Let me guess…you are a jazz guitarist and have met a talented jazz vocalist you’d like to start gigging with…or…you just heard Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald together and would like to start something similar with a singer…or…you simply realized you can make lots of money teaming up with a jazz singer and playing in duet…
These are common situations that, as a jazz guitar player, you might have encountered or that are very likely to appear as possibilities during your career.
If you have never accompanied a jazz vocalist and are looking for advice on how to do it effectively, read on…I’ve played with jazz singers for years and I am sure I can give you a few tips.
First of all, before you select your singer, be sure that she/he has her own charts, which doesn’t mean that she has photocopies of the real book. She must have charts transposed into her own key and, possibly, with clear arrangements.
This is SO critical!! specially if you are just starting and have no experience. Having clear intros and outros for each tune, will give you a guideline to follow and make your rehearsals so much more fun (well, at least less painful and frustrating…).
Remember, there are tons of singers out there. Take your time to select the one whom it will be easier for you to work with on a regular basis.
Ok, with this out of the way, here are a few recommendations on how to accompany a jazz singer with taste:
1) Learn the melody of each song in the repertoire. It sounds obvious, however, you will be surprised to know that the charts that most musicians usually end up playing from show only chord changes. Not knowing the melody of the song will give you absolutely no clue on how to support your singer with both rhythmic and melodic ideas.
2) Learn to play in at least two different styles: swing and bossa nova. Most singers have both swing and Latin tunes in their repertoire and will assume that you know how to accompany in these two syles. This will take you some time. Listen to Joe Pass, Martin Taylor and Tuck Andress and start getting a feel of how a solid and inspiring guitar accompaniment can sound like. Then, I recommend that you shop around for a finger style guitar method. There are quite a few out there. I personally would suggest to study transcriptions from Joe Pass to learn both jazz guitar accompaniment and improvisation. Martin Taylor has published a book on finger style that you can buy for a few dollars and that will keep you busy for years! You can study Brazilian guitar on a book by Nelson Faria. The book comes with a CD and is a step-by-step education on the topic (be patient!).
3) Keep things VERY simple when you accompany a jazz singer. I remember playing with a vocalist who kept asking me for more melody in my accompaniment. So I started playing more melody and things got even worse! Then I started experimenting with simple guide tones (3rd and 7th) and, all of a sudden, he was the happiest human being on earth…at the end of the gig he said: “I told you that playing more melody would work!” (ehm..s..ure…).
4) Ensure that your timing is solid! You must be a reference for the singer and ALWAYS know where (in the song) you are. As I said, knowing the melody of the song will help your singer hear that you are both in the same place.
5) Take short solos! If you are playing a duet, playing long solos will pull attention from your singer, who is the one you are supposed to help spark. Use lots of chords in your solos, linking them with single lines (again, listen to the masters). Play just one section of the song and cue your singer in when you are about to end your solo.
6) Be clear! Play simple and extremely clear. If you have been playing with a plectrum all your life, start practicing fingerstyle and gradually combine bass lines, chords and melody.
Ok these are just a few guidelines that I hope will put you in the right direction. Again, be patient, and start building your fingerstyle skills one step at at a time.