As an organist, I am often in the classic jazz trio
setting of organ, guitar, and drums with no bass player, and I’m usually
playing chords with just my right hand, since my left (usually in
tandem with the foot pedals) is playing bass lines. Even when there is
a bass player, one-handed chordal playing is still the most attractive
sound due to its uncluttered and transparent nature. How do we get the
most variety out of this limited number of voices? How do we imply a lot
of harmony, thus exploring a wide range of emotions? In general, the
answer lies in excellent voice-leading and having a solid knowledge of
harmony so as to see a variety of possibilities at any one given moment.
This last one is a biggie—too often I hear players who seemingly have
only one or two ways of navigating through a particular set of chord
The following examples are all based on the first four
bars of Irving Berlin’s classic song “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Let’s look
at five different one-handed accompaniment approaches to it. I’ve
included the bass lines for reference purposes.
Editor's note: This lesson appears in our September 2014 print issue, in which some of the music notation examples contained errors where in a sharp symbol (#) was replaced by an "8vb" symbol. This, of course, obscured the author's intended chord voicings. Because this was a character substitution issue having to do with a missing font on our print server, it happened downstream of our usual proofing process. We've amended our proofing process to ensure this mistake will not be repeated, and sincerely apologize to our readers and to Mr. Goldings for the resulting confusion. Below is the correct version. Scroll down for audio examples, and click images to enlarge.
1. Harmonizing a Melody
More often than not, my comping ideas are led by my top
note. In other words, I’m spontaneously harmonizing a melody, as seen in
Ex. 1. This provides “glue” for my harmonic ideas. Hopefully, in
a real-life playing situation, you’ll be reacting to or conversing with
the soloist while your melodically-driven accompaniment adds emotion.
Let me point out the Bbmin7(11/13) in bar 3; normally this would be a C minor chord with a Bb in the bass. The liberty I took here creates three consecutive parallel minor seventh chords (C, Bb, A), each with slightly different alterations. The extension notes on top give the minor chords different colors.
2. Wide Open Chords
Voicing chords in fourths is a powerful way of getting a more open, modal sound, as illustrated in Ex. 2.
Some of these chords may be too big a stretch for some hands. In this
case, try omitting the top note, or bringing the top note down the
octave to tuck it in. Notice a few chord substitutions here: In bar 2, I
wrote a D dominant seventh, instead of the half-diminished, which would
be the more common ii chord when playing in a minor tonality. I use this device a lot, as it gives the resulting II-V-I a more bluesy sound. Also note the parallel minor chords starting from bar 3 to the end of the example. The penultimate chord Abmin7(11), can be seen as a tri-tone substitution for a D7 chord.
Clusters are a real friend when chording with one hand.
The dissonance of a minor or major second will always create a warm buzz
that makes even a three-note chord sound thicker than it actually is,
and there’s no physical stretch involved. Note the clusters used in this
example: a ninth next to a third (as in the first beat of both measures
1 and 2); a third next to a 13th (as in beat 3 of measure 1); a third
next to a flat fifth (beat 3 of measure 2); a minor third next to the
11th (both chords, measure 3); and the 13th next to the 11th (final
measure). Also, in bars 1 and 2, I have substituted the I-biii-bVI(maj7)-V for the normal I-VI-II-V, a device used by Thelonious Monk and many others since.
4. Scalular Lines
Ex. 4 can help provide clarity and drama to your
comping, and is also a great exercise in spontaneously harmonizing an
ascending (or descending) scalular top line. Notice the sparse and modal sound of the Cmin11 in bar 1. There is no third. If you invert this chord, it’s built in fourths.
This more compact way of playing a fourth chord is extremely effective.
Also take note of the next chord in measure 1; the natural ninth on
the half-diminished chord is often overlooked, although in Brazilian
bossa nova harmony it’s used all the time. In the second half of bar 2,
I’m superimposing a Db triad over a G in the bass; a triad
that’s a tri-tone away from the bass note is a commonly used
upper-structure chord. Also, I took the following harmonic liberties:
the minor/major seventh chord in bars 3 and 5, and the natural fifth in
the Amin7 of bar 4—when in a minor key center, the minor ii chord would normally be half-diminished.
5. Two Voices with Inner Movement
Sometimes you just want to thin out, as seen in Ex. 5.
Given the organ’s ability for ongoing sustain, using just two notes
with one or both in motion can create a beautiful and Bach-like effect.
In this example, notice in bars 1 and 2 the voice moving in
quarter-notes. I’m trying to be as melodic as possible while implying
some interesting harmony: the ninth on beat 3 of bar 1; the natural
fifth (instead of flat) on the 3rd beat of bar 2; and the A in
beat 3 of bar 2, which is acting like a lower suspension of the
subsequent third. For the second half of the passage, another highly
effective device is used: melodic motion in sixths.
“Study the great arrangers
and orchestrators for harmonic and textural ideas. As as accompanists,
we’re like mini-orchestrators—arranging and providing color and texture
on the spot,” says Grammy-nominated Hammond organist Larry Goldings
. “Also, don’t neglect studying the great jazz guitarists
as they’re working within a similar set of limitations as organists who
have to comp with one hand.” Goldings has played with James
Taylor, John Scofield, Maceo Parker, and Jim Hall. His most recent
recording with longtime collaborators Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart, Ramshackle Serenade
is out now. Find out more at larrygoldings.com