A piano player can play with a band or be the band.
Good solo piano playing, the kind that people will pay you money to do on a regular basis, has everything a band has. Good time, bass, accompaniment, melody, and sometimes singing.
The best lesson I learned about solo piano playing came from the General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Aspen, Colorado. I recently moved into town and was auditioning for them by playing a private cocktail party they were hosting.
The manager chatted with me during a break and said he liked my playing but it seemed to be thin, like there was something missing. He couldn't describe it, but I instantly knew what he was talking about.
When the next set started, I stopped being the jazz piano player taking a solo all night long and turned into the sophisticated cocktail pianist who improvised complex arrangements of jazz standards, pop tunes, and other styles. I still jammed on Giant Steps but I wrapped it in enough tastiness that my audience enjoyed it, and, I got the job.
To be a good solo pianist you have to spend time at the piano because your fingers need to know how the notes play.
Here's a tip: practice in the dark.
I think practicing in the dark was key, and a necessity for me. The music building didn't allow students past 10pm so when I would break in through the bathroom window and then pick the lock on a classroom door to get at the piano, it was good to keep the lights turned off.
Note: Find the lead sheet for "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise" - it's a necessary standard and can be found in the old real book and the new real book and probably online.
Step 1: Learn the Tune
Our goal is to know the tune so well that we can do anything we want to it, any time we want to. We never have to play it the same way twice or we can play it the same every single time if we choose.
Memorize it as quickly as possible. Do what George Cables does. He told me he'll learn a new tune by playing the chart then turning it over so he can't see it and playing it again, and repeating the process until he knows it.
This method works because it's an exercise in deliberate thinking. You're not going along with the music on the page, you are thinking about what you just played, recognizing patterns, and trying to recall. You'll learn a tune in a fraction of the time this way.
If you're just starting out, the best way to learn the tune is to play the melody and bass notes a few times. No chords, just melody and bass. It keeps things precise.
It helps if you know the song your'e trying to learn, that is, if you can sing the melody and know what the harmony should be.
It's always easier to learn a tune on the piano if you already know it.
VERY IMPORTANT: Work out trouble spots!
Musicians have a tendency is to skip over trouble spots because we don't like them. Even worse, there's a tendency to play a mistake and then go back and play it right. You know what that does? You just practiced your mistake! Obviously, this is BAD. It's important to start at the point of trouble and work outwards.
Fix the notes in the trouble spot, then go back a few measures. Never, ever, start at the trouble spot because it will make the trouble spot even more troubling!
Try slowing down when going through trouble spots in music. It's much more beneficial to play trouble spots slowly and correctly that it is to go at speed and make mistakes.
Step 2: Left Hand
The left hand is our bass player, and sometimes drummer, and for many, the weakest link in their solo playing.
Why is this? It's because jazz piano players usually concentrate on the right hand. This works for group playing, but in solo playing the entire piano is waiting.
You need a strong left hand.
A good method of learning a tune AND helping your left hand is the technique given to me by a piano great named Jerry Gray. I only had one lesson with him, but talked to him a couple other times and once asked him about Giant Steps, a tune by John Coltrane.
Mr. Gray said to play the bass notes and melody notes at the same time in the left hand.
You know what? That method works, and for the same reasons George Cables' method works: it forces us to be deliberate.
We'll take a look at the first four bars and fill out the left hand just a bit, playing the bass note and the 7th or 3rd depending on the sound.
You'll notice that the sound fills out somewhat and begins to take on a more stylistic edge.
This time we will give it a more "stride" feel, where your left hand plays a bass note or chords then jumps up to play a chord.
Here's another example:
If the melody notes are busy, make the accompaniment, the left hand, more calm.
Step 3: The Right Hand
Let's try playing the melody in the 'A' section, note for note as it is written. Read the words, sing them out loud.
The words can give you a very good idea of what the composer was looking for as far as style and such goes. Simple melodies like this one leave a lot of room for doing what you want.The melody is the singular most important aspect of learning and playing a song like this.
Let's try the melody with two notes at once in the right hand. When the melody moves down, the harmony moves up, and vice versa. Play the melody notes on top, the harmony notes on the bottom and then try switching it up, and also try it in the left hand.
This one is a mixture of single notes and chords. Make sure the melody doesn't get lost in the mix. The "softly_6" midi file has the single note version and this version.
Step 4: Putting it all together
The one rule that rules them all is: If the melody notes are busy, make the accompaniment, the left hand, more calm. Here's an example of both hands.
Solo piano is a matter of personal taste and the more you play the piano in the dark, the better it be. Record your solo piano sessions and play them back. Do you like them? If not, change what you don't like and do it again.
If I'm not back in 24 hours, call the president.
Scot is available for skype jazz piano lessons (and google hangouts, phone call, etc...)
Use the contact link at the top of the page.