Lessons Pages

© 1999 James Walker

It seems that students spend great amounts of time and energy working on jazz soloing, but expect their comping skills to materialize out of thin air. In truth, the art of accompanying soloists is a skill unto itself, requiring just about as much attention and practice time as does melodic improvisation.

Most pianists, guitarists, and vibraphonists have access to the basic tools of chordal playing: translating chord symbols, creating voicings, etc. (For some further suggestions on this topic, please see my Chordal Jazz Vibes lesson.) There are some misconceptions, however, about the mental approach necessary to be a good accompanists in a jazz group. The following is a series of suggestions regarding one's approach to this art.

1.  Have the raw materials under your hands.   If you are just starting out in your studies of comping, this may take a few months to really get together. Spend some practice room time simply getting a handle on various voicings - play through inversions of a voicing, play through isolated ii-V7-I progressions in all 12 keys, etc. Combine this with a more musical context: pick out a favorite jazz standard, and compliment the melody with chord voicings. (Write the voicings out, if necessary, and memorize what you have written.) Do not, however, wait to finish this stage before moving on to the other suggestions here; you will probably never finish learning new chord voicings.

2.  Think (hear) melodically.  Vertical harmony, historically speaking, grew out of horizontal melodic lines. The top line in your chord voicings will stand out to the ears of most listeners, so having an interesting melody in your voicings will make your comping more interesting and more musical. Try and create interesting counterpoint to what the soloist is playing. Even if you fail (intentionally or unintentionally) to spell out the original harmony completely, the end result will be much more satisfying than simply plugging in generic voicings for each chord.

3.  Rhythm is king.  This goes hand-in-hand with thinking melodically. The rhythmic content of your comping is just as important as the voicings you use. Listen to the great guitarists and pianists as they comp, and you will hear lots of syncopation, lots of anticipations of beats (and of chord changes), and relatively few attacks right on the downbeat of a measure. Remember two other things: be aware of the releases of notes as well as the attacks; also, do not forget how valuable silence can be.

4.  Be proactive.  Establish your musical presence. One of the most overlooked elements in a great jazz performance is the energy created onstage. Often members of an ensemble are all content to stay within a preselected box, clinging to specified roles, never daring to get in anyone else's way. The only problem with this is that while it is nice and comfortable, it is dull. It is also generic, lifeless, tedious, predictable...and nobody wants to listen to it. Assertiveness is necessary, as long as players are not so stubborn that they won't give a little bit of ground during the course of a performance. The best way to learn this balance is simply to do it; play every chance you get, whether a jam session, performance, or some other context.

5.  Don't mimic the soloist.  You can tell when a player has started to reach a certain level of competence and comfort in the role of accompanist - they start to latch onto what a soloist is playing, and in some cases (especially with rhythms), start to play it along with them. Just about every player I've discussed this with agrees with me: we hate it when someone starts playing the same thing we're playing. It's like someone finishing your sentences in a conversation. What is preferable, and a little more challenging, is to create something which will compliment the soloist. Listen to recordings of great accompanists such as Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Jim Hall...listen to the solo as well as the accompaniment, and notice how the two parts fit together. Develop a sense of where the solo is leading, and what you can play which will compliment the direction of the solo while not being identical to the solo.

6.  Listen to the rest of the rhythm section.  Sometimes, this is more helpful than listening to the soloist. Here are some reference points to start with: in straight-ahead jazz, both the walking bass line and the drummer's ride cymbal pattern are quarter-note based; the rhythms of the comping instrument(s) and the drummer's snare drum are often similar in nature. Players should be conscious of these sorts of relationships between rhythm section instruments.

7.  Know your styles.  Every musical style has its conventions, and to play any style effectively, it is important to research what it is that makes a performance "authentic." There are certain rhythms which are idiomatic to bossa nova comping; swing music from the 1930s and 1940s calls for a different harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary from 1960s small group jazz. Once you know the authentic material, it is possible to inject your own creative choices and make a performance in one of these styles something unique to your own playing.

8.  Know the song.  Good comping strikes a balance between responding to what the soloist is doing, and playing in a way that retains the form and style of the tune being played. If you are not sure what to play behind the soloist, use structural points of the composition or arrangement as a starting place: key in on four- and eight-bar phrases, significant points in the harmonic progression (like a modulation to a new tonal center), etc.

9.  Practice tip:  Tape yourself comping, and solo along with the tape. This gives you some perspective of how soloist view your comping. Playing along with your own accompaniment will give you a clear idea of what works in your playing and what doesn't. If as a soloist, you dislike something on the tape, odds are that a soloist will dislike playing against that same thing in performance. (This tip is especially helpful if you are at a stage in your career where you are spending more time practicing than performing.)

10.  Don't aim for "perfection."  The act of improvising music is fluid by nature. With three or more players all manufacturing their parts on the spot, clashes are inevitable. There is no way to know exactly what someone else is going to do until it actually takes place. If, as an accompanist, you simply aim to create something which is musical in its own right, and you allow yourself to alter your playing to suit a given situation, then the end results - for both the performers and listeners - will be more enjoyable than a "flawless" performance.

(This page and all the materials within copyright ©1999 James Walker, All Rights Reserved.  No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)

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