Accompanying the Jazz Vocalist

by Paul Hofmann

When people recall their favorite opera singers or classical instrumental soloists, the underlying musical contributors tend to be overlooked. Who, after all, is violinist Itzhak Perlman’s regular accompanist? Admittedly, I wouldn’t recognize the name; I’d simply assume that he or she is expert at playing the supportive role (pun intended). My primary focus being on Perlman, I might take notice of his accompanist only in the event a conspicuous mistake might be made! In a similar vein: Just who is the make-up artist for that Hitchcock movie?

The history of jazz and popular music has evolved a bit differently. Many accompanists have become well-known in their own right, notably a select group of writers and arrangers, as in ‘Ella Fitzgerald with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra.’ Or ‘Frank Sinatra sings the arrangements of Quincy Jones.’ Recognition aside, just what is it that makes the collaboration between soloist and accompanist an artistically successful one? Two more analogies: If the soloist is the roof, the accompanist is the foundation. If the soloist is the budding flower, the accompanist constitutes the root and stem.

Some dictionary definitions from Random House Webster’s (and edited for brevity):

Interestingly, one of Webster’s definitions for ‘singer’ includes: “A poet.” And many great jazz musicians have undoubtedly been poetic (i.e. tenor saxophonist Stan Getz). Obviously, the jazz singer has the unique vocal opportunity to sing – or speak – improvised directions to his or her accompanist(s) in a way that other soloists cannot.

But apart from this, the musical techniques many listeners tend to identify exclusively with vocalists (diction, for instance; or phrasing and breathing) are just as important considerations for instrumentalists — accompanists as well as soloists. Any good accompanist recognizes the importance of anticipating these and other factors, such as changes in dynamics, moods and tempi, etc.

Thus, it may be helpful to contemplate the general category: The art of accompanying. From the above definition, we see that a good accompaniment involves “[s]omething incidental or added for ornament, symmetry...” Likewise, the foundation and lower floors of a well-designed house can be both symmetrical and ornamental even while buttressing the upper floors.

The construction of the florid, logical contrapuntal lines of the best Baroque music constitutes a fully-realized ideal of the relationship between soloist and accompanist. Perhaps this is an important reason why the music of Bach, Handel and Rameau continues to inspire us even today, in some cases three hundred years after their creation. Indeed, the similarities between improvised jazz (particularly bebop) and notated classical music (particularly from the Baroque and Classical periods) is readily apparent. [Note: For a more complete discussion of this issue, The Inherent Compatibility of Jazz and Classical Music may be of interest, as may my “New Inventions” project.]

Yet whatever the musical style, the art of accompanying involves several finely-honed skills: most notably the ability to listen, to consider the importance of using space as well as notes. Traditionally, this subtle art involves subjugation of the ego to ‘the larger good’: the coherence of the musical whole (again, from Webster’s definition: “...supporting and enhancing the principal part”). Consider a masterwork hanging from a museum wall. The frame may be well-crafted, may even be a work of art in its own right, but must not overwhelm the painting it encloses.

So where does the aspiring jazz vocal accompanist begin listening? Historically, jazz has produced many masterful examples of collaborations between vocalists and accompanists. A short list (singers followed by pianists) would surely include: Billie Holiday & Teddy Wilson; Ella Fitzgerald & Tommy Flanagan; Tony Bennett & Bill Evans. And, of course, Nat Cole was brilliantly accompanied at the piano by ... Nat Cole.

It would also serve vocal accompanists well to study the way other accompanists have honed their craft, even where the soloist may not have been a singer – or the accompanist not a pianist. Listening to McCoy Tyner backing up John Coltrane’s tenor and soprano sax remains a stimulating experience, as is listening to guitarist Jim Hall backing up Bill Evans, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond or tenor titan Sonny Rollins. And one readily hears the inspiring blend of soloists and accompanists in several of trumpeter Miles Davis’s most important rhythm sections.

Consider Davis’s great 1950s quintet featuring pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones ... these musicians were experts at buttressing the solo statements of Miles and Coltrane with substantive playing of their own. They contributed music that seemed to never ‘get in the way,’ all the while playing interesting (and supremely swinging) music. Sadly, these subtle principles seem to have been de-emphasized in recent years. The art of accompanying, or ‘comping,’ is becoming a lost art, I fear.

Of course there surely is an important and exciting place for well-played music that is more collaborative, where the time-honored roles of ‘soloist’ and ‘accompanist’ aren’t as strictly defined. In other words, allowing the roles of the soloist and the pianist to ‘flip-flop.’

I immediately think of several celebrated duet projects featuring pianist Chick Corea: with vocalist Bobby McFerrin (“Play”), with vibraharpist Gary Burton (“Duet”), with flutist Steve Kujala (“Voyage”), with fellow pianist Herbie Hancock (“An Evening With Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea”). In these instances, the separation between soloist and accompanist is often intentionally blurred – as is the line between jazz and contemporary classical music. These concepts have been important influences on my approach to writing for various duos over the years, particularly with guitarist Bob Sneider on our albums “Escapade” and “Interconnection.”

And surely Webster’s definition of jazz applies here: “...developing through various increasingly complex styles, generally marked by intricate, propulsive rhythms ... improvisatory, virtuosic solos, melodic freedom, and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromaticism to atonality.” 1996’s “1 + 1” duet recording by Hancock on piano and Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone represents a supreme example of jazz so broadly defined.

At its best, then, the high art of accompanying the jazz vocalist entails more than knowing the usual jazz things (be they: having learned standard tunes; the trading of ‘8s and 4s’; being aware of common introductions and endings; etc.). It also presupposes a fluency in the language of Western music, an ability to swing authentically, and the ability (indeed, the willingness) to ‘go with the flow.’ As with anything else worthwhile, the process of becoming a successful accompanist usually involves years of maturation ... but the artistic rewards are great.