Swingin’ with some empathy: thoughts on jazz accompanying

My students often ask me: ‘how can I get better at comping?’ or ‘how can I get better at playing with singers?’  In developing my response to these important questions over the years, I’ve found that it’s fascinating to look at the iconic pianists of jazz history, the undeniably great soloists and ensemble players in instrumental settings, and investigate which of these players demonstrate the strongest skills at the very different demands of being the primary collaborator and accompanist for a soloist, particularly a vocalist, in a duo or ensemble setting.  It is also important to look at the lesser known players who excelled at accompanying.   The players I’ll be looking at in this post include Oscar Peterson, who was best known as a soloist but had major collaborations with singers, Ellis Larkins, Carl Drinkard and Jimmy Jones, who were lesser known but were very fine accompanists, Wynton Kelly and Duke Jordan, who recorded both as soloists and accompanists, and Bud Powell. Powell’s collaborations with singers are little known, but the few recordings of that were made of them, as well as some of his live recordings with Charlie Parker, illustrate that although he was a revolutionary soloist and composer, as an accompanist, he occasionally made some classic accompanying mistakes.

Despite being an undeniably important figure in the evolution of instrumental jazz, Powell’s accompanying in some settings starkly and even humorously demonstrates a lack of empathy with the soloist. I will be discussing excerpts from the accompanying work of Peterson, Larkins, Drinkard, Jordan, Jones and Kelly which I think have much to teach aspiring accompanists about the craft, as well as a few excerpts from Powell’s accompanying which simultaneously illustrate his genius as a soloist and some accompanying pitfalls to avoid.  (I do not intend any of the criticism of Bud Powell’s accompanying in this post to detract from the fact that he is a hugely important soloist, composer and ensemble player in instrumental contexts, and that his music is crucial to all jazz listeners and players.   I urge anyone who doubts my reverence for Powell’s playing to consult my posts Six Degrees of Bud Powell and Six Degrees of Bud Powell, Part ii-V-I.)

Pianists who are great soloists and improvisers in instrumental settings are able to carry the melodic narrative of a piece in a way that clearly articulates the starting parameters of the piece (tempo, dynamics, style, etc.) and closely follows the various ‘changes’ of a piece (including chord changes, key changes and lyrics).   Pianists who are great ensemble players in instrumental settings are able to create accompaniments that show an acute awareness of those parameters and changes.   While good accompanists must have all these skills, they also have responsibilities which require an additional level of skill with interpersonal communication and musical understanding.  They must establish and maintain a working relationship with a particular soloist, develop a detailed awareness of the soloist’s aesthetic and artistic goals, and assist the soloist in achieving these goals through both long-range planning in rehearsal and through verbal and non-verbal communication in the moment of performance.  While a skilled ensemble player can stay aligned musically with a soloist and perhaps react musically to the soloist’s choices, a skilled accompanist can anticipate the soloist’s needs.  Accompanists acquire this ability both through making explicit plans (such as an arrangement) with the soloist, as well as accumulating enough experience in rehearsal and performance with the soloist to be able to anticipate their needs and intentions.

While becoming a proficient soloist and ensemble player in instrumental setting involves a great amount of personal practice time, great instrumental soloists and ensemble players often develop a musical connection with other players with little or no ensemble rehearsal time.  I remember hearing Dave Brubeck announce during a performance in Burlington with the bassist Michael Moore that it was their very first time playing together.  I have heard many great instrumentalists make this kind of announcement during a performance, as a celebration of the spontaneity of jazz.   It often takes a greater amount of rehearsal time for a jazz vocalist and accompanist to develop an effective working relationship, often because accompanying vocalists is considerably different and arguably more challenging for the accompanist than accompanying jazz instrumentalists.  For example, vocalists often sing tunes from outside the instrumental jazz repertoire.  When they do sing tunes from that repertoire, they frequently require different keys than instrumentalists, and often add sections (such as the introductory ‘verse’) that aren’t part of a typical instrumental ‘head arrangement’ of the tune.

In addition to familiarity with the significantly different vocal repertoire, there are a number of other skills that a pianist needs in order to accompany vocalists.  In the following paragraphs, I will discuss skills that relate to sections of a typical jazz small group arrangement.

Intro skills

An accompanist must be able to play an intro in a way that leads a soloist to their first note and leaves space for the melody’s opening phrase.  A classic example of this is Oscar Peterson’s intro to Moonlight in Vermont on the album Louis and Ella.  Peterson vamps the opening four chords of the tune twice, while improvising with the pentatonic scale that the melody uses.  He ends with a phrase that approaches Fitzgerald’s opening note via its chromatic neighbor tones (i.e. a half step above and below) and its diatonic neighbor (a whole step above).  It is an opening gesture that is at once sophisticated and simple, and leaves a clear opening for the soloist’s entrance.

