Monday, February 8, 2010

The Inescapable Hell of Solo Jazz Piano

I'm mostly a trombonist, but play piano nearly as well, and have always played gigs on both instruments. And the thing that makes me, like many other pianists, ready to drive an ice pick through my forehead is that there is seemingly no way to perform solo jazz piano without having nearly every civilian in the room instantly think "cocktail piano!". Even if you're playing very spontaneously, very non-glibly, very swingingly, and otherwise showing no resemblance at all to the stylings of rancid, corny cocktail pianists. Play a couple of dense chords in a row on a piano and you will find yourself, like a wooly mammoth specimen, locked into inescapable quicksand for all eternity.

Imagine if whenever a fine painter created a solid block of color, he was identified as a "house painter". Or if anytime a ballerina swung her hips, audiences assumed her to be a stripper.

But wait, it's so much more twisted than even that. Because, you see, the archetypal cocktail pianist is nothing but a
bad version of a real jazz pianist. So even though you're playing the way a cocktail guy vainly tries to play - dreams he could play - you are deemed as cheesy as he is, because you "sound like" him by virtue of the very medium. There's a paradox here that's so utterly, screamingly insane as to be nearly unfathomable. It's as crazy as people smirking at a Mark Rothko because whenever they see paintings they're reminded of Leroy Neiman, who, everyone knows, is such a ridiculous hack.

The mere vocabulary of jazz, when rendered on a solo piano, regardless of quality, sounds, to the untutored ear, like the sonic equivalent of Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese. And there is just no getting around it.


Big Fella said...

You can play the piano for me anytime, Jim, and I will pay attention.

Richard Gould-Saltman said...

Two words. "Theolonious" "Cecil".

Jim Leff said...

Both great, but both endured unendurable persecution and ridicule.

And I could veer intentionally from expectation by throwing away all convention, but I'm not quite as
naturally weird as those guys. My uniqueness is more suble. If I were to radically overturn everything just to affect audience response, that'd just be a different flavor of compromise.

I want to play naturally. When I do, it's distinctive enough to anyone but the 95% mainstream who deem anything beyond a triad to signify cocktail piano.

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