Melodic Comping – Stronger than voice-leading


Voice leading is a great tool, but the strongest musical principle is probably melody. And that is also true when you are comping. Melody will tie things together and overrule voice-leading just as it does when you are making a chord melody arrangement.
I get asked a lot about how I think about the different extensions and alterations that I use in my comping. In this video I will show you some examples of how I comp thinking of a melody and harmonizing it at the same time. It is very similar to the how you approach chord solos and it is a very useful tool when making the comp sounding as a complete musical statement instead of a bunch of chords next to each other.
It also demonstrates how I focus on melody rather than trying to think of which extensions I want to include in the voicings.

To explain how I think about this I am going to take a turnaround in G major. I’ll use that to go over some exercises for each of the chords and then give you three examples of how I might comp through that progression. 

The exercises

To be able to play melodies with a chord we need a set of voicings so that we can play around in the scale.

In this lesson I chose to use Drop2 voicings. The reason for this is that if you know your drop2 inversions then you already have 4 of the 7 notes covered. Another good reason is that drop2 voicings are very useful in general for jazz comping.  You can check out more on Drop2 voicings here: Jazz Chord Essentials – Drop 2 voicings – Part 1

The Am7 chord

Since the key of G major we can harmonize all the notes of G major with an Am7 voicing.

That gives us this exercise:

The only choice that needs a small explanation is the F#. When you harmonize an F# with an Am voicing then you get an Am7(13). The Am13 sound is not so useful in a II V I in G because the point of the Am7 is to suspend the F# until we get to the D7. That means that you probably won’t be using this chord that much.

The D7 chord 

The  D7 is harmonized using an F#m7(b5) voicing, which produces the sound of a D9. If you want to check out more on how to add extensions to drop2 chords then you can check out this lesson:  Jazz Chord Essentials – Drop 2 voicings part 3
The 2nd voicing has a G in the melody and then it is easier to make the voicing into a D7sus4 chord because having the G over the F# is not sounding that great.

The Tonic, Gmaj7

When comping a melody with a Gmaj7 chord there are two notes that need a bit of attention. When the root is in the melody it is often not that nice to have a maj7th under it, so in that case you can change it into a G6 chord (first chord in the example under here). The other note is a C, which I chose to harmonize with an Am7 voicing in this example. When you are comping you will not have to play a Gmaj7 with a C in the melody for any longer period (unless there’s something wrong with music 🙂 )

The E7, dom7th to Am7

The final chord is an E7. E7 is not actually diatonic to the G major scale. It serves as a secondary dominant to take us back to the Am7. The scale that I harmonize is then the scale that I would use to improvise over it: A harmonic minor.
The scale is harmonized with chords derived from a G#dim which produces an E7b9 sound. The only place where I change it is when we have the A in the melody. At that point I opted for an E7sus4(b9) (or Bm7b5/E)

The first turnaround example

Now that we have some chord voicings we can start making a simple melody and harmonize that.
In general I am using a step wise melody because we want the comp to have a natural feel with a lot of rest.
Since the melody is really strong I don’t really have to be concerned with voice-leading when playing and can just focus on the melody, which is also a lot easier to hear and relate to musically.
As you can see the melody is moving in 2nds and 3rds.

Turnaround using motiefs

Focusing on the melody means that we can use all the same ideas to connect the chords across the whole progression together that we use when soloing. In the example below I am starting with a two note motief that is then moved through the Am7, D7 and Gmaj7 chords. From there it is varied and use to resolve from the E7 to an Am7 chord.

Turnaround with altered chords.

From a melodic point of view the altered chords are often going to work as chromatic passing notes. In the example below. In this example the D7 altered is harmonizing an Eb (or D#) that resolves to the 6th(E) of G. The E7 is also played as an altered chord with the G and the F in the melody.


I hope you can use this way of thinking to get started playing a more melodic comp and make some exercises that will help you from having to spend energy and time on worrying about which extensions you want in the chord while playing.
To me that is the biggest benefit of this approach and using it will free you up to be more available to interact with the rest of the people you play with, and especially the soloist you are comping.

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Melodic Comping – How to get started

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