I don’t say there’s one best use of a piano, but the wonderful single piano notes I’d like to praise here are in welcome contrast with many piano parts I dislike. All too often in jazz and rock settings it seems the piano’s role is to chatter away and create a kind of wallpaper background. I say, if there are going to be a lot of notes from a piano, it had better be an eruption of genius from Chick Corea. Or a big dose of Bartók from Keith Emerson. Or else Dr. John dripping New Orleans charm.
My complaint is aimed at the parts that piano players add to songs. Songwriter piano is another matter entirely: when the piano part is the very bones of the song, one can’t love those compositions by Paul McCartney, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, or Tori Amos (to name a few) without loving their piano.
To generalize across everybody, spare is good. It’s worth more to play fewer, more strategic notes. Elton John applies the principle gloriously in the unusual track “Bennie And The Jets.”
If someone took this claim to heart and tried to implement pure essence of spare piano, I imagine they would play widely spaced single notes—which is just what we hear, sultry low notes too, in “The Book I Write,” a song Spoon gave to the movie Stranger than Fiction.
When I listen closely to these notes, I’m a little uncomfortable with their more-than-natural sustain—God knows how they’ve been massaged electronically—but I still love the idea and the effect. The warm buzz of the low piano notes is nicely affiliated with dirtier sounds elsewhere in the track, like the increasingly buzzy pseudo-horns after 1:12.
This is one of the best examples I can find of how a piano can nail a note and with that a song section or a whole song, just as definitively as Jack Bruce nails “up” in “Sunshine Of Your Love” or Ry Cooder nails the drug blues with his first guitar note in “Sister Morphine” or someone playing a horn nails Laura Nyro’s call to “Save The Country” with an F note at the end. In all these cases a sense of something unexpectedly added combines with a sense of something absolutely central to the experience.
It’s obvious why the violent idea of “nailing” something is attractive to performers—it means they’re hitting their target, getting their wild herd of bodily efforts to converge at the right moment—but it’s very attractive to listeners too, who may not have known beforehand what the target was supposed to be. It’s always encouraging to discover that such a thing can be done. And it’s nice to be given a nailed-down point that everything can array around.
The piano note in “The Book I Write” sounds like a signature spare touch by Spoon, and there is auteurist pleasure in hearing a sound only Spoon is likely to make, but it also sounds like something more important—which is why it works so well as the beginning of Stranger than Fiction. It reminds the audience that “the true life is absent” and rouses our wonder: Where is the true life found? By what sound will it summon us?
 Thanks to Elise Smith for pointing this out.
 Thanks to Jonathan Bellman for calling attention to the note in “Sister Morphine.” Who plays the last note in “Save The Country”?