The most fun part of playing Jazz is playing with others and in the band shape the music together while you are playing. And when you are comping, that is a huge part of what you are doing, but a lot of the most important things about comping are not taught in lessons online and not in books on chords. So that is what I want to talk about in this video: Things that I learned, mostly from the people I played with or the people that hired me, and I have also found some great stories from some amazing musicians that explain it.
#1 Play The Chords
Even if it is not only about the chords, then you still need to be able to play the chords and get the harmony across, or the last thing you will hear on the gig is “Your Fired”
and have a basic understanding of what extensions are available in that song.
But it is incredibly important to remember what the overall goal is: Play the harmony in a way that fits with the music, so in this case the rest of the band.
This is what you need to focus on: build a practical and flexible chord vocabulary instead of learning complicated chords as grips that are sometimes difficult to play and that you can’t do anything with.
You want to try to not get stuck with a static chord, and focus on learning the voicings so that they are things you can improvise with. If you want a vocabulary of chords that helps you turn the symbols into music then this is the way. (b-roll)
It isn’t complicated: If you have a Bb7,
throw away the root. reduce it to the core.
Sit down and learn the other options and think of them as a small scale you can use on top of that chord
#2 Make It Into Music
If you approach chords and songs like this then the next skill gets a lot easier. Check out how Nir Felder Explains it, because he really nails it!
It is very often that I have students telling me how they are practicing chord inversions, but it is very rare that they talk about practicing comping.
And there IS a way to work towards playing music and not just feeding chords to a soloist.
When you practice, you need to play the song and make the music your priority. You are not just a robot interpreting a page in iReal.
So spend some time practicing comping a song and make that feel and sound good. You need to go beyond just playing a II V I or practicing voicings, and instead, also work towards playing entire songs. There you can try to make melodies in your comping that work, take riffs through the progression, and make them into music.
#3 Communicate With The Band
Most comping lessons talk about how you should listen to the soloist, but actually, something else is at least as important if not more important.
Because, when you are comping then you need to get what you play to work together with the rest of the band, and think together with the rhythm section, especially the drummer.
Lewis Nash talks about it in this clip:
When you comp then you shape the music in that conversation with the drummer. I was lucky that I got the chance to play with some drummers that explained this to me early on and it is a bit strange that this is not talked about more also because it really makes playing together so much more fun.
With the rhythm section, you chose to be:
Play sustained chords:
loud, or soft and that is a huge part of how the music sounds. Of course, you are also listening to the soloist and the bass player, but most of this happens when you lock in with the drummer, and I really think that is the backbone of any great rhythm section.
The way to start working on this is really with listening, I especially like the Wynton Kelly trio with Miles
or with Wes
for this, there are many great examples, and in my opinion, most of the good ones are piano, not guitar, which may be a painful truth…
Another tip is also to start checking out how drummers teach comping because I think we could really learn something from that, maybe that could be another video in fact. Let me know in the comments.
#4 Don’t Get in the Way
When I was still just getting started with Jazz then one of the first people that I really liked for the way he could comp was Russel Malone. I heard him playing behind Diana Krall and used a lot of that to figure out how to play behind singers. I also got to hear that trio live with Diana Krall, Ben Wolfe, and Russel Malone and at that concert, Russel took the solos so far out but still managed to bring us back home safely. That concert really blew my mind with harmonic things that sounded great but where I also had no idea what it was.
One of the things that is almost always a problem when you learn to comp is that you overplay. You practice all these things and then when you are in the band you want to use everything at once, and it ends up ruining the whole thing.
Comping is really like a conversation, you don’t open up a conversation by for example listing 25 Amazing and unknown facts about sheep.
This is also about getting that connection with the rest of the band that I already talked about, so it can be good to first focus on locking in with the drummer and the soloist. You can do that by leaving room with longer chords or more sparse comping in the beginning. That will give the freedom to take the music in a direction, and you can try to hear where they want to go.
#5 When To Push/ When To Support
Another aspect of comping is communicating with the soloist and figuring out when to push with more things happening in terms of density, rhythm, or harmony and when to lay back and supply a foundation for the soloist. When I have been playing as a sideman then I was often surprised by how this was very different from soloist to soloist. Some are really looking for ideas and communication and others just want something to play over without any interference. And this is really about trying to feel if the soloist is comfortable or not, it is a bit vague, but you do want to be aware.
As a soloist, I have had experiences playing a gig and when you start going to other places and reharmonizing the song then the piano player will very clearly spell out the original changes as if you are playing something wrong, or you take a solo and after playing one altered dominant then all the maj7 chords are maj#5 and the dominants are 13b9 chords because somebody practiced upper-structure triads that morning.
It is difficult to get this right but it is very important to be aware of, especially if you want to get called for another gig, and again it is something that I mostly picked up talking to people I played with and asking what they think, but you have to look out with that as well because you get great advice but sometimes you get presented with myths about how it works by someone who doesn’t know how it works or just can’t explain it.
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