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The Accompanist

Accompaniment seems to be a skill that doesn't seem to get the attention that it deserves.  I was trained by some great accompanists along the way and have also spent a lot of time studying what makes bands work -- and not work.  I've boiled this down to a way of hearing and considering what is going on in a group and what gives a soloist the big, fluffy spot to feel taken care of and able to relax and shoot for the stars.  I'll start with a story.  Bear with me for just a second.


There was a great drummer and listener in my hometown of Toledo, OH named Al Johnson.  Al's playing was a much older style than what he listened to.  He played probably more in the pre-bop swing style, but his ears were modern.  He'd play me all kinds of records of what he liked best of the music that was happening at the time (up through the early 80's) and break things down into what he thought worked and didn't.  He did the same for older recordings as well.  Where Al really peaked my interest and the beginning of this journey is when we were hanging out at a 4-star restaurant in town where there was a piano and bass duo.  A gig I often did but was not on that night.  As we were listening he tugged my sleeve and said, "Did you hear that?".  I didn't.  He had me listen again to see if I could hear what he was talking about.  I still didn't.


When the next section of the tune came around, he said, "Now check it out.  They drop the ball every time the double bar comes by.  You can't hear them taking care of the next section, so all the air escapes the balloon.  That's why they aren't getting anything off the ground."


In discussing this he pointed out that you don't need to really do anything, necessarily, but that the transition to the next part of the tune must be felt.


Skip to the end and what I have put together is that playing a tune is a study in architecture.  And, here are the parts:  


At the fundamental are the feel and treatment of a tune.  One must take care to stay in the context of what the group is doing.  If things grow or fade, it should be a natural transition.  If things take a drastic change, it really has to make sense in the way that it would make sense in modern building.  A drastic change is upsetting and used well and sparingly can be powerful.  This is advanced stuff and should be undertaken with expert care.  Listen to the curve of the groove and energy and take care that it makes sense.  This applies to rubato and free playing as well.


The next layer of construction is the layout of the tune.  This goes back to Al's "double bars".  The form and layout of the tune are the pillars of the building.  You can play with them or against them, but pay attention to them.  If you don't feel yourself moving to the next part of the structure, nobody else will, either.


The next is the harmonic cadence of the tune.  This can be trickier to figure out because what you need to pay attention to are the important chords.  There can be a lot of passing chords, but the structural ones are the ones to take care of.  An example that I like to use is the tune "There is No Greater Love".  A common treatment of the changes of this tune are, one bar each, I IV III VI7 for the first four bars, the second four bars are two measures each II7 V7.  Out of all of those chords there are only three that really need to be played, and arguably a fourth:  The first four bars are all really just a one chord.  Nothing really changes, functionally, until you get to bar five with the II7.  Of course, the V7 chords is needed to get back to the next A.  The VI7 chord on the fourth bar is strong, but can really be skipped. Check all of this out, hum it and play the changes on your piano and see what I mean.  Checking this idea out while playing your gigs night after night it will start to come into focus.  Another thing that is important at this level are the harmonic "hooks":  Progressions or chords placements that are out of the ordinary and often unique to a tune.


The next is the melody of the tune.  This is where music really starts to happen as now we are talking about playing a tune and not just running changes and form.  This also creeps into the topic of soloing, but I'll leave this as a simple mention for this piece.  The melody is what the tune is really all about, and the topic for the "discussion" that the band is having.  Of course, just as in a hang at the kitchen table, the topic can wander and end up nowhere near where you started, but there is always some sort of logic to how you get to where you ended up.  This can be really neat when the out chorus comes, and in essay fashion brings back what the talk was about, or contrasts how far your minds wandered over the course of the topic.


Given all of that, my main diet for study over the last 15 years or so has been in drummerless, small group playing where a lot of demand is put on me to do a lot of soloing.  This is a great demonstration for all the above as there are scant few voices at the table keeping that ballon off the ground.  This is greatly exaggerated by the fact that when the bass is soloing (I initially mistyped this as "soiling" and almost left it for comedic effect) there is no one taking up the slack of what I would be doing as a bass player.  Most chordal players are accustomed to mainly carrying the orchestration of a performance and as part of that they are not tuned into what the drums and bass are usually doing, which is much of the lower level structural work.  What ends up happening is that when I'm finishing a phrase or section or something, there is an uncomfortable dropping of the ball as the tune collapses on itself.


With all of this said, I'm not proposing any sort of Redi-Mix way to achieve the things I describe.  It's up to you and your accomplices to figure out how you do it.

Comments Section

Ray, this is excellent information to share. You received a real solid grounding in this kind of mature playing. It shows in what and how you play. Ironic that with so many folks playing standard repertoire this common sense approach to nailing down the form and choosing harmonic landmarks needs to be said, at all. That said, im glad you said it.
i am just pointing this out because what you mentioned in your initial comment could be misinterpreted by younger players as "cutting" corners and only dealing with certain changes. I know of course you didn't mean that but it can be misconstrued.
Thank you, Vince. "Kinda Sorta" and "harmonic motion" are what I'm discussing. What I propose is that you know the tune deeply and play that tune. This is far from faking one's way through the tune. I would propose that what you bring up is the opposite of what I'm talking about.
its very nice, a luxury most times, to hear a bassist playing all or most of the changes, or clearly hearing the harmonic motion of a tune and not playing a million notes and leaving the listener with a sense that said bassist doesn't hear or know the changes. There is nothing wrong at all with playing most all the chord changes even if you deem some of those changes less vital to the overall harmonic construction of a tune. trane played almost all the changes of a standard almost all the time pre-1963/4. this is one way of playing. if someone is making MUSIC on the changes, and they are playing all the changes, including the ones that are less important structurally, it is far from a crime. the problem is actually the inverse, i hear wayyyy to many young bassists that are basically faking their way through tune after tune because they KINDA SORTA know the changes to a tune. Music making in the end, playing musically, is all that matters whether your playing ALL the chords or just target chords which are structurally important.

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