Some thoughts on comping

Accompanying on jazz piano, jazz guitar or jazz vibes - Introduction

A piano player, guitar player or vibes player accompanies someone singing or playing the melody, accompanies one or more improvised solos and only gets to solo a very small percentage of the time. Since they are accompanists most of the time, it is important that they accept that role and the challenge of providing good accompaniment! If you don’t enjoy accompanying others, you should probably perform solo or switch to a different instrument! But once you experience the musical high of being part of a good rhythm section, you will realize a lot of satisfaction. It is a great example of the saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts!”

Accompanying on jazz piano, jazz guitar or jazz vibes - Who plays?

As chord instrument players, we might think of ourselves as a business called “Chords Are Us.” Our main job is to supply the sound of the harmony when the melody is being played or sung and to accompany improvised solos. But if there are three chord instruments in the group, it can easily become cluttered up with chords and rhythms! A good horn player doesn’t need anyone to play chords for him or her! Normally, the ideal is to have only one chord instrument, piano, guitar or vibes. But it is possible to have any two of the three and even all three in a group. The George Shearing Quintet used to have all three!

If there are two or three chord instruments, each should play a lot less then they would if the other was not there or they can simply take turns. One might comp for one solo and then lay out and let another comp for the next. Any of the players can lay out sometimes too thus creating a nice change of texture. Also, two or more instruments could play at the same time with each doing something different. For example, the pianist might play a rhythmic figure, the guitarist could play a sustained chord (sometimes called a “pad”) and the vibes might double a melodic line with a horn player.

Accompanying on jazz piano, jazz guitar or jazz vibes - How?

Mainly, just stay out of the way of the soloist but try to reinforce, punctuate in between the soloist's ideas and make him or her feel comfortable! A good reality check is to ask yourself at various times, "Can I sing back what the soloist just played?" If you can't, it may mean that you are not listening close enough. I'll always remember that Clark Terry used to stand at the end of the keyboard and I would hear him singing licks I played right after I played them. He wasn't an accompanist but I was impressed that he was "in the flow" of the music at all times and aware of everything that was going on. Another thing that C. T. used to do (and most great leaders will) was to play certain ideas now and then that really demanded that the rhythm section catch obvious accents with him. It was his way of seeing if we were listening and paying attention!

Accompanying on jazz piano, jazz guitar or jazz vibes - Attitude!

Remember, you will be expected to be a strong soloist but that's not why people will ask you to play. I believe the term “comp” comes from the word complement. If you complement the soloist and make him or her feel good on the bandstand, you will always be asked to play! The right attitude is about 95% of being successful as an accompanist. If you don't like to accompany, you will probably not be a successful sideman who is sought after.

Accompanying on jazz piano, jazz guitar or jazz vibes - Listening!

The important word in accompanying is "Listening". You have to listen for a number of things like what kind of sound you hear, or where to punctuate (or complete) the soloist's idea. Do what comes naturally but listen to pianists whose comping you think is good and see how they react to a soloist. I suggest listening to Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, and other pianists who have recorded as a sideman with leading figures in jazz.

A good soloist will generally leave some space between ideas for the rhythm section to react or fill in. Remember though, sometimes you don't react; you just try to create a feel. Just as a drummer plays a repetitive figure on the ride cymbal and the bass player walks 1/4 notes, a chord instrument player may use a repetitive figure and let the soloist float over the top of that. There's too many approaches to begin to list them all but one idea might be to try to be part of the solo, don't just play along with it! If you are listening carefully to the soloist you can often anticipate an accent in the melodic line and reinforce that with the soloist!

The Jamey Aebersold playalong series gives you opportunity to study good comping by professional musicians!


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