In hopes of shedding some light on the difficult balancing act of jazz comping, I have transcribed the work of two great jazz pianists who were also great accompanists (or ‘compers’.) Among other things, these comping parts by Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson demonstrate how a great jazz pianist uses a chord progression like a great interviewer uses a set of questions. As I was transcribing these comping parts and the solos they accompany, and adding commentary on the interplay between soloists and accompanists to these transcriptions, I found myself awestruck by the level of split-second interplay between these great players. I was also aware how my commentary could come off like the great Peter Schickele routine where he follows Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with play-by-play sports commentary. In any case, I hope these transcriptions are helpful to players who seek to improve their responsiveness and creativity as compers or soloists.
As I transcribed these choruses from ‘Cool Struttin’ (from the Sonny Clark album of the same name) and a video of a live performance by Peterson and Clark Terry of ‘Blues for Smedley’, I was reminded of how pianists who are skilled at comping create contrasts within their own parts in a variety of ways, for example, changing from more busy comping to more sparse comping, or from comping that is more melodically static to comping which is more melodically active. In my analysis here, I call these ‘strategy changes’. In the examples shown here, Oscar Peterson and Sonny Clark change their strategy often, sometimes in response to activity in the soloist’s line, and other times to break with a comping pattern before it becomes undesirably repetitive. In both tunes the piano part doesn’t stay with a single comping approach for a whole chorus of the form, but rather tends to change every two to four bars.
Skilled compers are also able to alternate during a single solo between echoing the soloist’s ideas at some points and contrasting their ideas at other points. At a number of points in ‘Cool Struttin’ and ‘Blues For Smedley’, to my ear, both these kinds of responsive comping lead the soloist to change their strategy, either to further develop the idea being echoed in the comping (as in Art Farmer’s second chorus on ‘Cool Struttin’) or to pick up the contrasting idea being introduced in the comping (as at the beginning of Clark Terry’s third chorus on ‘Blues for Smedley’). This underlines how important it is for pianists to use strong ideas in comping, to either clearly echo the soloist’s idea or to create clear contrast with the soloist.
In the examples below, both Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson both use what I call ‘riff comping’, which uses repeating and usually simple melodic patterns either to fill spaces in the melody (which I call answering riffs) or as a counterpoint to the melodic line (which I call background riffs). Although both the examples given here are in small group contexts, both Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson’s uses of riff comping echoes the use of horn section riffs in classic big band blues arrangements such as ‘C Jam Blues’ and ‘Blues in Frankie’s Flat’. The examples here also include comping which is not connected to a repeating pattern but is rather a spontaneous response to activity in the solo line; I call these answer comping. Sonny Clark’s comping during the head statement of his tune ‘Cool Struttin’ includes answer comping, and then he begins to use riff comping in the second chorus of Art Farmer’s solo. Oscar Peterson begins comping behind Clark Terry’s head statement on ‘Blues for Smedley’ using riffs that sound like the composed riffs in a big band arrangement, but quickly changes to an improvised background line in his right hand. Starting with the first chorus of Terry’s solo, he returns to more ensemble-style riff comping.
I encourage readers to listen to the recordings of the tunes while following my transcriptions and comments. I encourage you to use the comment section to add to or even disagree with my play-by-play commentary. For pianists seeking to increase the variety of their comping, I would suggest learning the transcribed comping parts and playing them along with the original recording. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal here is not to memorize the transcriptions, or even to emulate Peterson’s virtuosity or Clark’s harmonic sophistication, but rather to strive toward their level of variety and responsiveness. My hope is that those who read this blog post and study these transcriptions can borrow ideas from Oscar Peterson and Sonny Clark and combine them with their own ideas to work toward a personal approach to creative and responsive comping.
I’d also encourage comments that answer the following question (required for my jazz piano students): Name a jazz recording involving piano and one other solo instrument and identify one or more specific moments in which chordal comping (on piano or guitar) influences the development of an improvised instrumental or vocal solo by another player (or where the development of the solo influences the comping). If possible, add a link to a public page (YouTube, etc.) where the recording can be heard; use timings (i.e. ‘2:35’, ‘4:17’ etc.) to identify the moments of soloist-accompanist interplay, and give a brief description of what happens. (Examples of chordal accompaniment to a solo instrument in other styles are acceptable as well, provided that both parts have some improvisational element to them.)