Peter Bernstein is one of my all-time favorite jazz guitarists. So of course he was the first teacher I reached out to study with when I moved to NYC - along with John Scofield. It was an epic and intense first year.
Studying with Pete basically meant hanging out, playing a lot of duo together, and just talking about different elements of the music and the tradition. He's an encyclopedia. He knows so many tunes, he can play them in any key, he's got so many stories, and he can dig into any philosophical or historical perspective of the music. He's a sponge and has been soaking everything up from the greats that he's surrounded himself with for decades.
One of the things he and I talked about the most was comping. How important it is and how to work on it. Granted, I was always asking him about comping, so maybe that's why we talked about it so much. I'm just so blown away by the way he accompanies others. He's so versatile. He comps differently for himself when playing solo guitar than he does for me when we play duo. And that's different from how he comps in his trios or if there's a piano player. He never stops sounding like himself when he comps, but he changes drastically depending on the situation to best support the tune, the musicians, the soloist, and the instrumentation.
He pointed out that most of us will spend countless hours shedding our scales, our chord, tones, and our arpeggios. Then we'll start working on a new jazz standard that we want to learn and will spend hours more shedding our improvisation over it, figuring out which scales and arpeggios work and when to shift between them. But when we go to support the other musician(s) we're playing with by accompanying them during their solo with our comping, we don't have as deep a bag of tricks to pull from. We often just play the generic real book changes... and not always in the most exciting way.
Pete taught me how important it is to make comping a priority in my practice time. To sit and work on it. Actively. Aggressively. Comping doesn't magically improve. We have to spend time on it. He recommended that I spend as much time practicing comping on a new tune when I'm learning it as I spend working on soloing over it... if not more!
In order to accomplish this, we have to behave differently. We can't take the same actions and expect different results. So comping has to become a mental priority for us, and the best way to do that is to put it FIRST in line when we hit the shed. This was something Pete specifically recommended to me. It's so easy to want to learn the melody, the basic chord progression, and then jump straight to shedding our single-note improvisation over the tune. But forcing ourselves to break that habit and that order and start shedding our comping over the tune before our single-note improv really gets us thinking about the tune's form and the harmonic function of all of the chords and sections. It will not only help us make sure we've put in some real time on the tune comping, but learning to navigate and be inventive with the harmonic pathways of the tune will actually open up more interesting ways to improvise over the form as well. So practicing comping first will actually improve our single-note playing as well... before we even work on it.
I'm always hesitant to recommend a specific length of time for practicing as every musician and situation is different, but depending on the length of the practice time you want to set aside to work on a tune, you may want to start with a 15 minute to one hour chunk of time dedicated entirely to comping. Think about it this way... if you're playing this tune at a gig and end up comping for a horn player who's feeling it and goes in for a 10 minute solo... can you comp for 10 minutes over that tune and make it feel exciting and sound great the entire time? Chances are, if you've never sat for 10 minutes in the shed and focused on comping for that tune, you might struggle to pull it off musically when it counts.
Think of it like getting in shape. If you are a little overweight and always start your day with a donut and an hour of sitting on the couch watching the news, you might decide you want to start jogging every day. So just go ahead and commit to changing your habits. Wake up, skip the donut and the hour of sitting around, throw your jogging shoes on, and get outside. Will it be hard in the beginning? Absolutely. Will you enjoy it? Or be able to go for 30 minutes? I doubt it. But with time you'll get used to it... it will start to get easier... you'll get better... you'll start to enjoy it... and eventually you'll start to see differences in your energy levels and you'll notice you're losing weight.
It's no different with comping. If you're not as good at comping as you like... change your habits. Commit to starting off with comping when you're working on a tune rather than single-note improv. Start with something short... maybe 5-10 minutes. Keep coming back to it daily. Focus on smiling and making sure you're having fun with it. Experiment. Explore. Record yourself, listen back, and play along. Maybe listen to some of your favorite recordings of the tune you're working on and focus on what the comping instrument is doing. If you're able to transcribe any of their voicings, rhythms, or chord movements, that can be helpful.
But regardless of how you work on your comping and whether or not you're transcribing, the most important thing is to recognize that the outcome isn't going to improve unless you first shift your thinking to prioritize comping, and then follow that up with a big shift in your practice habits.
Think about it like this...
You open up the real book to a tune you're working on and the chord progression says...
V - W - X - Y - Z
Why? What is the purpose of each of those chords? If V is the starting point and Z is the final point, what function do W, X, and Y serve in the bigger picture? If they're chords that are helping us move from V to Z, how do they move us there? Do we need all of them? Do we need any of them? What if we leave one out? What if we add another chord into the mix? What if we change them entirely? This isn't the same as a full on chord substitution. We're not thinking of these as individual chords and just subbing another chord in place (though this could theoretically happen as well). We're thinking about function and finding alternative harmonic routes to tell the story of moving from V to Z.
