, then I’ll have less time to spend on maintaining my immediate rep.  I think I’ve found a balance that works for me.

Generally, I derive balance from my concert programming, which is always changing and evolving.  I don’t maintain repertoire that I don’t intend to perform!  I’d be very interested to know how maintenance differs from pianist to pianist.  How long does it take them to bring repertoire back to a performance level after not playing it for a certain amount of time?  What factors are involved?  How did they find their balance?

(Part 5)

Another physical issue is regarding multi-tasking, which I’ve written about here and here.

It’s physically impossible for humans to multitask.  In this performance, Keith’s focus isn’t on his left-hand…at least not while he’s being creative in his right.

Brad Mehldau is another good example.  Have a closer listen when you think his hands sound totally independent; one hand is on autopilot playing an ostinato, some arpeggio pattern or a rhythmic filer.  What’s impressive is that the autopilot lasts for very short durations!

As I said in previous posts, playing written music and prepared music is my way of building a vocabulary for improvisation and often deals with hand independence and the issue of multi-tasking.  Once I learned about this physical limitation, approaching solo piano was much less daunting.

(Part 6)

The following sums up many of the aesthetical issues; Peter Hum received this message from an Ottawa Jazz fan (I’ll call him Joe):

“Should I go to Paradiso Saturday evening?  Do you think Chris will play anything different? As good as his solo work is, I’ve heard it enough – his CD, last gig at Paradiso, and the JazzWorks fundraiser. I await your guidance.”

Peter asked for a response from me and I wrote:

“Listeners may be interested and find enjoyment in every facet of music-making.  This could include process, evolution, creation and re-creation.  I can’t change their interests; all I can do is share mine.”

For some people, there isn’t enough variety in solo piano performances (no matter how good you are!).  For others, spontaneity is the highest virtue, and there isn’t enough variety in written/prepared music (especially after the second or third listen!). When I started exploring solo piano, I predicted that I would encounter listeners like Joe.  Of course, if I were exploring trio music, I’d encounter listeners like Bob.  You can’t please everybody.

My experience has shown me that, there are more Joes than there are Bobs in the jazz community.  Many clubs aren’t interested in solo piano.  If they are, then they’re often only interested in one short set or an opening set.  Before I released ‘Solo,’ I spoke to a record company who was interested in working with me, but only if I was releasing a trio record.  They told me that solo piano records are more successful if they’re released by artists who already have a reputation for playing in ensembles.  Apparently, that’s how it’s “usually done.”

Here are two good questions: Could a Joe ever become a Bob? Whose job is it to convert him?

In the meantime, my marketing plan is simple: Find the Bobs; ignore the Joes.

(Part 7)

In July 2008 I participated in the Nottingham National Jazz (Solo) Piano Competition.  Twenty minutes before we performed in the final round, we were each notified that we had to alter our predetermined programs to include a blues.  The judges were sending a message: Solo jazz pianists should be adaptable and spontaneous.  I was very disappointed; their aesthetic undoubtedly contradicted my own.

Solo pianists have the freedom and luxury to access a vastly wide spectrum of musical vocabulary and repertoire.  I consider adaptability and spontaneity a means to an end.  More ironically, I consider them limitations, both physically and aesthetically.  Besides, what use is adaptability when you have no ensemble to adapt to?  What use is spontaneity when it would spoil a perfect score?

Of course to a certain degree, adaptability and spontaneity are important skills for solo pianists.  I always need to adapt to the piano, the room, the audience and their energy.  But judges requiring a last minute substitution of a Blues to test adaptability assume a very shallow view of adaptability, especially in a solo piano setting.

Side note: The Nottingham judges also criticized me for sounding “too Classical.”  Their aesthetic undoubtedly and severely contradicted my own!

(Part 8 )

I decided to pursue solo piano for a number of reasons.  One reason was because of its lack of representation.  What do you think the ratio is between ensemble jazz pianists versus solo jazz pianists? How many jazz pianists have released more solo records than ensembles records?  My guess is that it’s very unbalanced. I see an opportunity; there’s a void to be filled!

Side Note: Why is it unbalanced?  Is the community to blame? The pianists?  The listeners? The business?  The tradition?

I’ve come to terms with many of the aesthetical issues surrounding solo piano.  I mentioned previously that I can’t change listeners’ interests and that all I can do is share mine.  But then again, maybe I can change their interests…

From part 6: “Could a Joe ever become a Bob? Whose job is it to convert him?”

If Joe represents an individual, then no, I don’t think he can ever change.  But if Joe represents the culture or community, then yes, change is possible…gradual change.  After my performance at Hermann’s in Victoria BC in October, I had a number of listeners comment that they wished Hermann’s would host more solo piano performances.  That’s a start!

It was a magical evening; solo pianists can make powerful impressions. My hope is for students to pursue the glory of solo piano, as I am.

You can expect much more solo piano from me in the coming years!

Thanks for reading!

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