Jazz is music that is all about communicating in the moment. Anything can happen, and so you have to be prepared to listen and respond to the musicians around you. An important role is that of an accompanist.
Accompanists come in different forms and with different roles. The most obvious accompanist in a jazz group is the pianist, guitarist or even a vibes player. These are chordal instruments, and so traditionally they provide the harmonic accompaniment behind the soloists.
But it is important for you as a jazz musician to realize that everyone is an accompanist. Everyone in a jazz group has the responsibility to accompany and respond to each other. Therefore, whether you are a pianist or a tenor sax player, you have some responsibility to be an accompanist.
Think of being an accompanist as being a musical aid. The job of an accompanist is to support another musician or musicians. An accompanists primary focus is to make everyone else sound good. If everyone in the band has this mindset, the music is going to sound good.
Now, you may be wondering what exactly I mean when I say that everyone in a jazz group is an accompanist. So before I dive into some tips on how to be an excellent accompanist, let me define some traditional roles.
This is the traditional form of accompaniment that first comes to mind. Guitarists, pianists, vibe players and all other chordal instruments bear this responsibility. For example, a horn player is taking a solo and the chordal instrumentalist provides harmonic context (usually in some rhythmic fashion). Probably the most classic example would be a pianist backing up a singer.
Drummers and percussionists, in general, are comping about 95% of the time. They are responsible for laying down a groove as a rhythmic frame of reference. In jazz, a drummers accompaniment responsibilities are even more elevated as they are always responding to the rest of the rhythm section and soloist with rhythmic jabs and different textures.
Bassists also are active accompanists in a jazz band. They team up with the drummers to help lock in the groove and give a sense of time for the rest of the group. The same as drummers, bassists also have a responsibility to respond to the musical direction of the group. They must respond rhythmically and harmonically to the musical situation. For example, if the pianist is soloing and is explicitly adding in some chord substitutions, the bassist may want to follow along. If a bassist is playing in a smaller group situation like a duo with a horn player, his/her accompaniment responsibilities are elevated.
Horn players/non-rhythm section instruments
Once you venture outside of the rhythm section instruments, the role of accompanist can seem less clear. However, a non-rhythm section instrument can have an accompaniment role in a larger group setting, or even have a bigger role in a smaller group setting.
Let’s say that there are two horn players in a group. One horn takes the melody in the A section, and the other takes the melody during the B section. It is quite common for the horn player not playing the melody to outline the voice leading of the harmony. In a larger group setting with multiple non-rhythm section instruments, it is quite common to play a collective short riff behind a soloist after a few choruses. That’s considered accompaniment.
Another example would be a trio with bass, drums, and a horn player. There is no chordal instrument present. Now it’s the horn players responsibility to accompany his/herself and perhaps add a rhythmic or harmonic accompaniment role for the bassist or drummer. The smaller the group, the more responsibility is present.
Now let’s go over some tips for being a great accompanist. There are many things to consider, and it can vary depending on the musical situation or the instrument you play. These tend to hold some truth for all instrumentalists.
1. Listen first, play second.
If being an accompanist means to support your fellow musician, it would be most important to listen to what they are playing. In other words, do not play stuff just for the sake of playing it. First and foremost make listening to the other musicians your top priority. That would include the rhythm section and the soloist.
2. Think of it as a conversation.
When you are accompanying someone, think of it like affirming or supporting something they said. Perhaps the trumpet player plays something in his solo, and you choose to respond back. This goes back to listening. You first have to listen to what the other musicians are saying and then choose an appropriate response. Should you respond rhythmically? Should you respond with space? Should you play anything at all? If you are the soloist and you hear the drummer play a rhythmic figure, consider responding back. Just because you are the soloist at the moment doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be acknowledging the musical situation around you. This is still a form of accompaniment.
For an example of some real conversational playing, check out this video of Chris Potter (tenor sax) and Ari Hoenig (drums) playing a blues-like structure at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City. This is an excellent example of having a musical conversation, especially in a non-traditional setting.
3. Leave space.
When accompanying another musician, the last thing you want to do is step on their toes and distract from what they are doing. When you are acting as an accompanist, you do not have the dominant role. You are a supporter.
I remember seeing a show with Anat Cohen (clarinet) and in her band, she had pianist Benny Green. On the first tune during Anat’s solo, Benny would lay down a rhythmic figure, and then not play anything else for another half a chorus. As he felt appropriate, he would play more actively, but it was the space that made it so powerful. He only responded to her solo when he felt appropriate. It was a powerful statement of what it means to be an accompanist.
Here’s an extreme example of the use of space. In this video, Brad Mehldau (piano) literally plays nothing during Peter Bernstein’s (guitar) solo. Peter’s solo starts at 0:45. I’m sure in other tunes they played during this concert this wasn’t always the case, but he felt that is what the music called for at the moment. The interesting thing is if I hadn’t pointed it out to you, you might not have even picked up that he wasn’t playing. But when his solo comes in at 2:58, it makes for a pleasant surprise to hear the piano come back in. In the meantime, listen to how Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums) accompany Peter.
4. When comping actively, be rhythmically consistent.
When it’s appropriate to play actively behind a soloist or member of the rhythm section, you need to have a degree of rhythmic consistency. Remember that you need to keep the groove. This doesn’t mean you have to play the same rhythmic patterns over and over again. That would be boring, and perhaps an indicator that you aren’t listening to what the other musicians are playing. But what you don’t want to do is play rhythmic figures that are irrelevant to each other. Doing this won’t support the groove, and it won’t support the musicians you are accompanying.
Think about evolving the rhythmic figures you are playing. An excellent accompanist for all musicians to check out is Wynton Kelley (piano). He has a masterful approach at being an accompanist, especially in a more traditional sense. Check out this video recording of Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come. Listen to the rhythms he develops and how he accompanies the melody and the soloists. Pay particular attention to the off beats he plays in the first 8 bars of the melody, starting at 0:39. Also notice how Jimmy Cobb (drums) switches cymbals from Miles solo to Hank Mobley’s (tenor sax) solo at 3:09.
All of these tips should be considered by all jazz instrumentalists, no matter what your role is in the band. We all should be working on our accompanist skills. Make it your goal to keep these things in mind at the next gig or jam session you attend.