An example of what can happen when an intro does not clearly tell the soloist when to enter can be heard on Bud Powell’s intro to ‘Ornithology’ on the live recording One Night at Birdland.  As documented by Ethan Iverson in his article High Bebop, Powell plays four bars that begin in the distant key of A flat major.  While Powell’s intro does return to the tune’s key of G major and hints at the opening motive, his left hand chording obscures the downbeat enough that Parker enters on what Iverson identifies as Powell’s ‘and’ of two, and treats it as the ‘and’ of four.  Parker’s entrance, which demonstrates that Powell has managed (perhaps intentionally) to confuse an otherwise unshakeable fellow musical giant, is followed by Art Blakey’s cymbal crash on what Parker has established as beat three of bar two, and Fats Navarro’s entrance on the pickup to bar three.  Powell creates so much instability with his intro that Parker is forced to intervene before more confusion ensues.  A ripple effect of Powell’s intro is that Blakey and Navarro to enter in a later and much less coordinated way than they normally would.  The genius of all these players keeps it from sounding like a ‘train wreck’ opening and allows the performance to continue smoothly afterwards; but it is still a moment that could easily lead to an aborted tune with players any less gifted than these.

An accompanist needs to be able to handle a rubato section which may involve simply following the soloist, or may involve the accompaniment and soloist taking turns leading and following.  These often occur in the opening of a tune at the ‘verse’ (a narrative opening section in a jazz standard.)  An example of this is Jimmy Jones’ accompaniment of Ella Fitzgerald on the intro to ‘Let’s Do It’ from the album ‘The Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington Concerts at Cote D’Azur’.  Ella speeds up and slows down throughout intro in order to maintain the conversational approach appropriate for Cole Porter’s lyric, and Jones follows her throughout, sometimes running to catch up but always ending each phrase with her.  I have found that the best way to develop this level of rhythmic empathy is to know the tune, both melody and lyrics, well enough to mentally ‘sing along’ with the soloist while accompanying.  Jones’ skill at following Fitzgerald here suggests to me that he is doing this.  It is a testament to the unique challenge of vocal accompaniment that the only songs in the concert where Duke Ellington steps aside to let another pianist play with his band is when it comes to the vocal solos in the concert.

Skills for accompanying the ‘head’ (melody)

 An accompanist needs to be able to improvise fills in the breaks of a melody in a way that supports the soloist but does not overshadow them.  On Billie Holiday’s live version of I Cover The Waterfront from 1954, pianist Carl Drinkard leaves space for each vocal phrase in the first A section of melody (‘I cover the waterfront/I’m watching the sea’), accompanying each phrase in the lyrics with chords and then responding with an overlapping improvised phrase.  While Drinkard’s fills do start to move more simultaneously with the melody as he accompanies the second A section (‘I cover the waterfront / In search of my love’), he leaves space, appropriately enough, for the word ‘patiently’ in the phrase ‘Here am I / patiently waiting’ which opens the bridge.  His accompaniment for the tune is orchestral in that each fill occupies a specific range of the piano, evoking an arrangement where instruments with different ranges take turns in the sonic foreground.  Drinkard’s improvised fills during Holiday’s vocal contrast the melody both by moving in a different rhythmic subdivision than the melody uses (often 16th notes), and sometimes by providing a simultaneous counterpoint to it.

An alternative approach to adding melody fills is demonstrated by the sublime Ellis Larkins in his accompaniment to ‘What Is There To Say?’ sung by Ella Fitzgerald.  Larkins fills only in the breaks of the melody, and his fills are often ingenious developments of the melody phrases that they follow.

A collaboration which is less successful to my ear is a version of I Cover The Waterfront heard in a short film where Bud Powell accompanies the otherwise unknown singer Trudy Peters.  Where Drinkard sensitively surrounds Holiday’s vocal phrases with melodic activity, Powell often allows his virtuosity to upstage Peters’ vocal performance.  Although Peters holds her own in the sonic balance with Powell, her tone, vocal phrasing and physicality suggest that she is a Billie Holiday admirer who is still in an imitative stage.  For much of the performance, Powell does not so much accompany as he simply takes an almost fully formed solo during Peters’ vocal, and it should be said that the solo on its own is comparable to his best ballad playing on tunes like I Should Care.  The effect of this pianist-ignores-vocalist situation is sometimes hilarious, as when Powell plays a fill that spans nearly the length of the entire keyboard as Peters sings ‘Here am I, patiently waiting’ in the bridge.  Although he is playing phrases of characteristic brilliance that would be perfectly at home in a trio performance, it sounds to me like Powell is marking time until this vocal solo is over, but not patiently.

Skills for accompanying an improvised solo

 Another awkward moment in Powell’s comping occurs in the first chorus of Charlie Parker’s solo around 1:07 on ‘All The Things You Are’ from the album Jazz At Massey Hall.  Powell plays continuous quarter notes behind the first sixteen bars of Parker’s solo, but rather than the quieter and melodically minimal quarter notes of Freddie Green’s guitar or Erroll Garner’s left hand, Powell’s quarters are full of the kind of harmonic invention heard on trio tunes such as Sure Thing.  This does not fit with Parker’s busy and virtuosic line, or perhaps the density of his double-timing is a reaction to Powell’s harmonically ‘out’ and rhythmically relentless chords. Bird’s frustration builds audibly in the solo until the bridge when, just as Powell starts to relent and play longer chords, Parker plays a phrase which is likely a quote from a children’s song with a skipping 12/8 rhythm, but which he fills with irony.  I think it’s likely that Parker’s expresses the frustration of trying to battle Powell’s accompanying. As in ‘I Cover The Waterfront’, it sounds like Powell may not conceive of his playing and that of the soloist in the same context, or may hear his own playing as a lead part and the soloist’s line as an accompaniment.

