The Comping Conversation #1

Comping (accompanying and complimenting) is a critical part of a true jazz group. There are thousands of musicians who play while others are soloing, but are not comping, at least by my definition. Comping is being involved in an intimate dialogue with the soloist, as well as the rest of the group.That means you never get in the way; rhythmically, harmonically or melodically, and instead listen for every opportunity to enhance, compliment and develop the group sound. This skill is reserved for the very serious.

Your main job is to make the soloist sound great. You will push the soloist up to the line but you never cross it into obtrusiveness. Many musicians are aware of not playing too much and they end up playing uninvolved and non-stimulating backgrounds, which are truly missed opportunities for both the soloist as well as the musician comping. They sound like they are just putting up with the current soloist until they get to solo.They don’t realize that comping can be equally gratifying.

I remember many years ago playing a duo gig with bassist and Bloom alumnus, Larry Gray. I enjoyed listening to his soloing and figuring out how to make him sound his best. Comping for him involved putting musical periods, commas and exclamation marks on some of his phrases, as well as introducing set-ups for new ideas.

Back in the fifties, most pianists, bassists and drummers were expected to just play time. As that decade ended many rhythm sections became organic, elastic and responsive. Jazz groups had become much more synergistic than before.

Pianists started utilizing advanced harmonies. Bassists started to realize the tremendous power that they had with both rhythm and harmony. They could change the harmonic context and rhythm instantaneously. Also, drummers started taking liberties with underlying rhythms and grooves. In general, jazz musicians began to stretch out, sometimes too much.

Comping always reveals how well someone is musically socialized.

One of my favorite comping rhythm sections was Woody Shaw’s rhythm section including: Larry Willis, Victor Lewis and Stafford James. This group represented quintessential musical communication, selfless listening and responding creatively. Everything they played was solely in service to the music. I heard this group ten times; describing it as spectacular is an understatement.

A great comper brings the best out of the soloist, the group, as well as himself/herself.

Here are a few beginning exercises for chord musicians who truly want to comp and not just play chords behind a soloist. These exercises will help you learn what to play, when to play it and how to play it. In Comping Conversation #2, I will give drummers and bassists more specific comping exercises.
First, take a very simple D-7 to E-7 (one measure each) chord progression and do the following:

  • Be able to attack chords on all eighth note slots of a measure (on 1, 1+, 2, 2+, 3, 3+, 4, 4+).
  • Vary the duration of your chords between long and short.
  • Try playing chords of different densities from two notes (partial chords) to seven notes.
  • Always be aware of the melodies created by the highest note of each chord moving to the next chord.
  • Play chords for five choruses-start with ppp and each chorus increase the volume of each chorus till you play FF for the fifth chorus.
  • When playing in a group imitate phrases from the soloist as well as the other musicians.
  • When playing in a group answer phrases with periods.

Listen acutely to the soloist and the other musicians in order to:

1. Answer 2. Imitate 3. Play time.

These three considerations (as well as to initiate, which I’ll address in Comping Conversation #2) should be assimilated and used whether you are a bassist, chord instrument or a drummer. Like in any conversion, you should have a balance between these responses. Any of these responses used exclusively will become tediously predictable. But when you get it right, the result is what music is all about, PLAYING TOGETHER!!!

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