During the World Cup, football critics kept pointing out how solid, experienced defensive players like Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro who sublimate their own talents for the good of the team are the real stars, how their unsung playmaking holds everything else together, and it occurred to me that the same thing could be said about accompanists in jazz bands.
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 football, however, 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 towards 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" (Emarcy). “How can I tell which one is the bass?" she replied.
So I have probably embarked on a hopeless task, but let’s go straight-ahead anyway.
The lean, strapping chords of Duke Ellington behind John Coltrane on “Duke Ellington and John Coltrane" (Impulse!) are a key element in what makes the album so unique and strong. And his comping behind his orchestra was absolutely essential to his compositions, the ensembles, and the soloists. Without it, everything else would have collapsed.
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" (Roulette).
Sorry to mix metaphors, but going out of your way to hear good compers is also sort of like keeping your eye on the linebackers in an American football game. On the Sonny Rollins masterpiece “The Bridge" (BMG), 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 around. 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"(Rhino 2 CDs)). 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 Paul McCartney’s complex cascading bass line behind it out of my mind.
The pianist John Lewis - and leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet (“Concorde" (Prestige)) - 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 game he was accompanying.
In the 1950s, the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet - “The Best Of…" (Pacific Jazz) - 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.
There were three guitars, including Django Reinhardt, a bass, and Stephane Grappelli’s violin in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The third guitar had been added after Reinhardt complained that Grappelli had two guitars playing that Gypsy-swing four-to-the-bar “pompe" behind him when he soloed, while Reinhardt had only one. The third guitar elevated their groove into their franchise sound, which 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. So, to fit a more temperate clime, let us lay back and conclude with that famous old folk saying from the cool land of Oobla-Dee: “The holes in your Swiss cheese are somebody else’s Swiss cheese."