Alone, melody is a string of random notes floating in space. With harmony melody is interpreted. When melody is heard in the context of the harmony it is understood the emotions and purpose the composer intended with his original motif. The piano adds to both rhythmic and harmonic aspects of the music, and there are many ways among the different styles of jazz to do so. In Latin jazz a pianist may play a montuno (A repeated two- or three-chord pattern on the piano played behind the melody and instrumental solos), in swing a pianist might play a “Charleston” rhythm by laying down chords on the first downbeat and the and of the upbeat. Regardless of style the important function is outlining the changes, both to add harmonic context to the melody and to back the soloist up through ‘comping’.
Again, in almost all these styles the pianist is taking a rootless approach. They are adding extensions to give the soloists room to play and opportunities to explore the changes. They are not the focus of the music. Many times they play a repeated rhythmic pattern with changing chords, and the advent of variation here and there. Often they play in the space the rest of the band is not, filling a half measure rest with a bluesy lick. You are complimenting everyone else’s playing. You are not playing the melody, you are backing it up. The position of the piano to the side and back of the band symbolizes its function in the music.
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