ACCOMPANYING SINGERS:
THE DREAM, THE NIGHTMARE, AND THE REST

The Dream: You're on the bandstand at New York's Blue Note during a tribute to the late Billy Eckstine, playing for a string of competent, but less than famous, singers. Suddenly, up steps Tony Bennett. With next to no warning he goes into his first tune. How can you measure up to his impromptu professionalism?

The Nightmare: You're on a gig with a singer with whom you've never worked. You're not expecting Tony Bennett or Sarah Vaughan, but eight bars into the first tune reality hits you: this is the un-Bennett, the anti-Vaughan. How can you get through what promises to be an awfully long night?

Whatever challenges any given night might bring, accompanying singers - jazz, pop, or cabaret - means, for many jazz pianists, a reliable and substantial avenue of supplemental income. For a few, it provides a good living. Pianist John di Martino has worked behind a diverse roster of singers, among them John Hendricks, Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Keely Smith, Julius LaRosa, Freddy Cole, Diane Schuur, Sylvia Sims, Lainie Kazan, and - "if you consider him a singer" - Paul Sorvino. "At one time," he recounts, "it was nearly 95% of my work. I mean, it was all I did. But at the moment it's more like 50% or less."

But beyond the economic benefits, di Martino has found the experience to be an artistically valuable one, offering unique musical lessons that have enhanced all aspects of his work. "There are certain important things that I learned," he reflects, "in what I call the science or the art of playing for singers and dealing with vocal music. One is a very deep intimacy with the standard tunes, with the repertoire. You have to really know the repertoire, be able to play it in any key. And in learning the tunes you have to find the color harmonically that best supports the melody. It's a close examination that only by playing for a singer you begin to understand.

"Also you learn the value of truly listening," he continues, "because I think when accompaniment is at its best, it's when you're at the highest spiritual state and the most selfless. It's almost like a Zen concept. You really want to give to that other person, and they feel that. And that's a beautiful thing to bring to any music you're doing."

Ted Rosenthal, who has accompanied Helen Merrill, Ann Hampton Callaway, Trudy Desmond, Gail Wynters, Kevin Mahogany, Karrin Allyson, Mark Murphy, among others, also sees benefits in the accompanist role. Singers, he notes, tend to select different sorts of tunes than jazz instrumentalists do. "Since I love to play standards, I'm getting exposed to certain tunes I may not normally run into. And of course with singers you play in all kinds of strange keys. I thinks that's actually - once you get over the initial shock of it - very helpful, because a new key might have another color and personality.

"There's also a dramatic sense of song," he adds, "with the lyric and all that, that can be helpful when playing the tune as an instrumental. And, in terms of standards, maybe the biggest thing would be exposure to a lot of verses. If you'd do your homework you'd find them, but singers just automatically are more likely to sing a verse. And the verse really has the focus of the text. So there's a whole dramatic element to it."

Take, for instance, Ira Gershwin's verse to "A Foggy Day": "I was a stranger in the city. Out of town were the people I knew. I had that feeling of self-pity. What to do, what to do, what to do?" etc. Setting, character, mood, motivation, in other words, the entire dramatic context of the song - it's all right there in these often overlooked lines. What instrumentalist, seeking to interpret this standard, would not benefit from that information?

In addition to knowing and understanding scores of tunes, the novice accompanist must realize that backing a singer is not the same as backing a horn player. "One real fundamental difference," di Martino notes, "is that for singers you use an orchestral approach. This is fundamental. You think like an arranger. You think about framing an environment for the tune and an environment for the singer's specific approach to the tune and an environment for the singer to feel comfortable in. When you comp for a horn player, you're thinking more about rhythmic drive.

"An orchestral approach in an instrumental jazz group can sometimes be schmaltzy. And it can be too dictatorial. It can control things too much. For a singer, it's just the opposite. The singer expects the pianist to do that. And that's something that I personally love about accompanying, because I can be an instantly gratified arranger, provided I have a really good bass player with great ears. You can create environments all the time."

Vocal accompanists also need to be particularly judicious in their harmonic choices, di Martino stresses. "For example, in 'I Can't Started,' there's a certain harmonic substitution that happens in the third and fourth bar that players all expect to do, a chromatic thing. However, if I was playing with a singer, I would probably not do that, unless it was a very hip singer that I knew expected to hear that. If it was Jon Hendricks and he was going to scat over that, it would be no problem. Otherwise I would tend to treat it more like the original harmony, because it's a little difficult to negotiate the melody around that."

"You always have to be sensitive to the melody," Rosenthal emphasizes, "but I think with a singer you have to be particularly sensitive to the melody. You usually sort of play off of what they're doing, so you have to increase your sensitivity to how you orchestrate the melody and how you voice chords against the melody.

