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The Art of Accompanying the Jazz Vocalist

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The following article is a summary of Christopher Edward White's thesis


A successful working relationship between the pianist and vocalist is ultimately an act of symbiosis; the best practitioners possess a special ability to work effortlessly in sync. Accompanying improves gradually through trial and error experience on the bandstand and with deep reflective study.

The jazz pianist is expected to orchestrate, support and enhance the soloist’s melodic lines, whether the soloist is an instrumentalist or vocalist. Using rhythm and harmony, an accompanist must be suggestive yet never intrusive. According to bassist Chuck Israels, the accompanist must apply “fully 90% of his or her consciousness towards ‘living in the body’ of whomever has the lead voice. This attention must be applied in a way that the accompanist experiences every breath, every nuance of muscle tension and timing, and every dynamic change in the music of the ‘lead’ musician.

Pianist Chick Corea summarized this by saying, “a good accompaniment should be able to stand on its own as a melody.” A good accompanist must also be continually in an alert, focused state. The accompanist must have the ability to listen carefully to the other musicians and sensitively adjust to each musical interaction. John di Martino recognizes this delicate relationship between singer and accompanist, stating, “when accompaniment is at its best, you’re at the highest spiritual state and the most selfless. It’s almost a Zen concept. You really want to give to that other person.”

Phil Schaap remarked. “You have to just totally delete a lot of your personality and needs and ego – or you’re not an accompanist. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. If you only think of it as a subtraction, it will never work.”

Singers greatly appreciated his use of space and silence. Indeed, Rowles steadfastly believed there were two rules of accompanying: anticipation and subduing oneself. “If you don’t subdue yourself, the listener is going to get confused because the piano part will be competing for the listener’s attention.” By subduing oneself, Rowles means playing less of what one would normally play but still retaining one’s original identity. “Don’t play too much, don’t play too loud, and don’t play the melody.” These words concisely sum up the accompaniment process, yet they are much easier said than done.

Comping for Vocalist vs Instrumentalists

A fundamental question in many discussions about jazz vocal accompaniment is: should a pianist accompany a vocalist differently than an instrumentalist?

- Pianist Bill Charlap is often asked if there is a difference between playing for a vocalist and playing for an instrumentalist. For Charlap, “there is no difference. You listen for what the music asks, and then react intelligently in a way that gives the singer or soloist the space to express themselves.”

- Pianist Tommy Flanagan see differences accompanying instrumentalists and vocalists. Flanagan accompanied many instrumentalists including famous tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane but also spent much time with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Flanagan once noted, “I couldn’t play behind her the same way I would behind a horn. Horn players would play the changes, but Ella, who is a very good musician, was more into a fixed melody.

- John di Martino asserts that one difference between playing for a vocalist versus an instrumentalist is that, when accompanying a vocalist, a pianist should play more orchestrally: “I’m always thinking of framing the melody in an orchestral way and creating an orchestral environment for the singer.” di Martino also notes that for instrumentalists he plays more rhythmically, depending on the rhythmic activity level of the soloist.

When accompanying vocalists, Randy Halberstadt states he “tends to play more in between their phrases, so as to allow the lyrics to be better heard. But I also try to do that with horn players, just not so much.”

With vocalists, Eric Gunnison often plays more spread voicings, or voicings with widely-spaced intervals, such as chords with stacked fifths (C-G-D-A-E). This allows more space and breathing room for the vocalist. He also uses fewer clusters35 for the same reason.

Although their approaches differ, the majority of the pianists interviewed for this project agree that there is a marked difference between accompanying an instrumentalist and accompanying a vocalist. With this established, it is important to identify the specific issues that face the accompanist when working with vocalists that may not arise when working with instrumentalists.

Creating Introductions for the vocalist

A proper introduction establishes the key, style and tempo and sets the appropriate mood for the vocalist’s entrance. Even in the most complex of introductions, the vocalist’s starting pitch should never be left in doubt. Numerous conventions for introductions are used for both vocalists and instrumentalists. The use of a Imaj7-vi7-ii7- V7 turnaround (ie. Cmaj7, Am7, Dm7, G7 in the key of C major), the last four or eight measures of the song, a rhythmic vamp (I-V7), or some variant of these examples is common.

