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Roles of the Instruments


1. If there is more than one horn player in a combo setting, the horn players usually play the head in unison, that is, they play the melody together (they play the same notes at the exact same time). Sometimes, they play the head (or a portion of the head) in harmony, that is, they each play different notes that harmonize with each other (they play different notes that sound good with each other at the exact same time). The players decide when to play in unison and when to play in harmony.

2. When comping chords, the guitarist is considered a member of the rhythm section.

I. Each Instrument's Responsibility

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Gillespie & Coleman

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Billy Taylor Trio

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Scott LaFaro

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Louis Bellson

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Wes Montgomery

A. Horns


The saxophone, trumpet, and trombone (as well as any other single-note instrument, including the human voice) are responsible for playing melodies, both written (e.g., the head),1 and improvised (their individual solos). 

B. The Rhythm Section


The piano, bass, and drums comprise the rhythm section; their primary role is to accompany and provide support for the horn players as well as each other; they may also improvise solos. 



The pianist’s primary job is to play chords (the music that accompanies the melodies) in a lively, rhythmic fashion. 



This is called comping



Notice how it comes from the word “accompany”. 



The pianist also improvises melodically; when doing this, he/she improvises a melody by playing single notes in the right hand while comping the chords in the left hand (pretty cool!). 



The bassist’s primary job is to play the roots of the chords and “lay down a great groove;” the bass is the foundation, the bottom, the pulse, the “glue” that keeps everyone together. 



The drummer’s primary job is to keep the beat steady and complement what the soloists (improvisers) are playing; by introducing rhythmic accents and laying down a great groove with the bassist, the drummer adds excitement to the performance. 



For more information and aural examples of the rhythm section and comping, click below: 

Audio Snippets

speakerspacer Rhythm Section Roles - Mark Gridley
speakerspacer Comping and Syncopation - Mark Gridley

C. Guitar


The guitarist is versatile -- he/she can be like a horn player (that is, playing single note melodies), or like a pianist, that is, comping chords2

Video Clips

videospacer Horace Silver - Song for My Father
videospacer Mulgrew Miller – Comping
the Herbie Hancock institute of jazz
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