I asked Richie Beirach to explain a little about his comping for his friend and colleague of 50 years, Dave Liebman. As usual, when Richie is asked something, he’s never short of an enthusiastic response that nails the essence of the answer.
This is what Richie wrote:
For most piano players, Lieb is not easy to comp for. For me it’s beyond easy. It’s like breathing. When you breathe, it’s never really the same. If you are doing something very intensely your breathing gets faster. If you are chilling or sleeping, your breathing slows and becomes even because of a lack of activity and stress.
If you want to see and hear a good example of me comping for Lieb go to his book on chromaticism to the part that has a transcription of his whole solo on Softly as in a Morning Sunrise from the first Quest record with Al Foster and George Mraz. My comping is completely written out.
To me in this quartet situation, Lieb is totally free in the form, in the chords, and in the rhythm. His freedom has come as the result of relentless intense work when younger on this subject.
You must feel the time deep inside your body, unconsciously sensing the form of the 8 bar phrases, the bridge, etc. along with a very comprehensive hard-won freedom to play anything he hears anywhere in the solo with great compositional unity, depth of feeling, motivic development and a deep sense of architecture to the whole solo – points of climaxes and beginnings, middles, and ends.
An intuitive sense of compositional proportion is inculcated in Lieb’s every musical move. He is the ultimate logical improviser, but not predictable. Logical as to the choice of the way he develops his ideas but with many surprises along the way
Dave plays with you, not over you or the band. As a piano player comping for him, you must know the tune inside out – no hesitation. You must wait for him to lead with his first idea. Waiting can mean not playing or you can wait by feeding him a supporting or instigating idea but without any element of the feeling of leading him. Lieb likes suggestions – harmonically and rhythmically of course. Not too much. He hates feeling jammed up or being pushed into a direction or to substitute a mood.
It’s his solo and you must keep that in your mind. He leaves great spaces and then he wants you to jump in with confidence and strength and play a concise sounding comping idea that he can lay his next idea over. Check the Softly solo and my comping closely. We are tracking each other like a mofo. It’s give and take, but it’s him showing the direction in terms of where, when, and how – and very importantly, when to stroll!! Lay out!! Sometimes the perfect comp is not to play!!
I have been playing with Lieb since 1967 so I must say it’s pretty automatic and reflexive in a good way. No routines, big repetitions, or licks from him or me are wanted.
Also, you must remember that Lieb is also splitting his concentrated listening to the bass and drums. Me too. I am the leader of the rhythm section as the pianist. This is almost a folklore kind of passed-on info from the masters.
I still feel that excitement and anticipation and the heat that comes just getting up on the bandstand with Lieb. I get more psyched cause we both are still getting better at what we do. Better means more creative in different ways. Taking more chances and risks cause we can with 50 years of experience. And pushing and challenging each other and ourselves cause, let’s face it, we ain’t 30, and time left is limited. Not tragic. Just realistic.