Elvin Jones and Comping

Elvin Jones playing drums
Elvin Jones playing drums

Nicholas Payton recently posted his thoughts about comping on the drums over on his Instagram account. There’s some deep insight that I wanted to share. Drummer George Coleman Jr. also chimed in with some great info.

Nicholas Payton on Elvin and Comping:

“Here’s the thing: The “Elvin thing” most drummers get into, it often ceases to be conversational and becomes filler. You gotta make sure there’s substance and reason for everything you play. Don’t just play noodlely sh*t on the drums because you can.

All fills and accents have to be about creating an energy, moving the song forward, and a dialog. If not with the soloist, a conversation between the kick and snare or the toms. Whatever part of the kit you’re engaging with, make it purposed.

What a lot of kats miss with Elvin is his ideas were about cascading and signaled a buildup to some sort of resolution. He just had a verbose way of doing it. He wasn’t that far off from Philly Joe. He just took longer to get there. Only then does playing all of that stuff inbetween make sense.

There’s a code in Black music. Every question has an answer. It’s also about getting into and creating a space when you’re comping. Not about what you’re playing as it is about propelling the energy. You have to speak the language.

Certain phrases have a logical answer or maybe several, but there’s a complementary rhythm to every phrase, that’s what “comp” is short for. It’s like boxing where you gotta be able to read your opponent’s move before they make it. But you’re not fighting, it’s more like dancing or playing with LEGOs.

You gotta provide the framework and setting to make what just happened make sense and suggest the next possibility. Elvin set up these points of tension and then had a release, but they’d appear to be more busy than what they were. It was all about creating these pivot points leading to a resolution. How you setup the melody dictates what will follow. Don’t default to being too busy on the head in. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with playing that much sh*t out of the gate, but there has to be a reason to support it.

Comping for a soloist is oftentimes like answering a knock at the door. Look through the peephole to see who it is, then respond accordingly. Opportunity could be knocking, don’t miss it! You’re not there to fill up space, you’re there to create space. You’re also there to create resolutions and solve problems. Sometimes you’re both creating and solving those problems.

ALERT! Repetitive phrases are always an easy opportunity to interact. But don’t interact at the expense of making it dance. It should feel good, regardless of how bombastic. Be able to keep it dancing in short bursts as well as when playing complex figures with longer resolution points.

And don’t just focus on the soloist while missing the chance to lock in with the other rhythm section players. And if you’re going to play a lot of sh*t, you must justify it with larger points of resolution. And it has to be more about where it’s leading than the sh*t you’re playing at the moment.”

Some added insight from George Coleman Jr.(@gecolemanjr):

“Max (Roach) told me that that he Elvin and Philly Joe used the same book “Wilcoxon” to develop many of their ideas from a rudimental standpoint and each had their favorite etudes from it which they each used to help develop and shape their individual concepts. Just listening to any of those 3 along with Higgins comping is almost all the drums you need to know to master this musical instrument. Thank you for pointing out the real secret behind Elvin’s greatness.”

The original posts are here:


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