By Chris Naughton
For many years, while playing in various jazz bands, I have heard different expressions used by musicians to describe the work of the accompanist in a jazz ensemble. Some would say that as the pianist your role is to keep the rhythm, others that the pianist or guitarist plays the changes. Often the accompanists would be called the engine room, which has to make sure that make the comping goes with the soloist.
What does all this mean?
Gradually I have got to know what musicians are talking about when they use these terms. The rhythm isn’t so much the rhythm (the drums usually take that role in providing a beat), but as the accompanying instrument you are to some extent emphasising the rhythm or the accents in the music.
For example, in a swing number like Take the A Train by Duke Ellington, there is an emphasis on each beat of the bar as well as off beats. In the big band version this is very pronounced, but in a small combo, a jazz term for combination or small band, the work in emphasising the beats falls to the accompanying musician, be it the pianist or guitarist. This is where the expression comping comes from, as it is short for accompaniment.
What is good comping?
Having worked out what comping is, what makes good comping? As a jazz musician you do not have much to go on when you sit down to play. Sometimes you have no music at all as you are supposed to know the chord changes off by heart.
If someone says, “We’re using the I got rhythm changes”, that means as soon as the key is announced you follow a set pattern used by George Gershwin (1898 -1937) in his song I got rhythm. Other songs using a similar pattern are Anthropology, Dexterity, Oleo, Steeplechase, Cottontail, Moose the Mooche, Lester Leaps In and the theme to The Flintstones. However, that is just the chords that you will play in jazz; it is what you play in those chords that makes the comping special.
Pianists, like myself, are brought up thinking chords consist of the three notes. The root, say C, the third (E) and the fifth (G). In my training, which was classical, the seventh appeared at a late stage to give chords such as C7 (C, E, G, Bb). In Jazz, after the experiments by such great musicians as Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and in more recent times, Bill Evans, we can look at chords as far more complex, not even having the root as that is played by the bass.
Accompanists often play the third, flattened 5th, minor 9th, 13ths., sharp and flattened 11ths! As well as a variety of notes, hardly recognisable as the original chord, the comping musician has to weigh up what kind of fill he or she might add.
Fill, as the word suggests, is adding small melodic fragments that fill the texture. If the singer has a long note, then the job of the comping musician is to fill the space with some notes that might bring out the underlying harmonic potential in the chordal structure. This will vary enormously depending on what style you are working in. If it is mainstream jazz, then all kinds of harmonic twists and turns can be implied. If, on the other hand, you are playing a pop jazz number, from artists such as by Queen or a Hank Williams, then the harmony might not be too complex, and the voicing needs to reflect this being simpler in harmonic terms.
Here we come across another jazz word. Voicing, means the arrangement and feel of the notes used in support of the melody line, which may be a simple melodic line played in an interesting rhythmic sequence. This will work well in a country blues arrangement.
What matters most
For me the most important part of comping is to work with the singer or instrumentalist providing support and at times playing ‘off’ the melodic line to create a tension at different points in the arrangement. Comping is a balance between support and allowing the melodic line to have its own integrity. That way you create a sense of drama in the musical texture, not a feeling that as you are comping you being dictated to by the original melody. Jazz is nothing if not invention and good comping always achieves this balance between invention and keeping the shape of the original number.