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I'm having trouble building my solos on piano - starting off calm, and then building it, in order to keep it interesting for longer periods of time. On other instruments (I play saxophone as well) I'd achieve the sparse simply by playing short phrases with long rests between them. This works because the rhythm section fills the gaps, however as the piano is part of the rhythm section, I can't apply the same idea to it. Does anyone have any ideas about how to improvise in this way, or links to recordings where the pianist does improvise very sparsely?

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Why not leave some gaps? Chance to hear the bass... ;-) I think it's normal that rhythm section solos are more "airy" then horn solos. As you come from the sax, it might need some time to get used to that. – Wolfgang Aug 20 '14 at 17:23
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Bill Evans was the king of sparse playing in a trio context.

Five Ways to Play like Bill Evans

  1. Left-Hand Rootless Voicings: His four-note, rootless chord voicings consist of guide tones (thirds and sevenths), along with chord tones, color tones, extensions, and/or alterations. These compact voicings also have inherently smooth voice leading.
  2. Right-Hand Devices: Use notes from left-hand voicings in right-hand lines. Use diatonic and chromatic triads.
  3. Harmonic and Rhythmic Devices: Chord substitutions and counter-melodies in the left hand
  4. Inner Voice Movement: Intervallic minor thirds ascending chromatically in the right hand let him play over any harmonic movement without playing the actual chord changes.
  5. Locked Hands Technique: Close chord voicings with the top note doubled down an octave in drop 2 voicings.


To get to the source of Bill Evans' technique, listen to Claude Debussy.

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Without knowing exactly at which level you are I can only offer you generic solutions:

  • For a start you could use chord substitutions. Just in case you are unaware of these, see here a nice explanation with examples (for guitar though).
  • If you are not doing it already, you should detach both hands and play chords and rhythm with one hand (traditionally the left) and improvise the melody with the other (traditionally the right).

I hope it helps.

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This isn't really specific to sparse improvisation, but good advice nonetheless. – sweeneyrod Aug 4 '14 at 17:33

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