A clear harmonic or melodic signal, such as ending the introduction on the V7 chord for songs beginning on the tonic chord, or making the top note of the final chord the starting pitch for the vocalist is also useful, but not always necessary, depending on the desired arrangement as well as the experience level of the vocalist.

In-tempo introductions on ballads

When creating in-tempo introductions for the vocalist on ballads, the pianist must set the appropriate mood for the piece. In a successful introduction the mood of the accompaniment matches the intent of the lyrics and tone of the vocalist that follows. One effective device is to create a static vamp or rhythmic ostinato. Paul Smith chose this approach for Ella Fitzgerald on “Angel Eyes” on The Intimate Ella. Over an E dominant pedal in the left hand Smith plays tension-filled chromatically descending triads, based on the melody itself in the right hand, setting a mood that presages the haunting lyrics that follow:

Another effective introduction for a piece in any tempo, but especially a ballad, is to reuse part of the song’s harmony, and add an original melody on top of it.

Out-tempo introductions on ballads

Out-of-tempo introductions pose particular challenges. The pianist must think more orchestrally when playing rubato, which opens up more creative harmonic and registral possibilities. One effective method is varying the register during the introduction before the vocalist enters. David Newton sometimes uses a technique of playing in the upper register and gradually descending into a lower register of the piano, creating the musical effect of tension and release. Newton uses this technique in his introduction before Stacey Kent enters on “What the World Needs Now” on The Boy Next Door. For Newton, having a progression like this is a basic part of musical language. Hobgood acknowledges that he conceived these introductions from an orchestral rather than pianistic standpoint: “When you’re playing the piano you should be thinking beyond the piano. If I start high like that it’s because I’m thinking of violins, violas, flutes and clarinets.” This orchestral approach is an imaginative technique that allows the accompanist to experiment and create fresh voicings for the singer.

On Greta Matassa’s version of “Ruby” on All This and Heaven, Too, Randy Halbertstadt uses a similar registral technique in the introduction. He asserts that it is a useful compositional device for contrast, whether accompanying a vocalist or in any other playing situation. Christian Jacob uses this approach, too, at the start of “Smile” on On the Other Side, “I Think of You” on Dancing in the Dark and “Two For the Road” on I’m With the Band.

Using harmonic material extracted from the first measure of the song as an introduction is another effective device for out-of-tempo introductions, as it was in in- tempo introductions. Accompanists commonly repeat the material once or a number of times until the vocalist’s entrance. On “If I Loved You” from I’m With the Band, Jacob plays the first two harmonies of the song, Gmaj7 to Gdim7, twice, yet each with the same texture of ascending arpeggiated chords. Jacob maintains this texture when Sutton enters in the fifth measure, successfully creating a seamless link between the introduction and the first A section.

Though introductions are often improvised, sometimes the vocalist feels most comfortable knowing how the tune will be set up each time. Newton recalls that Stacey Kent favored hearing the same introduction each time to “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life,” a piece with a challenging opening vocal line. An arranged passage provides a solid harmonic foundation and instills comfort in the vocalist.

Mid-up tempo pieces

When creating introductions on mid to up-tempo pieces, Halberstadt typically errs on the side of simplicity: “If the singer can hear their key and knows when to come in, that’s the main thing. So I’ll use boilerplate techniques like a I-V vamp, the last four bars of the song, or a I-VI-II-V progression, maybe with a V pedal underneath.”

At recording sessions or rehearsals, introductions are often worked out ahead of time to provide a solid foundation for up-tempo pieces. On “Cheek to Cheek” on I’m With The Band, Christian Jacob uses the melody of the song as the basis for the introduction, creating a vamp that leads Sutton to the melody. Jacob places the starting notes G and F at the top of voicings on parallel major chords, Bb and Ab respectively. After two measures, Sutton enters by lightly scatting over the established harmonic vamp, eventually singing the melody as the vamp continues.

A similar pedal point technique to Smith’s “Angel Eyes” introduction can be used on faster tempo introductions. On “Man in the Air” from Kurt Elling’s Man in the Air, for example, Hobgood uses a single-note repeated figure in the left hand before employing various triads and four-note chords in the right hand to build tension before Elling enters. Regardless the choice of technique, assistance from the accompanist is beneficial and often essential because vocalists do not have the visual reference points available to instrumentalists, such as keys or strings to aid in starting pitches. An appropriate introduction instills security in the vocalist and ensures trust between the vocalist and pianist.


Working with vocalists in rubato sections, either in short passages or an entire piece, can be the most challenging aspect of accompanying. The accompanist must make split-second decisions concerning whether to lead by suggestion, to follow or precisely match the vocalist’s phrasing. In many cases, decisions are based on the style, preference and experience level of the vocalist. Rubato is a constant striving for blend and balance for both the vocalist and accompanist.

Sometimes it is appropriate for the accompanist in rubato sections to move passages along by pressing the tempo ahead at the end of a vocalist’s phrase. This allows the singer to finish a phrase without having to take another breath that may destroy the integrity of the melodic line.

To aid the singer, the accompanist may be required “to make a slight accelerando (so slight that it is imperceptible to the listener) as he nears the end of the phrase if he feels that the singer’s breath is giving out.” This moves the piece along without drawing too much attention to the piano. In order to do this, the accompanist must learn to judge the breath capacity of the singer. Bill Charlap suggests “in out-of-tempo playing, it's the accompanist's job to follow. Allow the vocalist to control the pacing.”

One specific approach for creating a comfortable harmonic environment for the vocalist during rubato passages is to sustain a mid-range chord, then fill with octaves in a higher register at points of rest. A sustained, unobtrusive harmonic carpet is ideal for clarity of the vocalist’s diction. Many vocalists prefer simplicity during rubato sections, without the clutter of complicated fills.

The use of silence in music can have a powerful impact. For example, the gap in time after the first flute phrase in Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune seems to last an eternity, thus building enormous expectation and interest. In jazz accompanying, leaving a noticeable space for dramatic emphasis can have the same effect.46 In Freddy Cole’s introduction to “I Got Lost in Her Arms” on Because of You during the words “and yet,” di Martino releases the chord, leaving a gap that matches the hesitant, reflective tone of the lyric. Much like an orchestra supporting a soloist in a concerto, this creates an effective bond between the soloist and accompanist.

Therefore, successful rubato playing involves following the vocalist’s pacing, sometimes leading by suggestion, and having an intimate knowledge and awareness of the song. Repeated thoughtful performances yield superior results for each successive performance of rubato sections. In my own experience, it is useful to play minimally while following the vocalist in rubato passages. Sustaining a bass note while the vocalist begins a phrase, then later adding the chord, is an effective way to follow the vocalist’s phrasing. An accomplished accompanist can eventually predict the phrasing of the vocalist, but only through careful listening and perhaps months or years of collaborative efforts.

Texture, Register and Voicings

Pianists don’t have to put every note in the chord. To find the best possible choice is the thing; four notes can sound like a thousand if they’re the right notes. – Wynton Marsalis -

Chordal Texture

In terms of voicing density, the term “chordal texture” describes voicings that are sparse, thin, thick or dense, depending on the number of notes. Accompanists use chordal texture in a variety of ways to sustain the mood of a piece or to adjust to changes of mood as the piece progresses. For example, on “In the Wee Small Hours,” Hobgood employs bare minimum single-note lines rather than solid chords to support Elling. As the piece progresses, Hobgood adds more notes as the lyrics unfold and the musical texture becomes more dense, following the story of the song.

Awareness of the register

The accompanist must be aware of register and its proper use in order to avoid disturbing the integrity of the vocal line. Chuck Israels warns that staying in the register above the first F or G above middle C for the lead line of accompanying piano chords can be detrimental, as this crowds the acoustic area that singers usually occupy. Per Danielson goes further. He feels that in order to fully support the singer, the accompanist must know the quality of the particular voice as well as limits of the register. If the singer has a very soft low register, for example, comping can be sparse and in the mid or upper range.

Since some melodies and vocalists have wide ranges, it would be impossible for the accompanist to constantly adjust. Rather than continually responding to the vocalist’s register changes, the interviewed pianists adapt a broader approach to register change. Jacob prefers to use register in an orchestral way, implying the register of the instrument(s) he is imagining in order to complement the voice. He also uses it to trigger inspiration: “When I am drawn to play the same way as before, I change register to force a different direction. I believe that newer is fresher.”

