Kevin Hays: Creative Flow

George Colligan By

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KH: But it's funny because I felt like I had no idea! I used to tell Billy Hart, "I don't know what to do, how to do this..." And Billy said, "But this is what you are known for!" I think that because I wasn't sure what to play, [which] made me leave more space. I realized that I needed to listen before I played. And I also had guys telling me when I played with Roy Haynes, Donald Harrison used to always turn around and tell me, "RESPOND!" or "REACT!" I guess I wasn't comping the way he thought I should be. In other words, he was saying, "Stop trying to comp. Stop trying to be clever and just listen." And I was just nervous about playing with Roy Haynes!

Also, when I played with Joe Henderson...apparently, I was getting in the way with my comping, so Joe clued me in, saying "It would be great if you comped for ME the way you comp for YOURSELF." So that was a bit of a clue. So now when I teach pianists how to comp for themselves, I say," Don't play your left hand and right hand at the same time! Just play in the holes!" And when you comp for yourself, which is kind of the joke of what happened with Joe Henderson, is that you know what you are going to play. I said to Joe, "Yeah, I know what my right hand is going to play!" It began the process of me listening better.

But I was also obsessed with the great compers, like Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, and Bill Evans. Herbie really had that shit together. I think he was the best comper, for my taste.

GC: This is why he worked so much! I've only had one student who actually asked me about "how" to comp. It's so abstract in a way, that at first I didn't really have an answer, but I started to get some ideas on how to explain that. Did you ever "practice" comping?

KH: I did, I listened to records and I played along and I would try to "cop" their comping. It's such a big part of our gig, being able to comping. There are certain things that I realized had to happen, based on my listening and playing along. One thing is that these guys are not just plunking down voicings that they pull out of their library of voicings; a lot of times there is a melodic line going on at the top of these chords. So there is a direction. I wish I was at the piano—I would give a musical example. I think that a lot of people think it's just rhythmic. And you can't divorce that from the melodic element, you are missing something. That's something I realized when I started checking out Herbie's comping, or Chick Corea's comping, or Wynton Kelly's comping. It's not just, "I know this voicing for this chord and I'm going to play it in this rhythm and so forth." So that's when I think my comping improved, when I realized it's not just for comping, this is applicable to any playing. Just knowing basic voice leading. I find that's something that students have no idea about. They always want to know, "What voicings should I play?" And instead of giving them a book of voicings, I ask them , "What is the scale?" Which they often don't know, and then I tell them, "You take the root, 3rd and 7th, and then you add one other note besides the melody, and you have to voice lead." And pretty soon, the voicings appear on their own, you don't need a library of voicings.

GC: You have more options...

KH: Yeah, and they reveal themselves, and it comes from a more musical place, rather than saying, "I know 25 dominant voicings."

GC: That's an education for me because I find myself frustrated with students. They seem so lost sometimes, I give them voicings just so that they are playing something.

KH: Well, what I prefer to do is to show them the process, so that they can find it for themselves. For example, we figure out which scale that we are dealing with. The thing is, the problem is we are always looking for the voicing for one chord, we need to think about where it's going. You have to know where you are headed. That determines the voicing.

It seems like if a student is playing the melody and having trouble finding voicings, I tell them, "Pick one note out of this scale," let's say the first chord scale of "Stella By Starlight," E F# G A Bb C D E. Pick a note that isn't the root of the melody. You'll find, all of a sudden, that voicings come out of nowhere that you didn't think of. Let's say that you pick the D and you don't go to the obvious third on the A7 chord, you go up. So you go to the Eb for the A7 chord, then you have a quick chromatic F going up to the C minor 7 chord, and then you go to a Gb on the F7. All of a sudden, there's a line that's happening, and I ask the students, "did you ever play that voicing before? "And they say "No!" I then say, " Pick another note..." You can go up or down.


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You've Got a Friend

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