Among the many specialized and integrated disciplines that go into an improvised music performance, accompaniment is possibly the hardest to teach.
It happens in a middle distance, between the soloist in the foreground and a supporting cast. The job involves enhancing the flow of the conversation without adding clutter — or derailing the exploration in progress. It’s a balancing act of form against freedom, and doing it well requires sensitivity, sharp editing skills, and split-second reflexes. One minute the accompanist might provide active support, in the form of a carefully placed chord pad or a saber-rattling single-note provocation; the next minute he or she disappears, leaving the canvas empty for the soloist.
There are books on comping that outline the basic tactics, the Morse-code system of dots and dashes that have been used by pianists and guitarists since the swing era. The best way to appreciate this subsidiary art, though, is to listen to the masters — Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino among many others. Check the ways they move around in the background, flying mostly on instinct to lift up (or disrupt) the music as it unfolds. They’re the stitchers of the seams of the fabric, the “continuity supervisors” of the music. Through sly asides and crisp recurring figures that displace rhythm in unusual ways, they transform rote business-as-usual jazz pleasantries into spirited, constantly evolving sonic arrays.
Delmar Brown, the keyboardist, vocalist and composer who is featured on this recently unearthed Milt Ward and Virgo Spectrum disc from 1977, came along after the ninja accompanists of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He studied at Berklee, and through a long career as a sideman, did not limit himself to just jazz; he was conversant in African and Brazilian music and able to integrate devices from those and other styles into his work. Brown toured with Sting and Peter Gabriel, and collaborated with Youssou N’ Dour, James Blood Ulmer and Chico Freeman. Playing multiple keyboards, he participated in some of Martino’s most creative ensembles, and played frequently with Jaco Pastorius in frenetic small groups led by the bassist after he left Weather Report. The hard to find Pastorius bootleg series Live In New York City shows how Brown’s apt and agitated comping sparked furious fast-moving interplay between Pastorius, drummer Kenwood Dennard and everyone else on the bandstand.
Capitivated by the crispness and urgency of Brown’s playing on the Milt Ward, I went looking for more, hoping to explore how his combination of talent and curiosity made him an ideal accompanist for fully improvised contexts as well as projects in the jazz-adjacent space. Alas, some of the bootlegs and studio recordings that he took part in — like Bob Moses’ Visit With the Great Spirit, released in 1983 — are not present on streaming platforms. The Martino records are there, and of them, one must-hear is Joyous Lake (1977), a series of beautiful, unclassifiable post-fusion explorations.
Why yes, we have a fancy digital suggestion box. Share your favorite Underloved/Overlooked records here: email@example.com.
Please consider subscribing (it’s still free!). And…..please spread the word! (This only works via word of mouth!).