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INSIDE MUSIC: The Art Of Accompanying
By Rosemary Conte
Every pianist or guitarist is not an accompanist. Accompanying is a whole other thing. I’ve sung with piano players who comp beautifully, supporting what I sing and leaving me room to improvise. I’ve got to have room to be adventurous if I’m singing jazz. I’ve sung with others who fill every part of a beat that I’m not singing with a flourish that crowds me, rendering my singing almost superfluous!
My friend, guitarist extraordinaire George Naha, who lives and teaches in New Providence, wrote an essay that recalls what one of his teachers, Ted Dunbar, Livingston College, said about accompanying. He calls it “The Diamond and the Pillow.”
“When you’re accompanying someone, be it a singer or an instrumental soloist, your job is to get underneath the soloist and support him or her. Picture the soloist as a diamond that is on display. The diamond is nestled in a small pillow. You, as the accompanist, are the pillow. The people who come into the room to look at the display are there to see the diamond. They’re not there to check out the pillow, you dig? But, if you do your job well, you’ll make that diamond look even more beautiful than it would with no pillow. You’ll set it off. As the people leave they’ll talk about how beautiful the diamond looked. You’ll have done your job!”
George has gigged and recorded with folks like Darlene Love, Aretha Franklin and Donald Fagen, and has been in NJ’s legendary Hudson River Rats. His varied career as player/arranger includes house guitarist at the world famous Apollo Theater Amateur Show, as well as in the orchestra pit of Broadway shows. He says he’s pretty lucky that most of the time he plays with people who understand how to accompany soloists…but not always.
“I’ve seen less experienced players get excited and smother the singer. I’ve also, on occasion, seen players of great renown do the same, which is more surprising. One night a long time ago, I was at a NYC jam session. We were playing slow blues behind a singer. A guitarist with world class credentials had a modern era whammy bar guitar, and as the poor singer made her way through the changes this guy went to town, shredding away, tapping, dive bombing, just screaming at the top of his guitar lungs. It’s a style that my old friend Steve Cropper calls ‘lookamee, lookamee, lookamee.’ It was pretty unmusical, to say the least. The guy later came up to me and said ‘I suck, man! Why do I do this? I suck, man!’ Maybe when he was done with his guitar histrionics he heard Ted’s Pillow Talk running through his head and had to fess up!
“If you’re playing and can’t really hear the vocalist, the soloist, or any of your band mates---play less, listen more, and turn down. I’m thankful for the wisdom Ted Dunbar instilled in me back in the day.”
originally published: 2017-06-23 10:33:34
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