R&B Comping Workout

Lessons on R&B comping from David Sanborn's keyboard player
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One of the greatest gigs for a keyboardist has got to be saxophonist David Sanborn’s band. I’ve played with Dave on and off for 20 years, and his repertoire is fantastic—both harmonically and groove-wise-with him out front playing the alto sax like a blowtorch! Sanborn likes to hear his guitar and keyboard players really stretch out on their solos, so it’s a great “blowing” gig as well. For me, the real joy is being part of his rhythm section, which features keyboard parts from over four decades that can be adapted to a wide variety of playing situations. Let’s take a look at some of these classic R&B chording strategies.

1. Organ Comping

Ex. 1 demonstrates Sanborn keyboardist Ricky Peterson’s organ comping on the song “Snakes.” Note that there’s no third in the chord voicing here, so it’s not really a dominant seventh or a minor seventh. This voicing, called a 9 no 3rd also travels well diatonically. Try moving each note in the voicing to the next note in a G7 scale to create melodic interest in the part. The little bits in the left hand are really ghost notes, meant more to anchor the figure internally than to be heard. These comping structures fit perfectly with the funky bass line Marcus Miller played on the original recording.

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2. Organ Shuffles

Ex. 2 illustrates a classic organ-shuffle feel played by Ricky Peterson on the song “Full House,” using a voicing structure similar to the one in Ex. 1. The idea here is to accentuate the part of the beat that’s swinging (e.g., the third triplet of the beat), while also fleshing out the harmony a bit. Try changing up the feel a little when the chord changes, as Ricky often does. Lay the off-beats all the way back on the beat. Don’t get lazy and straighten the feel out!

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3. Clavinet Comping

Ex. 3 uses a clavinet comping pattern and expanded harmony over a funky groove. The basic idea is a Cmin9 chord, with an F triad over G interspersed to give the keyboard part another place to go. I look at it as diatonic motion from the Eb triad at the bottom of the basic voicing that gives us a little flavor of the (suspended) dominant chord that wants to go back to the root voicing. These voicing structures also have the effect of fortifying beats 2 and 3, which produces a solid comping groove. Check out the track “Chicago Song” to hear this kind of chording in action.

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4. Off-Beat Comping

Ex. 4 is inspired by Marcus Miller’s song “Camel Island.” As this tune features a bass part that really lays on the beat, the keyboard part consists entirely of sixteenth notes that are off the beat, adding the harmony and punctuating the groove. This comping works perfectly against the bass part and is a case study in orchestration over a funk groove. Notice how the same voicing travels up a perfect fourth to give us a little taste of subdominant flavor as a turnaround at the end of the two-bar phrase. Also note that the clustered voicing has the ninth and eleventh in the middle of the chord.

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5. Rhodes Voicings

Ex. 5 illustrates the Rhodes comping pattern from Marcus Miller’s song “Corners.” The basic chord voicing here is an Emin11, voiced as D major triad with a G on the bottom. Notice that, again, we have the IV chord as a destination, but in bar 4 we have a Cmin/Maj7 as a sort of turnaround. Harmonically, this is very similar to a B7alt chord, but as the bassist, Miller adds an air of mystery by playing a C under it, instead of the B. Note that the upper-structure chord configuration still emotes a strong dominant resolution.

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“Notice that at no point in any of these examples are we playing anything on the downbeat. The main idea of R&B comping is to dig into well-defined parts while offering some interpretation of your own. Try moving the voicings around, or adding a touch of variation on the basic feel. Most importantly, listen to what the rest of the band is doing and try to frame a place for the soloist to play in. Don’t just fill up space,” says acclaimed keyboardist George Whitty, who has worked with artists such as David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana and the Brecker Brothers. Whitty is also the new instructor for jazz piano at artistworks.com and the creator of BURN, an iOS play-along App. His latest release with his group Third Rail is entitled Ignition: Live Across Europe. For more info visit gwhitty.com.