comping

Brad Mehldau

I began to learn that instrumentalists and singers often didn’t want or need … validation from the accompanist. Actually, most of the time, they preferred that you supply your steady support by staying clear of their path, not answering their every idea, but rather laying something down more locked into the bass and drums, even grid-like. If you are constantly trying to interact with every idea they present, you are not really accompanying, properly speaking — you are hijacking their ideas in a sense, and putting the focus on what you’re doing instead. It becomes more, “Look at me everyone, I’m so hip and adept at catching the soloist/singer’s ideas!” But what it’s really saying to the soloist/singer (and the audience) is: “Please like me!” It’s overbearing. It feels like one of those people you know who, when in a conversation with you, is constantly affirming what you’re saying — “Yeah … totally … exactly!” — before you’ve even finished your thought.

Mehldau started thinking back to his teenage years when he worked in a pizza joint in West Hartford, Connecticut:  

I remembered the guy Jeremy at Papa Gino’s who was flipping pies within a few short months while I struggled at the grill. He didn’t give a shit — it was 5:45 evening rush hour, the place was packed and customers were eyeing him impatiently. But he was as cool as a cucumber, getting the pizzas in and out of the big oven. Maybe the thing was to just not give a shit with comping as well — not to throw away your taste and sensibility, mind you, but to bring a little of that cavalier pie-flipping thing into it. I started watching this less sensitive kind of comping going on at jam sessions or on gigs, and I didn’t always dig it. But I also noticed that other people often did — most importantly, the soloists they were comping behind. So what did it matter what I thought? 

What a great analogy.

“Comping” is a universal term in jazz. It probably derives from “accompaniment,” maybe also from “complement,” but it has a distinctive valence: the good comper is the musician who can support the soloist in meaningful ways without becoming a rival for the audience’s attention. The best comper improves and strengthens the audience’s response to the soloist without anyone ever noticing

Albert Murray, whom I’ve been thinking about a lot — see this post, and I’ll have an essay on him in the next issue of Comment, which I will no doubt call your attention to when it appears — used to say that his role was to comp for other artists: his friend Ralph Ellison (who was a music major in college and played the trumpet) was a great soloist, but Murray’s job was so support that kind of high-flying virtuosity with an imaginative but also reliable groove. 

I love this idea of critical and essayistic writing as a kind of comping for the artists and thinkers I admire and learn from. I’d like to think that my best work exhibits some of the virtues of the quiet, cool, comping jazz pianist.