Some Thoughts on Accompanying an Adventurous Soloist.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that accomplished pianoforte accompaniment requires such skills of listening, following, supporting, interacting, suggesting and sometimes even leading, as have been correctly acquired for the purpose of conduct in polite society. Yet what, dear reader, is a humble pianofortist to do, when confronted with the discomforting prospect of providing seemly musical background for an obstinate solo performer, however firm of technique and charmingly schooled, who insists on breaking with convention and well-accepted manners?” (Jane Austen, 1813)
“What the fuck are you supposed to do when the soloist deliberately goes outside the changes?” (Jason Lyon, 2013)
There’s no single right answer, and it depends greatly on what the soloist is doing, but here are a few strategies for you to think about and try out.
This is mainly about outside or bitonal playing over changes, rather than fully free playing, but the crossover is obvious and we’ll get into that a bit too.
HOLD THE LINE
There’s a great lesson to learn from many styles of Latin music. It is actually part of the DNA of the style in many cases for the accompaniment to be a repetitive pattern – I’ve found a common weakness among many jazzers starting to play, say, mambo, chacha, cumbia, merengue, even some types of samba, is that they overcomplicate their part and bust the feel. Jazzers often overplay in funk too…
A guitarist gets a phone call way past midnight asking him to come down to a studio and play for James Brown, who is doing a late-night recording session (and had already sacked a few guitarists). He rushes over and rips into playing. The take gets waved off from the control room and JB’s voice comes over the headphones – “hey you, new guy… Can you just play me an F9 chord?” So he plays one. “No, I mean can you JUST play me a ****ing F9 chord. All ****ing night.”
Of course we’re talking about groove music here, but the point can apply equally to jazz, with its freer approach to rhythm and more elaborated harmonic form.
Honestly, when you’re soloing on top of a rhythm section that has the music absolutely solidly locked up tight, you can play anything and it’ll sound good. They don’t go with you, they back you. You have total freedom – it feels a bit like you can lean back as far as you like, because you’ve got half a dozen pairs of hands supporting you (thanks to my old friend Phil Gaillard from the Siempre Caliente days for that useful metaphor).
Another thing to bear in mind is that the whole point of playing outside is to be deliberately “against” the rest of the music. If the rest of the band is trying to go with the soloist, how is the soloist actually supposed to be “against” anything?
So a good default option when a soloist goes off on one is to simply keep comping the form as clearly as possible.
LOOSENING THE HARMONY
Okay, so this “grit your teeth and keep on going” approach is fine, but might be a bit confining. What you can also do is loosen the form. Don’t chase every change – either sustain chords across the gaps you leave in the harmony or just use more space. Try using voicings that are inherently more transparent and ambiguous.
Often a good idea to mark a few significant points in the form though. Even the best players can lose track sometimes when they roll back their eyes and go bananas. A little friendly bleep here and there from the satnav (that’s you) is fine.
Sometimes it can be interesting to treat outside playing as a sort of free counterpoint between soloist and bass. It might be worth just leaving this to happen (the technical classical term for this style of piano playing is “tacet” or “remova di bloody hands”).
Tyner left the Coltrane band when things started to go really free, because he felt he didn’t have much of a role to play. In fact, most of the early free jazz bands didn’t include a chording instrument. It took some time for the piano to find its place in free music.
One way of working in this kind of mindset is to play another line of counterpoint in between the two lines in single notes or octaves. I generally find this approach most effective if you keep your “middle voice” less busy than the top and bottom voices. Back to Bach, really.
TWO OUTSIDES MAKE AN INSIDE
It may sound surprising (pun intended), but different ways of playing outside are actually quite compatible. If, for instance, the soloist goes out by playing a major 3rd away and you go a semitone away, you get a form of polytonality that has some very harmonically “in” coincidences as you go along. You don’t even have to be aware of precisely what’s going on: if they go weird and you go weird, the result is usually the square root of weird, rather than weird squared.
This is often also the case when you stop regarding your instrument as a harmonic device and just play purely on sound. Accompany and comment on the solo just as you would if you were playing totally in, but use clusters, sounds and scales that don’t “make sense”.
Why not try it?
TAKE THE “SOUND LIKE CRAP” CHALLENGE!
You’ve spent your whole musical career trying to sound “good” and “right”, yeah? Maybe you don’t like your playing because you keep making mistakes.
Here’s the challenge. Try to unhook your brain from everything you’ve ever learned and record yourself playing anything you like for about three minutes. There’s only one rule: You have to try your utmost to make it sound as wrong and disgusting as possible. Bailiff-knockingly, pet-leaving-homingly, police-cordon-establishingly revolting…
Now listen back to what you played, two or three times. If you can honestly say that you can’t find significant chunks in the recording that you think sound pretty cool then congratulations, you have won and truly are crap. Or truly original. Or something.
If, however, you do find things in there that you like, then give yourself a pat on the back and admit to yourself that you’re starting to lose your fear of making mistakes… Gotta be a good thing, right?
PS The Moebius strip image above is taken from mathematician Jos Leys’ beautiful video illustration of Bach’s Cancrizans Canon: