As drummers, we spend our time working on time, reading, feel, technique and coordination. While all of these aspects are important, in jazz there is one component that is often missing in jazz. Comping. I have noticed in my travels that many aspiring young jazz drummers lack the vocabulary to accompany a soloist.
The pianist (or guitar) sets the harmony of the tune and the drummer is rhythmically tied into this harmony. A drummer can either become a vital force or a hindrance in a jazz solo.
Learning which beats to play on is essential. One way to do this is to listen to the masters play this music and study what both the drummer and piano player (or guitar) are playing. This can be overwhelming if at first you don’t know what you are listening for. In this article I will try to start unlocking the mystery of comping by providing a few exercises that will help a drummer develop their own vocabulary.
First lets make sure we are listening to the great drummers of jazz. Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Kenny Clarke are all essential in the bebop movement but “Philly” Joe Jones combined the raw power of Art Blakey and the melodic sense of Max Roach. This made Philly Joe one of the most influential drummers in jazz. He certainly is one my biggest influences.
Some of the great drummers that came later that opened up the modern jazz movement were drummers such as Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Jack DeJohnette. These drummers freed the Ride Cymbal from playing static into the lead comping voice.
When playing the exercises that are Philly Joe influenced, the snare drum should sound full and about the same volume as your ride cymbal. When playing the exercises that are more modern, your ride cymbal should be the lead voice and all other instruments should be ghosted(very soft). Make sure you still play the snare drum in the middle of the drum to keep it crisp.
Philly Joe used the following rhythm in his comping ideas:
In jazz, the harmony is always changing on beats one and beats three. By playing on the and of 2 and the and of 4, you are anticipating the chords. This propels the music forward.
Here is an example of how Philly Joe might play that rhythm:
Here is an example of how you can break up the rhythm to make it sound more modern:
George Benson often uses the following comping idea:
This next exercise is how Philly Joe might play it:
An example of how you can break it up to sound more modern:
I too often hear drummers end their phrases on beat one. This stops the forward momentum of the music. While you are comping under a soloist you should end your phrases on beats four or on the and of four. Bob Gullotti told me once that ending your phrases on beat four gives the music the most emotional lift. This is not to say you should never end on one. It can be appropriate in the right circumstances but you should not get in the habit of ending every phrase on beat one.
The next few examples should be played at the end of a phrase leading into the top of the form or to the bridge.
Here is a more modern example using both comping ideas from earlier, ending your phrase on the and of 4.
Here is a modern example using the comping ideas from earlier, ending your phrase on beat 4.
Another way to make the music feel open while comping is to play a polyrhythm over the barline.
Here is an example:
While practicing these, mix and match the different ideas to see what you come up with. You can also start in any measure and cycle back around to see what new ideas you can come up with. The possibilities are endless.
Scott Drewes is currently the drummer with the United States Military Academy Band Jazz Knights from West Point, NY and serves on the faculty at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY. He holds a BM in Jazz Studies from the Manhattan School of Music and a MM in Jazz Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Scott has been a SABIAN Artist since 2007 and also endorses Canopus Drums.
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