Larry Dunlap remains aware of range when accompanying a vocalist, and in his opinion, mid-register chords add “a fullness and lushness to the overall sound.” Upper register fills “add sparkle and lead listeners to make associations with other music they have heard, such as Count Basie tunes or older orchestral accompaniments like Mancini’s where upper register fills were often used.”

Hobgood stresses the importance of awareness of register, but also notes that the accompanist may desire to be in the same register as the vocalist depending on which register the vocalist chooses. He notes that higher voicings tend to be intrusive, even when comping behind horn solos.

Sometimes, common sense tells you to get up in the high register for particularly delicate moments; or perhaps to roll thunderously in the lower octaves for muscular endings.”

He suggests as an example that “the left hand could be trombones, the right hand could be high winds or strings” and adds that “playing rich in the meat of the piano, the lower to middle register, is where you create the most full support for a vocalist to sing over.”

Creating a mood with specifics voicings

For example, to evoke a “poignant” mood he might use a variation on what has commonly been called the “Kenny Barron voicing.”

Eric Gunnison notes : Fifth-based voicings open up the sound for me. Voicings with multiple dissonances can give the music a very angular feel and enhance the swing feel

According to di Martino, an accompanist must “find the harmonic color that best supports the melody. It’s a close examination that you begin to understand only by playing for a singer.” For him this depends on the character of the tune he is performing and the mood of each moment. For example, for folk-type songs he may use open-fifth voicings to create a spacious, transparent sound.

Hobgood categorizes all voicings into open and closed positions.

In order to have many voicing possibilities at their disposal the pianist must be proficient on the instrument. Often, an accompanist’s true virtuosity is hidden when playing a supportive role. Command of the instrument allows for variety of touch, control of dynamics and constant adjustment to the melodic line.

In my own experience, block chord support is very effective at faster tempos.


In di Martino’s opinion, unless used as a special effect, too many fills detract from the focus of the singer. An extended fill, though, can be useful as an instrumental interlude to carry one section to another.

Much can be learned about effective ornamentation from the great singer/pianists of the past. Nat “King” Cole had impeccable taste when adding fills behind his own vocals. His fills have a sparkling, singing quality.

Awareness of the melody

When the top note of a chord is a whole or half-step away from the melody, it creates a dissonant “rub.” The timbral mixture of the voice and piano at melodic odds can be displeasing. A classic example of this occurs when a vocalist sings a natural ninth or fifth of the chord and the accompanist emphasizes the flatted ninth or fifth. The resulting sound is a dissonant harmonic clash.

“Fundamentally, a pianist who doesn’t know and can’t play the melody of a song will not effectively accompany someone else singing or playing the melody”. Through my own experience, knowing only the harmony of the song will produce mediocre results.

Knowledge of the melody also enhances other aspects of performance. Eric Gunnison notes, “The melody is always available when you are soloing. In fact, it can unify the solo with the rest of the performance. Monk said you could play a better solo if you play the melody.”

Many vocalists enjoy hearing a melody in an instrumental solo, especially towards the end of the solo to confirm their own entrance point at the top of the form.

Melody in chordals voicings

Choosing to include the melody in a chord voicing, particularly as the top note of the chord, or to actually play the melody is a contextual choice. While in classical lieder the melody is often doubled for emphasis, as in the lieder of Schumann, in jazz playing the melody simultaneously with a vocalist is generally avoided.

Randy Halberstadt believes that voicing chords with the melody as the top note is an “old school” technique, but nevertheless a useful tool for beginning or less experienced vocalists to help them find their pitches.

Newton feels it is “an abomination” to play the melody along with the vocalist unless it is used as part of an arrangement. Sometimes it is unavoidable to play the melody as the top note of a chord voicing, but this occasional reinforcement is not necessarily a clash.

In the jazz setting, inevitably rhythmic conflicts will result if accompanists attempt to duplicate the melodic line. Doing so is an act of instrument role duplication, similar to a pianist walking bass lines along with the bassist.