Insights Into How To Comp Jazz Guitar

This is a transcript of an interview I did with Bazi Baker, who was completing his undergraduate degree in 2010 at the Christchurch Jazz School in New Zealand. Some insightful, pertinent questions on comping within a jazz context.

1. What are some things you feel that beginning compers are not aware of or forget to think about?

Volume, dynamic, time keeping, listening to the musical environment, interaction with the band

2. Can you pin point some characteristics you like in a good comper?

Someone who: feels good to play with, is sympathetic to the ideas that soloist / vocalist / lead instrument is playing and who is experimental within the context of the tune and musical environment.

3. Are there any players who have specifically influenced your approach to comping? If so why have they influenced you?

Freddie Green (the quarter note pulse) and Django in the same respect, Ted Greene for voicings and voice leading in a traditional jazz / classical ‘harmonic’ sense, Jim Hall in his open approach to harmony and rhythm in standard tonal jazz music, Kurt Rosenwinkel in ‘modern thinking’ (and Allan Holdsworth in intervallic ‘modern’ comping), Benson, Joe Pass and Wes for traditional ‘chops’ comping, Pat Metheny for his dynamic approach to comping (for yourself) in a guitar trio, Sco for 4ths and grit in comping, Jonathan Kreisberg for his clustered approach to ‘modern’ comping.

4. Are there any players other than the ones above who you admire with their comping?

Sylvain Luc, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Ben Monder, Bill Frisell, Lenny Breaux,

5. When comping under a soloist is there anything you are specifically thinking about or listening out for?

Depending on context: usually in a duo / trio it’s more about holding perfect time and not experimenting too much unless there is serious trust within the group to do so, in a larger group I may not comp at all if there is another harmony instrument comping, or keep it open by not stating the harmony so obviously (or at all) within the chosen notes I use to comp. It’s a very big answer as it varies within each context / group / genre / feel / tempo etc.

6. What have been some ways you have tried to develop your comping style?

Transcribing directly and writing out parts / analysing them, practicing general harmony methodically using parallel techniques (as in find a voicing you dig and take it through the entire range of a chosen scale on the range of your instrument) then applying it to a tune you’re working on / going to play. Lots of rhythmic studies at the moment using comping long notes / short notes on every possible combination of quarter and 8th note pulses (coming up with comping pulse forms like ‘AABA’ in four bar measures etc) and also variations on odd metric forms using ‘Balkan’ 2 and 3 common and uncommon pulses (e.g. playing in 7/4 using 14 8th notes divided like: 232 232 or 322 322 or 223 223 which are common or 223 322 which is uncommon etc). Apart from that LOTS of playing in different groups and with different people.

7. In short what are you trying to achieve when you comp?

Music that feels good for the band, for myself and for the audience –it’s all about context to me.

8. Are there any absolute rules when it comes to comping? If not are there any opinions that seem to be held by every good comper?

I think listening is the most important part of comping because it should tell you about when to comp, how much to comp, how loud you should be etc. But first you MUST memorise the music you are playing – and repeat many times to explore possibilities in a practice context, then you’re ready to listen. Otherwise you’re just reading / freaking out about what you’re doing. Memorisation and internalisation; that’s probably my GOLDEN rule(s).

9. Do you feel that different songs need to be approached differently when it comes to comping?

Absolutely, it’s about context and having a vocab for that context both harmonically and rhythmically. For example, most jazz guys I know find it difficult to play rock or funk, not because they don’t know the harmony / rhythm of the music but because they don’t get the ‘feel’ of the music, they haven’t been around it, experienced the other things that give rock music or funk music that vibe – and some of which aren’t just musical things (for e.g. social / political / spiritual influences on musics etc). It’s the same thing trying to get classically trained musicians to swing well, generally speaking it’s not in built / ingrained because they haven’t listened to and played much of that type of music.

Even within the field of jazz, which has much to do with Swing, Latin, open feel and different meter BUT often has touches of blues (think Scofield) rock (think Wayne Krantz), funk (think The Meters / MMW), fusion (think Allan Holdsworth), reggae (think Ernest Ranglin), classical (think Ted Greene / Keith Jarrett), country (think Frisell) etc: In my opinion this means that a good comper should listen to and draw musical elements
from ALL these other musics to comp appropriately in the range of musics common to jazz today.

10. How much should the characteristics a song determine how somebody comps rather than just their own personal style?

You should always have a sense of self when playing a tune, even if it’s a square gig or that standard you don’t like, or that band you’re not looking forward to playing with – you should always think ‘how am I going to make this particular song / set / gig work well, what are the characteristics of this style that I can stay within and not lose myself and play something I’m not feeling’. In the end I think guitarists, in order to survive in today’s musical community, HAVE to have a sense of the song (and many styles etc) AND a sense of themselves; when booking an accompanist, I think ‘can he/she play this style, that style’ etc and most importantly – ‘how do they feel to play with’, in that style.

11. How much have you learnt about comping form other instruments other than your own?

Lots of voicing stuff from piano, lots of foundation from bass, lots of rhythm from drums and percussion, and practitioners on those instruments here and abroad. I spend between 4 and about 12 hours a week on Youtube, checking out what the world of music has to offer. If I only listened to guitarists I think I’d be very limited in what I can play.

12. In short how do you think comping styles have changed throughout the history of jazz?

Nowadays with technological improvements for guitar in particular there are so many ways to get expressive and dynamic effects like distortions for sustain, mod effects and delays and reverb that can dress up / make the guitar sound bigger etc – it’s easier to hide behind these things. In the old days you had your guitar and your fingers; no amps, no effects – you had to be good! Nowadays the good players can augment that with technology to go into new areas of accompaniment that were never dreamed of 70 years ago. Music styles have changed in jazz too, for example, part of the new ‘sound’ of modern jazz (as in post 1990’s metric modulation / complex harmony and rhythm) within a band environment is very rarely played on a ‘jazz guitar and amp’ old school (1960’s) set up – the sound is too dated, as beautiful as it is. So context, technology,fashion and era dictate guitar sound (not just for comping of course) nowadays.

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