"And certain singers have real preferences in the accompaniment style that they like. Some singers seem to really respond to when you play a lot of fills. Other singers say, "No, no, no, that's too busy. I can't do anything.' There are a lot of different ways to go, so to see what works with each singer is very important."

Di Martino agrees. "Different singers need different kinds of support. There are singers you can play for that you can basically do anything you want. And there are other singers that you sort of have to lead. Then, as a general rule, if there's a difficult leap of an interval or a difficult modulation into a bridge section, you may want to set it up a certain way so that it's easier."

Take, for instance, that tricky major ninth jump between the second and third notes of Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." "Probably what I would tend to do," di Martino advises, "is have the melody note on the top of the voicing, so you can hear it. There are times that I've worked with singers who will tell me, 'Support me on this note. Give me a lot of sound.' I make sure that note is at the top so they can hear it. And there's a whole art to playing an intro - especially if it's a blind date, or even if it isn't. You want to play an introduction that just leads them in, so there's no way that they can't come in. You want to make things as obvious as possible."

Finally, the accompanist must, at all times, be mindful of exactly whose gig it is. "It's obviously less of a democracy," Rosenthal observes, "than a trio or a quintet or something, where everybody's supposed to be just about on equal footing. You're really there in largely a supportive role." Tellingly, di Martino describes the job in nearly the same way. "I think 90% of the time you're not on equal footing, but it's not meant to be a democracy. The ideal, to me, the most important thing, number one, is the lyric. It's theater. There are very few musicians that will admit that, or that are cool with that concept. But it really is."

Pianist Bobby Tucker has worked for Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Vic Damone, Johnny Hartman, and Tony Bennett, and is best known for his forty-plus year tenure as Billy Eckstine's musical director. ("Bobby's been with me through two ex-wives," Mr. B liked to tell his audiences, "and dozens of old ladies!") So if anyone knows what the gig is about, he does. He also knows that unforeseen things can and do occur - and when they do, it is the accompanist's job to make them right.

"Oh, it happens all the time," Tucker says knowingly. "They lose time, they skip a bar. But there's an old saying: 'I'm the leader of this outfit, so whatever I do is right. I don't make mistakes, so you fix it.' Even when they get in the wrong key. You have to anticipate that they might go wrong. When the final deal goes down, they don't make mistakes. Any mistakes that were made, you made them." Then what, in his view, is the most important tool for a accompanist? "Ears," he maintains. "Listening. Reacting to what you hear."

So, you're on that nightmare blind date with a singer for whom the word "mediocre" would be high praise. How do you make a silk purse out of a tin ear? "Well," di Martino explains, "I think you try to play as full as possible. You try to lead them. You try to play around the melody. And there are times, if it gets really bad, you might have to actually spell out the melody and play it, which a truly good singer would never want you to do. But yeah, when things are really bad you just do the best you can to make the person feel supported."

Rosenthal, whenever he finds himself in this kind of situation, relies on "a sensitivity to what they're trying to do, even if they're not fully succeeding, and a sensitivity to some of the dramatic elements. I mean, if you have a good, tight, dramatic ending, that's going to cover a lot of flaws that may have come out before you got there. A good beginning and a good ending and a sense of what the song is trying to express - putting a little show biz or drama in there - I think, can make the whole thing work.

"So it's how you play. With a singer who's very good and very experienced I can play extremely simply. But if someone seems to be struggling or is not sure what they're doing, then a much more complex accompaniment, playing more flowery and running up and down the keyboard, can add to the overall presentation."

"Also, there's a heavy psychological element to it," di Martino notes. "An inexperienced person can feel very insecure, and you want to let them know that you're on their side. I've even worked with some people that are pretty well-known and it's like, they have to feel psychologically reinforced or feel like you're their friend. And you have to be in the mood to do that."

And now for the accompanist's dream: Tony Bennett's surprise appearance at the Blue Note. "Well, when that happened," di Martino recalls, "very little went through my head. It was more like my survival instinct just came out. He eloquently spoke about Billy Eckstine for a minute and then just started singing: 'There will be many other nights like this... .' And my hands just fell down in the right key - my ear's always been my strong point. And I remember [bassist] Jay Leonhart yelling over, 'What key is he in? What key is he in?'

"So we got through that and then he turned around to me and said, 'I wanna do "Stella by Starlight" - I don't know the key: The song a robin sings... .' He started out in Db and switched to C. So we did a whole rubato chorus - in the two keys. I was nervous, and I didn't feel like my chops were so up that day, but my experience and my instinct brought me through that situation."

Experience and instinct - these are the indispensable assets that will help any accompanist survive the nightmare, enjoy the dream, and handle all of the rest.

Bob Bernotas, 2000. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the author's permission.

Photo: Carol Steuer


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