When playing behind a singer, you are one instrument, you and she. (I’m using feminine pronouns here for simplicity.) So try to imagine that her voice is a third hand to the right of your right hand. Always, always listen. Listen to the singer more than you listen to yourself. You will always sound good then, provided you know the music.
That’s first: Know the music. In jazz, this is problematic, as there are Richard Rodgers changes for “Blue Moon,” rock changes and jazz changes, all different. Knowing what works for the singer is pretty important. Changes are a subject for a whole ’nother column, so let’s assume here that you have worked out some changes for a jazz tune, like this one.
When working with a singer, you MUST know the melody; it’s not enough just to bang out the changes. For example, if you turn the Cmaj7 into a Cmaj9 (which is fine, normally), and you put the ninth in the top, it’s going to clash with the singer’s note and throw her off. As a general rule, make sure that the top note in your voicing has no clashing potential with the note that the singer is holding. Similarly, if the tune has upper extensions of the chord, this might not be notated in the voicing, so you have to know what they are anyway, to avoid putting in additions that clash with those extensions.
Notice that in the 10th bar, the notes F, G, Ab, Bb are consonant with a G7 b9 #9 chord. So if you play a G9 with a natural nine, even if the nine is buried in the chord, it’s going to sound wrong. So beware of lead sheets. Make sure that you as a pianist are not clashing with any chromatic note in the melody, unless it’s extremely brief, like a passing eighth note.
Another important thing to remember is NEVER OVERPLAY. Do not treat this as a piano gig with a singer accompanist. Her part is the melody and has to come first. Anything you do melodically and rhythmically to distract from that is not cool, unless the music specifically asks for that.
Try to find the minimal amount of notes that will work for the situation. Check with the singer to see what she thinks. Even singers who are not trained in music often have excellent rhythmic senses and know exactly what they need behind them. Let them count off their own tunes. If they are not comfortable doing that, let them snap their fingers, or whatever, and get the tempo from that. Look at everyone in the band and give a firm, loud count-off.
When you do “fills,” know the melody enough that you can play them in the rests of the melody, and sometimes over held long notes of a tune. Notice that in bar 8 the fill gives the singer the lead-in for the next part of the melody. This is good, considerate accompanying.
When doing “rubato” or “colla voce,” meaning out-of-tempo stuff, keep the tempo moving in the long notes of the voice so that the singer doesn’t run out of air. Also remember that “rubato” doesn’t actually mean out of tempo; it means MOVING tempo. So always give a pulse of some kind to the music even if it’s “out of tempo.”
The question always comes, especially when you are working in a duo with a singer: Do you lead her or does she lead you? This is something that always has to be discussed, unless the singer is unusually comfortable with a really open jazz setting. In general, the singer leads, but she might want you to lead at times. In that case, she has to tell you. So have an open, non-defensive dialogue about this. When a singer makes a comment about my playing, I sometimes feel as if I’m being criticized, but she is just telling me what she needs to sound at her best. It is your job to give the singer what she needs, because when you do, you sound at YOUR best.
– From an article originally published in Gig Magazine