The art of the ballad
I would say that as a pianist, Bill Evans approach to playing ballads had a huge influence on my own ballad playing. I think if you really want to get inside a ballad, you have to listen to singers. Lester Young stressed the importance of knowing the lyrics to a song. He used to say, “How do you know what to play if you don’t know what the song is about?” This is especially important when dealing with a ballad. Is the song a love song? Is it celebrating love or lamenting the loss of love? That should make a huge difference in the emotion you put into the song.
“Saudade” is a word I learned from my love of Brazilian music. It has no direct translation in English. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Brazilian musicians describe it to me as a sort of happy or necessary sadness. I feel this is a necessary emotion for a ballad, too.
When playing a ballad, I try to stay attuned to the emotion of the song rather than trying to play something that is pianistically impressive. I relish the challenge of the slow tempo and the space between the notes instead of consistently changing to a double time feel for the solos after the melody has been played. I believe ballads are a necessary part of any jazz performance but should be played sparingly. That’s not to say there won’t be an uncharacteristically abundant number of them in my performance this Saturday at Les Zygomates because after all it is Valentine’s Day.