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

Jackson, Bobby Bobby.Jackson at ideastream.org
Tue Jul 18 11:11:41 EDT 2006

Zwerin wrote and Sonny allegedly said,

"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 around."

Sorry Michael Zwerin and Sonny.  I'm lost on the significance that
because Hall is white makes him best to accompany top quality
African-American improvisors.

Bobby Jackson
WCPN-FM/Cleveland, OH

-----Original Message-----
From: jazzproglist-bounces at jazzweek.com
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Sent: Monday, July 17, 2006 11:00 PM
To: jazzproglist at jazzweek.com
Subject: [JPL] Soccer Has Defenders, Jazz Has `Compers'


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

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

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
compers. Accompanying is called ``comping'' in the world of jazz. Unlike

soccer, a good comper is above all not a competitor. Ideally, the
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
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
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

The lean, strapping chords of Ellington behind Coltrane on ``Duke
and John Coltrane'' are a key element in what makes the album so unique
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
very loud indeed -- ``Atomic Basie.''

Sorry to mix metaphors, but going out of your way to hear good compers
also a bit like keeping your eye on the linebackers in an American
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
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
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
(``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
-- it was never released on an album -- but I have never been able to
the complex cascading bass line behind it, played by Paul McCartney, out
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
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
him when he soloed while Reinhardt had only one. The third guitar
their already strong groove into a franchise sound, and this is one
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

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

Dr. Jazz
Dr. Jazz Operations
24270 Eastwood
Oak Park, MI  48237
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SKYPE:  drjazz99 

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