Skeletal Comping

Confession time. I actually enjoy comping more than soloing. It’s like a fascinating, constantly shifting, multi-dimensional puzzle to solve, with no limit to the possible solutions but your own imagination. Co-operating is as important as leading. Playing not just the piano, but playing the music.

Here’s something I find interesting. Listen to a recording of a really good jazz comper. Quite often you’ll find that some, or even most of the chords aren’t actually played at all. They often hit, hang or hold off completely, and leave loads of space. For instance, there are great Rhythm and Giant Steps recordings out there where you frequently won’t hear more than occasional chording from the pianist. (And it isn’t because they can’t make the tempo.)

Some people tend to play every single chord change on a chart, on the button, all the time, chorus after chorus, solo after solo. Why?

Well, maybe it’s to keep their place. Maybe it’s to pin things down and help others keep their place (can be necessary). Maybe it’s fear that people will think they’re not very good or they can’t play the changes, or a sense that they’ve been hired, so they’ve got to play all the time. Maybe it’s boyish (or girlish) enthusiasm…


Composers and arrangers don’t have an entire orchestra or big band furiously blasting away constantly, all at once, all at the same time. They vary the texture and mood, and use different instruments, ranges and levels of activity appropriately and precisely. They rest players and ears.

This, for me at least, is a very important attitude for a pianist, since we are basically in charge of an orchestra simulator. The characteristics of the instrument can also leave us prone to the urge to totalise (since everything is possible) and not give enough consideration to space (since we have limited capacity for sustain).

If you champ champ away like a machine all the time it soon gets dull, you have less contrast and impact and often you’ll clash with (or worse bury) the soloist.

Ask some people why they love a great player and they’ll say something about virtuosity – all those notes. Wow, what a guy. Ask others and they’ll say it’s because these players have great time, great swing. Wow, what an amazing guy. Let’s go further – great time happens in time, it’s about placement of notes in a bed of silence. Remember, your job is not so much to play as to make musical choices.

I said I prefer comping to soloing, but I don’t actually regard them as that different, rather different regions on the same spectrum. And they inform each other.

So let’s hear it for leaving some flesh off the comping, eh? Next time you play with a band, experiment with leaving things out of the harmony on different choruses – hit, hang or hold back. Understand the harmonic structure of the tune and try comping as little as possible.

Try putting things where you feel they’re needed, will work and be interesting. Consider even laying out completely at the top of a horn solo and then find the most natural way to craft your entry after a couple of sections or choruses. Try leaving out the ii or V or VI chord in a ii-V-I-VI. Consider when and how often you actually need to explicitly state every harmonic change.

This kind of approach also allows the soloists more freedom. So when comping, don’t be a playalong, so much as a listenalong. And if you leave more space, you’ll also find it easier to hear the kind of things the soloists are doing, get a feel for their musical personality and find the best way of complementing them. And it tunes you to really zero in on the rhythmic interest in what you play when you do play. When you’re soloing as well…

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
2 comments on “Skeletal Comping
  1. Cookin’ at the Plugged Nickel.

  2. Joanna says:

    That was a really helpful post, thank you.

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