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Top 10 Jazz Albums for Piano Comping

To the uninitiated, comping (etymologically derived from “accompanying” or “complementing,” depending on who you ask) is the rhythmic, improvised playing of chords to accompany a melody or solo. There are some all-time great compers missing from this list simply because a) 10 is not a lot and b) there may not be a single album of theirs that made me feel like bumping any of these folks off. Remember these are favorites (not “best” necessarily) and I hope that fans of Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Bobby Timmons, Tommy Flanagan, Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk and others will accept my apologies.

1. Oscar Peterson on Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson

How many albums can you think of on which Oscar Peterson is a featured artist yet doesn’t take a single solo? Me either. This is the one – his entire contribution revolves around providing tasteful and often quite swinging (e.g. except for the ballads, which are lush and fabulous) support to Armstrong’s vocals and occasional trumpet. Sometimes he throws in prominent, bluesy fills, as on “Blues in the Night” and “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love),” and other times he steps back to give Louis the full limelight (the duo “What’s New” is particularly notable in that regard). Elegance personified.

2. Wynton Kelly on Someday My Prince Will Come by Miles Davis

Kelly was one of the all-time great compers, adding tremendous swing to virtually every recording in which he participated. There are plenty of other examples, particularly his fairly extensive work with Dinah Washington and great albums by Wes Montgomery (Smokin’ at the Half Note and Full House) and Sonny Rollins (Newk’s Time), just to name a few, but his name will forever be linked to Miles. “Freddie Freeloader” from Kind of Blue was the first that brought this relationship to wider attention (though technically it was preceded by some tracks on Miles Ahead), and this album is in a sense the consummation of the promise evident there.  The finger-popping feeling he creates on the swingers and the elegance of the ballads are both stunning on this album.

3. McCoy Tyner on A Love Supreme by John Coltrane

What can be said about A Love Supreme that hasn’t already been said? I’ll admit that I often overlook the comping on this, my all-time favorite album, because Coltrane’s and Elvin Jones’ contributions are so overwhelmingly powerful. But it doesn’t take much in the way of focus-shifting to notice how McCoy is there every step of the way adding to the rhythmic and harmonic intensity of the album. Unlike some other (especially earlier) examples of Coltrane’s “classic quartet,” where McCoy would often lay out on the climactically intense parts, here he is an integral part of the development of each movement.

4.Horace Silver on Blowin’ the Blues Away by Horace Silver

Horace Silver’s 1950s and 1960s work displays his unique approach to comping, which is inseparable from his bandleading concept (a phenomenon that Ralph Bowen hipped me to when I was a freshman at Rutgers). Most compers are responsible to support and follow the bandleader and soloists; in this case Silver is the bandleader and uses comping boldly as a tool to shape the in-the-moment direction of the music as a whole. Listen to “Sister Saide” on this album for a particularly potent example.

5. Cedar Walton on Mosaic by Art Blakey

I find Cedar to be pretty underrated across the board, as a composer, soloist and comper. There are plenty of great examples of his touch in an ensemble (It was difficult, for example, not to pick the In Sound by Eddie Harris or Mode For Joe by Joe Henderson), but his association with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers will probably always stand out for its historical significance and the music they produced together is beyond words.

6. Red Garland on Round About Midnight by Miles Davis

Miles could pick ‘em, for sure. There are many of his classic 1950s quintet (plus Milestones with the addition of Cannonball Adderley) recordings that feature Garland’s crisp, swinging touch. This one, their first recording on Columbia, is where I direct people (students and others) to begin when checking out Red’s contributions to the group.

7. Herbie Hancock on Speak No Evil by Wayne Shorter

Some would call it heresy that I’m not citing a Miles Davis album as the example of Herbie’s comping. Sorry, but the interplay on this album is just ridiculous. Herbie’s playing is always inventive and swinging, and I just love listening to the constant state of dialogue among the rhythm section (Ron Carter and Elvin Jones) and between them and the soloists, Wayne and Freddie Hubbard. In that context, the comping here is an organic masterpiece.

8. Hank Jones on Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra

One of the most amazing things about Thad and Mel’s band (aside from the generally great playing and writing) was that they let the rhythm section really play, with Mel and Richard Davis really encouraged to stir the pot. Sir Roland Hanna was most often the pianist, but on their first recording Thad’s big brother Hank sat in the piano chair, and his playing on this record is simultaneously elegant and assertive.

9. Charles Mingus on Oh Yeah

Bassist, composer, bandleader . . . one does not immediately think “piano and vocals” when one thinks of Charles Mingus. During this period in 1961, though, he hired a series of bassists (in this case Doug Watkins) so he could take over the piano chair in his group. This could be likened to the description of Horace Silver above in that his comping is inseparable from his bandleading. That alone is interesting, but the way he plays is fascinating in its rhythmic inventiveness and bluesy angularity, often evocative of Duke Ellington.

10. Count Basie on Complete Decca Recordings of Count Basie, 1937-1939

This is so low on the list because as a compilation, I can’t in clear conscience really call it an “album.” Basie’s sparse, bluesy piano is arguably (and it’s an argument I’d make) the most important and most effective comping on record before Oscar Peterson began accompanying everybody and their mother in the 1950s. Basie’s playing is indescribably swinging – in fact I often start there when I get tongue-tied in trying to explain what swing is.

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  1. I think the Basie Recordings you sight are THE most significant.

    I’ve been using the KC 6 and 7 to teach rhythm sections the fundamentals for years.

    Have you listened much to the Lee Konitz Warne Marsh material with Ronnie Ball
    Warne is certainly an unsung cat but so is Ronnie Ball- an unmentioned cat. Too bad- the guys comping is pristinbe.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Michael. Of course you can’t top Basie – the choices here are based on personal affection/influence and not (as with any of my lists) meant to measure historical significance. And yes, I LOVE those Lee/Warne sessions with Ronnie Ball.

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