I’ve had a question about comping bass solos. Wow. Well, how long have we got…
I’ll start by mentioning that I play some “journeyman” bass. I can do a reasonable job as long the tempos are gentle, the changes aren’t too complex and you don’t expect inspired solos (or particularly good intonation). The reason I mention it is that it’s important to put yourself in other musicians’ shoes, and the best way to do that is to spend some time at least mucking around on their instrument. If you can’t do that, at very least try to put yourself in their heads.
This is as true in jazz as it is in classical music – if you can’t tell the difference between a clarinet and an oboe, you just won’t be able to write well for them. If you can get a squawk out of them, you’ve started. If you can play a little bit, you’re closer. If you’ve had a go, however feebly, at some of the parts they typically play, you’re much closer. Remember, instruments have specific roles to play in any kind of music.
So… where do we start? Not in historical order, let’s try building up from nothing.
You don’t actually have to comp at all. Leave them their space, go off to the bar even. Monk used to occasionally start gigs with pure solos – the drummer will now play you a tune, now the bassist will, etc. I’d say that, in general, a bassist won’t regard you laying out completely as idleness, cluelessness or lack of support. With the piano, guitar or drums out of the way, they have the musical space to themselves and most of them will relish the situation. But do be ready to come back in the right place though…
BACK TO BASIES
The odd little trinkling riff way up at the top of the piano – ie, well out of the way. This can work like a charm, but probably not all night. Likewise, low simple pedal points, often to mark section breaks. It’s not always a crime to play roots when accompanying a bassist. Oscar Peterson did it frequently. As, in a different vein, did Tyner. As in fact just about everybody does.
SO YOU WANNA BE THE CHAMP
An approach typical in bebop and hard bop. It’s pretty much the bog standard way – just keep champ-champing in the mid or upper register – although with a lighter approach than the way you’d comp a horn. Typical basic rhythms are the Charleston variants that Red Garland and others popularised. But be sensitive. When bassists get the opportunity to let fly, they like to use the full range of the instrument. They’ll often be right up the neck (it’s called thumb position). It is possible to play “in and amongst” but often better to keep out of the register they’re plundering at the time.
Don’t hop about weirdly, try to make it all organic, but it can actually be very beautiful when a bassist is really going for the high stuff with both hands barely inches apart for you to drop down really low – occasionally even playing a walking bass line yourself. Role reversal.
THE VAMP OF SAVANNAH
An idea inherited from jazz’s Latin roots, and prevalent in hard bop, funk, fusion, etc. Become a machine – pump out something consistent and allow the bassist to do something over it (do keep good time though). Of course, keep an eye on them and if they don’t much fancy this approach in the particular circs, don’t impose it. And be careful of dynamics – don’t overpower them.
THE CHAMBER OF
Pretty much invented by Bill Evans as an extension from the champ-champ. Total communal interaction, passing ideas around all the time. Quite literally creating a sort of conversational chamber music arrangement on the fly. With all these approaches, it becomes natural to respond to things that happen during a solo and magically make rhythmic hits, echo solo lines, etc. Kid the audience into thinking you’ve rehearsed… But in this approach, interplay is intense and constant.
Incidentally, this isn’t one for bigheads. If you do it right, audiences often can’t tell the changeover from piano to bass solo (or vice versa – great idea to occasionally give the bassist first whack). Or they don’t want to interrupt the music. Or they’re too busy arguing, falling in love, falling over, etc. So you’ll often get the applause for the two as one.
BACK TO BASS CAMP
So which to use? All of them, when appropriate. I’ve remarked before that I actually enjoy comping more than soloing (I’m weird like that). There’s as much creativity and challenge in it, believe me – possibly more – and comping a bassist well is possibly the ultimate test of your chops.
Your bassist, however inspired, generally spends the majority of the gig on a refined form of autopilot – it goes with the territory. For years they didn’t even get to solo at all. So when you give them their time to shine, treat them right.
Oh, and in general, if you feel you have to comp just to keep your place – stop it! You should be able to go and move the car, stop downstairs for a piss, have a chat with Uncle Fred and come back, just hear where the band is in the form and jump right back in.