In this article we're going to discuss categorizing jazz tunes so as to better organize your piano repertoire. A common question amongst jazz piano students that I hear often is "which tunes should I learn first?" This is really an excellent question, and one that should not be met with a one-size-fits-all answer. Perhaps a more proper way to approach this question is to ask a preliminary question: What kind of gigging, performing, or practicing are you interested in?
I approach the majority of my jazz repertoire by lumping tunes into a few different categories.
Generally speaking, I don't play tunes like "Giant Steps," "Impressions," "Donna Lee," or "26-2" on the average solo piano gig. That's because these are what players sometimes refer to as "blowing tunes," meaning they're usually called as a vehicle to feature solos and improvisation within a band. Of course, nothing prevents a pianist from playing these tunes on a solo cocktail gig but these songs are not generally thought of as such. Walk into a jazz club in New York City and any of the heavyweight bands might be playing these tunes, complete with numerous choruses of sophisticated, harmonically-dense solos. Study up on these tunes because working through them can be incredibly instructive to your understanding of chords and improvisation.
Jam Session Tunes
These are the tunes that makeup what I would refer to as "Jazz Repertoire 101" because in many different jam sessions you'll encounter the same tunes being called. "Blue Bossa," "Autumn Leaves," "All the Things You Are," "Blue Monk" (and 12-bar blues in any key, really), 'rhythm changes'... the list goes on and on. These tunes represent some of the traditional, melodic jazz fare and therefore are familiar to listeners, making them popular calls on jam sessions. Often the harmonies are diatonic (lots of ii-V progressions) which allows advancing players to craft solos by navigating through the chord scales (and isn't that the point of jam sessions, to work things out and have some fun interaction with other players?)
Cocktail Piano Tunes
When I approach a cocktail piano gig I understand that I'm providing ambient, mood-setting music. So I want to make sure that I have a large amount of solo piano, familiar, listener-friendly, melodic tunes ready to go. The operative term here is "solo piano," because I need to understand the approach I'll be taking within these tunes. In a solo context I won't have a bass player walking bass lines and providing roots of chords, nor a drummer to add rhythmic syncopation, nor a horn player to play the melody and solo. The pianist needs to do all of that alone, which requires an understanding of things such as shell voicings, arranging, and reharmonization. Some tunes I might suggest in this category include "Body and Soul," "Fly Me to the Moon," "The Days of Wine and Roses," "Georgia On My Mind," "When I Fall In Love," and "In My Life" (by the Beatles... because, yeah, we work some pop tunes in there when we can).
Create a list of tunes that you'd like to learn in order to organize your piano repertoire based upon your interests. It's also a great idea to sprinkle in some tunes from the other categories to diversify your study.