Tips for accompanying a vocalist on jazz ballads

Hey Improvisers,

There’s no better feeling in the whole world than playing a jazz ballad. For me, it’s pure bliss: complete relaxation combined with the most beautiful harmonies imaginable.

When the wonderful vocalist Juliet Ewing and I went into the recording studio to made a video of George Gershwin’s classic ballad “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” I had the chance to renew the jazz ballad accompanying experience for me personally, and I thought I’d take this as an opportunity to share a few tips on how to do it yourself.

First, check out the video Juliet and I made:

I’ve Got A Crush On You

Notice how the melody fits Juliet’s voice “like a glove,” as they say. Part of this is her talent as a vocalist, but a big factor also lies in finding the right key. Gershwin composed the song in the key of Eb major, and Juliet and I recently performed it in Bb at a gig at New York City’s Tavern On The Green restaurant in Central Park. Upon rehearsing the song for the video, however, I noticed that while Juliet sounded great singing it in Bb, the very low notes in the melody sounded just a touch low in her vocal range. When I suggested that we bring it up a whole step, to C major, the low notes became even fuller while retaining their warmth and richness.

After finding the right key, you’ll need to create an intro. As pianists, we can use the intro as an opportunity to bring our artistic persona into the arrangement right from the beginning. Play the voicings you enjoy the most and be sure to establish the right mood for the vocalist’s interpretation. At the Tavern On The Green gig, I played some chords and then Juliet sang Gershwin’s out-of-tempo introductory verse. But since we wanted to keep this video shorter, we decided to skip the verse and go directly to the chorus itself. I could have played a nice intro to lead Juliet into the song, but I thought it would be more effective on the video if Juliet sang the lead-in phrase a cappella, and the piano joined her on the downbeat. An unaccompanied vocal lead-in can be stunning way to begin a jazz ballad.

Not every good pianist is a natural accompanist. For me, a big part of playing with a singer is to merge with the sound of their voice as well as their interpretation of the lyric. For example, if the vocalist is conveying a mood of warmth and comfort, we probably don’t want to start playing all of our Bud Powell licks while they’re singing, because this wouldn’t support the mood. Instead use this as an opportunity to convey a similar mood in a way that makes the vocalist feel comfortable.

A big question when working with jazz vocalists is, “How should we approach our piano solo.” Here, there are two opposing schools of thought. The first says that “since jazz is about personal expression, we can express ourselves any way we like during our solo.” The second way to approach this is to say, “I want to express myself in a creative way withing the overall mood that the vocalist has established, to help her tell the story of the song.” I take both approaches at different times with different vocalists, but I lean towards the second approach, since I enjoy working with other musicians as a team towards a mutual goal. You can hear me take this second approach during my piano solo in the middle of the “I’ve Got A Crush On You” video. Also, notice how I dovetailed the beginning of my piano solo under the last note of her vocal chorus. By eliminating the turnaround in this way, we kept a feeling of forward motion at this point which I felt was needed for the video.

I hope you enjoy putting these tips into practice while playing jazz ballads with vocalists!

You can check out Juliet Ewing’s FaceBook page here:

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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