Parker’s soloing on the Massey Hall ‘All The Things’ is similar in rhythmic concept to an earlier recording of his which uses the same progression, Bird of Paradise.  On this recording, the pianist Duke Jordan leaves Parker much more space than Powell does.  Jordan’s accompaniment indicates he understand that Parker’s double-timed phrases need sparse punctuation rather than a constantly active accompaniment.  Another more empathetic approach to comping on this tune can be heard in Wynton Kelly’s comping behind Johnny Griffin on ‘All The Things You Are’ from the album A Blowing Session.  Griffin has a level of frenetic activity in his solo similar to Parker’s, and Kelly comps around Griffin’s phrases in a way that is more active than Jordan, but more responsive than Powell.

Jazz accompanying, and particularly piano accompaniment of jazz vocalists, is less often identified as a discrete skill, as the literature on jazz piano (like the jazz education world in general) is more focused on skills related to playing instrumental repertoire.  It is becoming gradually more common, as represented by books like Mike Greensill’s, which are still fairly rare in the jazz book market.

The lack of recognition in jazz education for jazz vocal accompanying as a discrete skill is reminiscent of a situation in the scientific world that Alan Alda describes in a recent book titled ‘If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?’  Alda describes his efforts to convince science educators of his belief that scientists, particularly those who go into fields where fundraising is important, are often lacking in communication skills, and as a result have trouble explaining their work to non-specialist audiences.  He tells fascinating stories about teaching theater improvisation games to scientists and helping them develop skills which greatly improve the effectiveness of the presentations they give on their work. He describes a conversation with a college president who was unconvinced of the need for science students to learn communication skills and ‘seemed to feel that students would pick up the fine points of communicating just by listening to good communicators.’  Alda invokes a musical metaphor to express what he wishes he could tell the administrator:   ‘…just listening to good communicators doesn’t work.  It takes training to learn how to do it.  I’ve been listening to good pianists all my life and I still can’t play the piano.’

To adapt Alda’s conclusion, I believe the excerpts from Powell’s comping above demonstrate that it’s possible to have been a great jazz pianist all your life and still not have the skills to be an accompanist.  The excerpts from Peterson, Larkins, Drinkard, Jones, Jordan and Kelly above are examples of empathy.  This includes being aware ahead of time of the soloist’s part, both what they are doing in the moment and in coming moments, as in Peterson’s intro and Larkins’ fills to Fitzgerald’s eminently accurate yet still fresh interpretations.   It also includes being able to react in the moment to spontaneous changes they may make to the parameters of the piece, as in Drinkard’s fills to Holiday’s less predictable phrasing, Jones’ tracking of Fitzgerald’s unpredictable rubato, and Kelly’s comping for Griffin’s solo.

My experience as an accompanist and a teacher has led me to believe strongly that training in the skills that I’ve described above from a teacher who has experience as an accompanist can be beneficial to all jazz pianists, and is crucial for some.  I also strongly believe that while the skills described above can help highly skilled players create highly refined performances, they are also crucial to helping any jazz accompanist give a performance with basic coherence, i.e. one that moves from start to finish of an arrangement with no ‘train wrecks’.    I have learned immensely from teachers who listened as I accompanied a soloist in my student days and gave me important feedback, sometimes even while the music was in progress.  It is so important when collaborating to have the collaboration heard by a informed listener who can offer suggestions on how dynamic balance, rhythmic alignment and creative interplay can be improved, and who can listen as the suggestions are tried.  I am thinking of using a new phrase to congratulate accompanist-soloist duos who are ready to perform: sing, swing and empathize!

In future posts, I’ll hope to discuss skills for ending a tune, as well as one of the most highly evolved piano-vocal duo collaborations, that of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans.

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3 Responses to Swingin’ with some empathy: thoughts on jazz accompanying

  1. Matt Nemeth says:

    I was interested by your statement that accompanying requires the ability to anticipate rather than simply react. The example of Ella and Duke with Jimmy Jones playing “Let’s Do it” really makes this apparent; Jones clearly has to jump to stay with Ella’s phrasing but catches it every time. Without this, the intro wouldn’t have sounded nearly as casual and natural as it did.

    I look forward to reading what you have to say about Bill Evans and Tony Bennett, their albums together are some of my favorites.

  2. tgcleary says:

    I think Dizzy might be the most likely of anyone in that quintet to be relaxed enough to laugh. There are plenty of audience reactions at various points in the recording, some of them quite odd and isolated. They remind me of the Miles version of ‘Stella’ from the live ‘My Funny Valentine’ album. Miles’ long A at 1:45 is followed by a long ‘yeah!’ from an audience member at the same pitch.

  3. Jake Landry says:

    I can never help but laugh at that part of the Massey Hall record! Is that Diz you can hear chuckling in the recording?

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