Comping Jazz Part One: Fill in the Blanks

Ella and Louis

The word comp comes from accompany or compliment. Playing a supportive role to a soloist or vocalist shouldn’t be seen as a dull or mundane duty. It is in fact very rewarding and challenging. It is another form of improvisation where you respond to the soloist and/or suggest a direction and mood. You can kick the soloist into a higher gear, you can follow them down the rabbit hole of a cross-rhythm or a dissonant diversion from the tyranny of the chord changes, only to arrive back into the harmony with a burst of sunshine laden resolution.
Today’s exercise is one I often assign students that are just getting into comping. You can think of it as a sort of question and answer exercise. I like to call it fill in the blanks (fill in the holes sounded a little too risqué). It really gets you focused on the solo and gives you a clear goal on how to fit in under a soloist. Check out Oscar Peterson’s comping on this Ella and Louis recording. Brilliant!

The Raw Material

Let’s start with a standard set of changes to Autumn Leaves. Here are the changes that you can print out if you don’t already know them.

Autumn Changes

Autumn Changes

The Comping (fill in the blank) Exercise

The mp3 below is a solo I recorded. I tried to play it fairly diatonic and sparse. You job is to comp the changes. The only catch is that you can only place chords in the blanks, or in other words, when I am not playing. Longer breaks you can play a few chords..or not. Here are a few tips:

  • Listen…really listen to the melody of the solo. You will start hearing the natural ending of phrases.
  • Jazz guitarists, don’t strum. Pluck the chords and try to create more staccato, pianistic punches
  • Use simple chords such as 3 note voicings (which you can find here), drop 2 or drop 3 (will be getting to these in the future). More important that you focus on finding the holes than on playing super complex chords.
  • Comp over long or held notes as if it were a hole
  • Sometimes you get tricked and you think there is a phrase ending, sometimes you don’t…be musical about it…always
  • Anticipate the next chord if hole is close to the chord change
  • You don’t have to play every chord in every bar.

Here is an example of me comping for myself:

Now it’s your turn:

So, you get the idea. Find a friend, and practice this concept together. Listen to jazz masters do it. Play along and comp for your favorite artists recordings. Work on other tunes. There are other techniques to comping as well, but this is the one that will really get you listening! You WILL get better at it if you work on it. Have fun and really listen.

Learn More!

Here are some resources you can check out if you want to learn more about comping.

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