Swing Comp­ing

John Wheatcroft gives your swing, jazz and big band rhythm play­ing a shot in the arm as he shows you how to ac’comp’any like the masters with a ton of great ideas.

Guitar Techniques - - Play: Big Band, Jazz & Swing -

In jazz-speak the term ‘comp­ing’ is used an ab­bre­vi­a­tion for the all-en­com­pass­ing topic of ac­com­pa­ny­ing. For any as­pir­ing jazz gui­tarist this is a cru­cial and ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial area of study. The abil­ity to comp with in­tel­li­gence and sen­si­tiv­ity is one of the most ef­fec­tive skills any player can de­velop. Even though you might have the most in­cred­i­ble sin­gle-note chops, un­be­liev­able lines and phenom­e­nal speed and ar­tic­u­la­tion, if you can’t comp well you’ll prob­a­bly never get the op­por­tu­nity to show­case these as­sets as, frankly, no one will want to play with you!

Any­way, with con­sid­er­a­tion and skill the rhythm part can be ev­ery bit as cre­ative, chal­leng­ing, so­phis­ti­cated, hip and im­pres­sive as a lead solo, and you’ll find your pop­u­lar­ity among fel­low mu­si­cians will in­crease ex­po­nen­tially as your comp­ing skills de­velop.

To be a good rhythm player you need to be a good team player. Fa­mil­iarise yourself with the roles of each re­spec­tive in­stru­ment in the ‘rhythm sec­tion’, usu­ally the drums and bass but of­ten in jazz you’ll need to share comp­ing du­ties with a piano player, which pre­sents its own chal­lenges. To quote from Joe Pass, “They have 88 keys and they’re louder than you, so at times you need to de­fer to them!” Re­gard­less, you should be aware of your rhythm sec­tion mates’ re­spec­tive parts for ev­ery piece that you play.

We have nine spe­cific mu­si­cal themes this is­sue, each an ex­plo­ration of the 12-bar jazz blues se­quence in G ma­jor. Rather than di­vide each vari­a­tion into a collection of sep­a­rate stud­ies, I’ve com­bined them to­gether to cre­ate one long co­he­sive whole.

Of course, you should al­ways prac­tise each ap­proach in isolation, but once you feel you are on top of each idea there is real merit in con­nect­ing ma­te­rial in this way. For one, it’s a test of con­cen­tra­tion. But there’s the added chal­lenge of ne­go­ti­at­ing the tran­si­tion from sec­tion to sec­tion, the ul­ti­mate goal be­ing to trans­fer these ideas into other reper­toire, ei­ther stan­dards from the Amer­i­can song­book, or ar­range­ments of your own in­ven­tion.

Re­mem­ber that in a real life sce­nario your pri­mary role as a good jazz, swing or big-band com­per is to sup­port soloists or singers un­til it’s your turn, so you’ll need to imag­ine an over­rid­ing solo here. In re­al­ity these ex­am­ples are busier than you’d want to be, since they con­dense lots of ideas in a rel­a­tively short space. Your func­tion is to fan the flames for the soloist, to pro­vide rhyth­mic con­trast and har­monic sup­port when nec­es­sary. It’s also your re­spon­si­bil­ity to keep out of the way when you’re not re­quired. It’s not un­com­mon for a sen­si­tive ac­com­pa­nist to stay tacet (play noth­ing) for the first few cho­ruses of a solo, only join­ing in when it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to do so. Like so many as­pects of mu­sic, this is much eas­ier to ex­pe­ri­ence by keep­ing your eyes and ears open, and by tak­ing in as much mu­sic as you pos­si­bly can, both recorded and in the flesh, rather than from the printed page only. Learn­ing a mu­si­cal style can be com­pared to an ac­tor analysing the in­tri­ca­cies of a re­gional di­alect. They’re never go­ing to get the full pic­ture from read­ing about it; they need to hear real people us­ing it and then ex­pe­ri­ence it first-hand by giv­ing it a go them­selves.

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