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?

  • 2
    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, 2014 at 17:23

3 Answers 3


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.

(Source: http://www.keyboardmag.com/lessons/1251/5-ways-to-play-like-bill-evans/28075)

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


Others have provided very good theory-based answers. Another approach to playing sparsely on the piano is to try to think like a wind instrumentalist or singer. Since the length and range of their phrases are limited by the amount of breath they can hold, singers and wind players have learned to use silence (breathing time) to make their phrases concise and distinct. Since the nature of our instrument makes it easy to tend toward verbosity, pianists have a lot to learn from this. You have a leg up, since you already play the sax.

One practice technique I have used to emulate the breathing of wind players is to blow out "puffs" of air as I play that match exactly with the phrases I'm playing. When I run out of air, I stop playing, too, and breathe in. The puffs are a sort of pitchless whistle, like saying do but with no voice, and I try to make them reflect the volume and articulation of the notes as I play them. Unlike singing or humming along with myself, the puffs have no pitch, so I can still exercise the full range of the piano, but they put an artificial constraint on the length of my phrases and make me more aware of the silences.

  • This reminds me of Glenn Gould "singing" in the background. I don't know why he did that, but I always figured it was a way to better understand the phrasing of the keyboard music. Even though it wasn't vocal music, the phrasing could be conceived from a vocal point of view. Apr 23, 2019 at 14:27
  • This gives me another idea: instead of singing along with yourself, you can try singing countermelodies to fill up the space. This is how Keith Jarrett explains his moaning.
    – Max
    Apr 24, 2019 at 1:49
  • Yes, I do that from time to time. I will pick an inner voice, and sing around that tone as the harmony changes - a type of countermelody. I didn't know this about Keith Jarrett! Apr 24, 2019 at 12:50

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.

  • This isn't really specific to sparse improvisation, but good advice nonetheless.
    – rlms
    Aug 4, 2014 at 17:33

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