Think of it like going to work in the morning. You start at home (V) and you need to end up at work (Z)... and you need to be there at a certain time of day, let's say 8:00am (the downbeat of measure 4). Well what happens if there's road construction and your normal route is blocked. Do you go home, call the office, and tell them you aren't going to work today because your usual route is blocked? Or do you pull off onto a side street and find another way to get there? The boss doesn't care how you get there... only that you do get there and that you're on time.
Pete recommended that I practice comping over tunes and forcing myself to make sure each time through the form I'm doing something different. Never to play it exactly the same way again. That might mean altering the rhythm, changing up the harmonic route I take, or any other way of creating variation... we want our comping to be as exciting, spontaneous, and fun to listen to as our soloing.
Check out his comping in this Autumn Leaves duo video. Full length PDF transcription available below.
He's got all kinds of alternative movements happening. Check out this examples from measure 11 through 18.
Where there should be a ii V I in G major followed by a ii V i in Emin, he descends chromatically from a Bb-7 to Eb7 down through an A-7 to D7, Ab- to Db7, implies the CMaj7, and then continues down chromatically through G-7 and finally down to F#-7b5 to B7 to Emin. What an exciting way to move through the A section of the Autumn Leaves changes. So much more unexpected and adventurous then just running the same old real book changes chorus after chorus.
Other times he chooses smaller alternate routes.
Like the CMaj7 in the 4th bar of this example. Let's look at how he got there. He, again, starts on the Bb-7 chord, but quickly steps down chromatically to A-7. And then he plays a B/C chord on the & of beat 2, which is a rootless D7 chord with the 13 and the b9. Then on beat 4, he jumps up to an Eb-9 chord. That Eb-9 resolves down chromatically to D-9 which he treats as the ii-7 chord in a ii V I to CMaj7. So instead of treating D7 as the V, GMaj7 as the I, and CMaj7 as the IV chord... he focuses on how to get to CMaj7. Again, these are NOT chord substitutions. He's just looking ahead. He wants to get to CMaj7... and one way to do that is to precede it with a ii V. So instead of GMaj7 -> CMaj7 he plays D-7 -> G7 -> CMaj7. And he gets into the D-7 chromatically from Eb-7.
If the only thing you've ever been told to practice to improve your comping was to shed your drop chord inversions, this idea of creating movement might seem new, intriguing, daunting, or intimidating. But I'm pointing it out to try and help demystify and simplify to art of accompaniment. You don't need 1000s of variations of drop chords and every inversion memorized. Look back through the two examples above again. They're almost all just basic root position shell voicings... with a few sprinklings of slightly more advanced ideas. Instead of worrying about inversions, substitutions, or advanced carpal tunnel-inducing voicings to make things seem conceptually impressive, he's showing us just how much can be done musically when we know the basics and are willing to keep things simple and be playful with them. This mentality is what inspired me to create our Chords For Life course for comping. It focuses on three things. Time, shell voicings, and learning to create movement so that we can spontaneously improvise new harmonic pathways, like the ones I'm pointing out here, while we're comping. This course explores the four traditionally accepted types of movement (dominant, diminished, chromatic, and diatonic) and how they can each be used to create more exciting harmonic playing over jazz standards. It's available to the members of our Melodic Triads Study Group.
When I was playing duo with Pete, if I was comping for him and took a risk by going for something that didn't work out perfectly, he never stopped me or gave me a hard time. He knows those tunes inside and out and can play through bumps in the road. He doesn't need me to spoon-feed him 'the changes'. But not every other musician plays on that level... so this point is situational. But when playing with someone who can hold their own, don't be afraid to take some risks and try new things. The more you experiment and learn about chord movement, the more often you'll be able to make these risks work.
While Pete never stopped me if I played a chord that didn't quite work, he DID point out when I wasn't moving. If I held onto a chord for too long without providing some kind of harmonic interest, he'd point that out and ask me to do something... and by that he meant ANYTHING!
Again, check out his playing in the Autumn Leaves video.
At the end of every A section and the B section of Autumn Leaves are two measures of Emin6. That is A LOT of Emin. The whole tune is only 32 measures long, and 6 of those measures are Emin. That means almost 20% of the time we're playing this standard, chorus after chorus, we're essentially vamping on one chord.
Can we do that? Sure, but doesn't that sound kind of boring? Wouldn't you, as a listener, want to hear something more exciting? Something that takes you somewhere else and tells more of a story? Two measures is so much time to create something unexpected.
In the example above, Pete doesn't simply play an Emin6 chord for eight beats. In fact, in this particular example, he never even lets us hear the Emin6. He implies it by dropping a nice, low E note - which is more than he does during other choruses in this section. But as soon as he plays that E note, he's off and moving again. Immediately he jumps up to a C note... and from there walks up chromatically to the E note an octave above where he started. There's no Emin drop voicing, there's no inversions, there are no chord substitutions... just an interesting counter-melody that moves through the basic sound of Emin. A sort of "tenor line" that carries us from the low E, to the E an octave above it. It's just movement. Could we analyze it with theory and try and figure out the specific function of each individual note and what chords they might be implying? I suppose. But it's just a line that moves while remaining anchored to the function of what's happening in the form at that moment.
