[JPL] Soccer Has Defenders, Jazz Has `Compers'

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon Jul 17 22:59:48 EDT 2006

Soccer Has Defenders, Jazz Has `Compers': Mike Zwerin

July 17 (Bloomberg) -- During the World Cup, soccer critics kept pointing 
out how solid, experienced defensive players like Lilian Thuram and Fabio 
Cannavaro, who subordinate their own talents to the good of the team, are 
the real stars -- how their unsung playmaking holds everything else together.

It occurred to me that the same could be said about accompanists in jazz 

Humor me. Immobilized by a heat wave, I started making a list of creative 
compers. Accompanying is called ``comping'' in the world of jazz. Unlike 
soccer, a good comper is above all not a competitor. Ideally, the primary 
function of comping is to provide signposts on a road that everybody is 
exploring together, and to goose the soloists toward the common goal.

The problem is that casual fans have not the slightest idea of how to tune 
into what's going on way down there at the other end of the field, as it 
were. I once suggested to my then-wife to be sure to listen to bassist 
Rufus Reid -- the real power behind Stan Getz, whose saxophone playing she 
loved -- on his late masterpiece ``Serenity.''

``How can I tell which one is the bass?'' she asked.

So I have probably embarked on a hopeless task, but let's go ahead anyway.

The lean, strapping chords of Ellington behind Coltrane on ``Duke Ellington 
and John Coltrane'' are a key element in what makes the album so unique and 
strong. And his comping behind the orchestra was absolutely essential to 
his compositions, the ensembles and the soloists. Without it, everything 
else would have collapsed.

Minimalist Basie

The way Count Basie chose arrangers and cast his instrumentalists and 
soloists was a similar revolutionary form of 20th-century composition to 
Ellington's. Basie was the ultimate minimalist, and together with his 
retiring guitarist Freddie Green, he demonstrated how pianissimo could be 
very loud indeed -- ``Atomic Basie.''

Sorry to mix metaphors, but going out of your way to hear good compers is 
also a bit like keeping your eye on the linebackers in an American football 
game. On the Sonny Rollins masterpiece ``The Bridge,'' you can hear 
guitarist Jim Hall's eccentric, unpredictable, strong-willed line play 
launch the colossal tenorman into orbit. Nobody could have done that job 
better in those days.

The importance Rollins gave to good comping can be illustrated by the fact 
that Hall is white. It is reasonable to assume that any white musicians 
hired to accompany top-quality African-American improvisers are the best 

Haig's Efficiency

Similarly, you might wonder why Charlie Parker hired a white piano player 
who didn't even solo all that well. Al Haig (not the Secretary of State) 
was one of the most efficient compers in the entire history of early bebop 
(``Yardbird Suite.'') With the primitive recording sound from the late 
1940s and early 1950s, it is sometimes difficult to hear him. But every 
note he plays is in exactly the right place.

A small tangent. I have long forgotten the simple-minded melody of ``Old 
Brown Shoe'' on the B-side of some unmemorable 1960s Beatles 45 RPM single 
-- it was never released on an album -- but I have never been able to get 
the complex cascading bass line behind it, played by Paul McCartney, out of 
my mind.

The pianist John Lewis -- and leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet 
(``Concorde'') -- kept quiet control of whatever team he played with by 
inventing short, simple melodies in the background. This more or less 
forced soloists to add space to their improvisations by waiting for the 
ditties to end before continuing. Or they just hopped in and found 
something to play on top of them. Either way, Lewis's innovative melodic 
accompaniment changed the nature of the soloist's game.

Look, No Chords

In the 1950s, the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet --``The Best Of'' -- 
became famous overnight because of their melodic comping. The absence of 
any chordal instrument whatsoever obliged the two horn players to invent 
complementary lines to fill in the spaces behind each other, and the airy 
counterpoint that resulted was the real strength of the group.

The steaming, strummed four-to-the bar guitar accompaniment that drove 
Gypsy Swing was called a ``pompe.'' There were three guitars, including 
Django Reinhardt, plus a bass and Stephane Grappelli's violin in the 
drumless Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The third was added after 
Reinhardt complained that Grappelli had two guitars playing a pompe behind 
him when he soloed while Reinhardt had only one. The third guitar elevated 
their already strong groove into a franchise sound, and this is one really 
good illustration of the importance of comping.

The weather is cooler today, and the World Cup is over, and my metaphor 
does not seem all that hot any more. Still, it's important to remember, 
even if you don't get excited about accompanists, that the holes in your 
Swiss cheese are somebody else's Swiss cheese.

(Mike Zwerin is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his 

To contact the writer on this story:
Mike Zwerin at mikezwerin at free.fr.

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