Sometimes during a two bar vamp on one chord, Pete will use ideas like I discussed earlier, using alternative harmonic pathways to get from point A to point B. Other times he might sit on a chord but have some small inner voice movement inside it that makes it feel like things are still moving. In this case, it's just a simple counter melody that's implying the chord without playing it or arpeggiating it. No matter which direction he goes though, he always plays it in time, with a strong sense of conviction and intention, and is willing to take risks to create movement and excitement.
At the same time, we also want to make sure we're not overdoing it. This can cause a few different problems. First, it can confuse and overwhelm less confident soloists. If a musician is still learning a tune or gaining confidence and command of their instrument and the jazz language, it's important to respect that and make sure they don't feel like they're caught in a harmonic tornado. The extent to which we can develop alternate routes through the chords or imply harmony with counter melodies really does depend on how stable and self-sufficient the musician we're backing up is. Remember, this isn't a game of one-on-one basketball that we're trying to win. Our goal isn't to impress anybody or to "beat" the other musicians. This is a team sport with no opposing team. Our goal as a comping instrument is to support the soloist, and to the extent possible, to make sure they have a hell of a fun time during their solo. If they're a first time surfer, let them stay close to the beach. Help them learn to paddle, recommend they focus on just catching waves and riding them on their stomach without worrying about standing up, and then point them towards some smaller waves to help them get the hang of things. But if they know how to handle themselves, it might be time to find a beach with some bigger waves, paddle out, and ride!
Second, even with very competent and talented soloists who can hold their own, we don't want our comping to overshadow their solo. They are supposed to be the foreground, and we are supposed to be the background. We DO want to make the background feel exciting and alive, but we don't want to let the background take over and become the foreground... unless the soloist enjoys using a lot of silence and space to invite the other musicians into the spotlight with them. And then we can fill that space with ideas that will bring our comping more into view. Even though Pete stopped playing chords in the Emin6 example above and chose to accompany me with a counter-melody... it was an incredibly simple one. There wasn't a ton of movement in it, it was less than two measures long, and there wasn't a single eighth note in it... it was made entirely of quarter notes and dotted quarter notes. Very easy for him to play that line without "knocking me off my surfboard and stealing my wave."
If you're already hanging with us in The Melodic Triads Study Group, you know that I'm a BIG fan of focusing on the fundamentals and getting as much use out of them as we can. In that study group we mainly focus on "basic" triads when it comes to single note improvisation. Once we understand how to voice lead with triads and add notes to them to create quadratonics, we can begin playing spontaneous bebop and modern jazz vocabulary without the need for riffs, sequences, or pre-memorized runs. How? Because triads are so elementary that we can do anything with them.
Shell voicings are the other main ingredient in The Melodic Triads Approach. Far more than drop chords or memorizing hundreds of inversions and substitutions, if we just learn a few basic shell voicing shapes and then study HOW chords like to move naturally (dominant, diminished, chromatic, and diatonic) we can invent countless spontaneous ways to comp through tunes without repeating the same ideas every chorus or regurgitating the real book changes over and over and over. Who wants to solo over that type of comping? This is exactly what I attempt to teach in our 'Chords For Life' comping course inside The Melodic Triads Study Group. I break down each of the traditional types of chord movement and look at how we can invent exciting ways of comping over the same standard in a variety of ways using the basics... shell voicings, time/groove/feel, and movement. I learned a lot of these ideas from hanging and playing with Pete.
The conversation of jazz guitar comping generally jumps straight to things like drop 2 and drop 3 chord voicings, Barry Harris methodology, counterpoint... really big and intensive studies that can take lifetimes to master. We often jump beyond the basic shell voicings quickly. If you're not already familiar with shell voicings, these are three-note chord shapes that are generally made up of the root, 3rd, and 7th of the chord (or 6th).
I'm not against practicing, using, or teaching these other elements to comping... but if you check out Pete's comping in the Autumn Leaves video and take a look at the PDF of the full transcription below, you'll see that the vast majority of what he's playing is made up of root position shell voicings. It's precisely BECAUSE he's using such simple ingredients that he's able to move so freely and playfully through the form. And THAT is what made it so fun to play over. I never knew where he was going to take the harmony during my solo. It was like surfing together, sharing waves, and having no idea how far away we'd paddled out from the beach and no concern to head back in. It wasn't him just showing off cool sounding voicing after cool sounding voicing... like shiny objects to distract me. Instead he was using really simple ingredients, but putting them together in a way that told a story and carried the momentum of the tune forward, like the energy of a wave that a surfer can ride.
It's such a fun way to play music, to accompany others, and to create something spontaneous, exciting, and beautiful. And all it takes is a shift in our priorities, a willingness to focus our time and effort on harmony and comping, a willingness to keep things simple, and a desire to explore chord movement and learn to move within the unknown with conviction and intention. Mix that with a massive amount of generosity of spirit and a great desire to listen to the soloist and make them sound better, and you are guaranteed to become better at jazz guitar comping.
Give it a shot and see what happens to your playing! And as always...