Michael Phillip Mossman: On Arranging

When I teach arranging at Queens College I like to use lots of analogies, mostly having to do with cooking or architecture. As musicians it’s very easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the music and lose our connection with the human experience. Everyone eats and everyone needs a place to live so cooking and building make for good points of reference. Particularly, I think of arranging as preparing a meal for friends. If I knew I had a group of vegans coming over for dinner I could buy the choicest cut of meat available and grill it to perfection yet my dinner would be a failure. Similarly, if I had a group of cattle ranchers over, tofu as the main course might disappoint. So before I start a project I like to take some time to think about who will be involved and what would fulfill or exceed our needs. What can I prepare that will bring out the best in all the participants? These include the performers, sometimes a featured guest artist, the audience, the promoters, perhaps a publisher and certainly myself.

In some cases thought alone will get me there but in other cases I need to do significant homework to get to know the participants better. In this way I can create something original yet take into account the particular talents and abilities of the people involved. This is similar to the architect who designs an house based on its setting, the surrounding environment, the needs of the owner and those of the town while still staying true to his/her own standards of design and style.

The homework process isn’t always easy.

My first experiences as a professional arranger came writing for Mario Bauza and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. I was the jazz soloist in the trumpet section and was probably one of the least savvy when it came to understanding how to arrange music for a band with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. I had studied composition with Wendell Logan at Oberlin Conservatory and had taken arranging lessons with Don Sebesky in New York so I had some idea how to write but was way out of my depth when it came to these styles at this level of collective expertise. In addition to the technical issues there were cultural and personal skills to learn as well. We used to rehearse in the basement of Boy’s Harbor, an institution in East Harlem. Everything about these rehearsals was inconvenient. Getting there from Brooklyn was inconvenient. Waiting for everyone to show up was inconvenient. Arguing over the figures and whether they were in clave was inconvenient. Some of the band members were real characters with musical talent but had odd personal traits. There were many egos as well to navigate amongst the musicians, whose approval of the music meant a chart’s adoption or rejection. Inconvenient!

Its much easier to just work everything out in your head and enter the music into a notation or sequencing program and just hope the musicians play their parts right.

But the magic in music is when all these inconvenient individuals bring all their voices and opinions together and we work through difficulties and possibilities together. The wisdom and experience of each musician in that band, along with the opportunity Mario gave to me as a young arranger were among the greatest gifts one can receive. The extended family that was Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra taught me how to arrange for that band by sharing their knowledge. Bobby Sanabria showed me numerous bell patterns to learn and recordings to listen to. Victor Paz shared his unique philosophy of what makes for good section writing in that context. Patato Valdez reminded me how much deeper the tradition was than could be captured in any chart. Still, when I arranged a melody given me by Mario in a style that was a bit off center from the band’s repertoire, they trusted me.

Example track “Lourdes’ Lullaby” from album 944 Columbus:

The sharing process is not always pain-free! Once I transcribed a vocorder recording Joe Zawinul gave me to orchestrate for the album “My People.” I didn’t understand the groove under it but was too timid to ask for an explanation. I wrote it out mistaking where the downbeats in the bars were! Yikes! But the experience reminded me never to be either too fearful or pompous to ask questions and seek help from performers. Making and correcting errors, however frustrating and sometime embarrassing is essential for growth and is sometime necessary do arrive at the best work possible for the people involved. I regularly consult with performers about bass lines, piano figures, percussion breaks, section orchestration, etc. In the process I have learn new techniques and also history, language and a greater cultural awareness through these personal interactions. Personality is the essence of style! An orchestra is made up of people, not just instruments.

As I teach my students: “The audience does not hear your chart. They hear people playing your chart.” If the music fits the performers and brings out their best, that’s what the audience hears. (Perhaps the best example I have experienced as a performer is when I have played with Jimmy Heath’s band! Love is in every part in every chart.)

Another part of the homework process is transcription, including transcribing grooves (including bass lines, cymbal patterns and drum, piano voicing styles, particular harmonic languages) and melodic construction. A recent album I did with the WDR bigband with Mohktar Samba and friends as guest artists required a great deal of transcription. The Senegalese and Morrocan grooves we were using were new to me and to learn them meant a massive immersion into listening and transcribing as much as I needed to get the grooves right. As I teach my students: Get ahold of any material you can to learn what you need to get the groove right so what you do with the winds doesn’t crush the groove! In this case Mohktar had a book with examples of the grooves, recordings and video to check out. And I asked him questions, directly, which is by far the best way to learn. A ten-minute conversation with a real artist is worth hours of “Googling” stuff!

Still we had to resolve issues in rehearsals, which involved listening to one another and negotiating solutions. More human stuff! Inconvenient! But the growth offered by such work is enormous and mirrors the very process we need in all forms of human engagement.

Link to example, WDR rehearsal with Mohktar Samba, directed by Michael Philip Mossman:

As terrifying and painful transcribing unfamiliar material can be, the practice leads rewarding artistic growth. The truly terrifying thought for me is churning out the same kind of stuff the rest of my life!

While composing and arranging can be a solitary pursuit, learning to share ideas and collaborate can also lead to larger opportunities such as ballet, Broadway and film scoring. It can be inconvenient sometimes, to bend your ideas to include the needs and opinions of others. But with practice their knowledge and experience can become yours in the process. Here is a clip I scored for the animated film “Chico and Rita,” nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. The director, Fernando Trueba is a walking encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban jazz and its historical context. Working with him was as much a learning experience as a creative one. Music is essential to most movies. Yet the role of the composer/arranger/orchestrator is subject to the needs of the action on screen and succeds or fails on that basis.

Clip from Chico and Rita:

Perhaps not as flashy as film scoring and recording albums is the kind of collaboration I do with my publisher, Hal Leonard (which is really the people who work at Hal Leonard… corporations are made of people!) I have gained an enormous amount of respect for the work publishers do to keep music strong in our schools. To produce work for a school market means listening to the needs of directors and state boards of educators. This can be the most difficult of all for creative artists! Arranging under technical and range restrictions is very challenging. Writing for Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band was easy in comparison… they could play anything! But answering the needs of a director in rural school district who may or may not have a strong lead trumpeter or who might have a freshman bassist means preparing music that can teach as well as sound good. If there is anything I am proud of its seeing videos of bands across the US playing charts I arranged and learning how to play a Mambo or Partido Alto. Without music in schools we have no public to enjoy hearing jazz in the first place! No question, it is inconvenient to get a score back with 50 questions about articulations, range decisions and rhythmic quantization. But the expertise and experience of editors I have shared has raised my work considerably and has helped me become a better professor of arranging!

So, in summation, we all celebrate creativity and innovation. Individual achievement in the arts is what we strive for. But my long-winded rant has been one of listening and learning from others in the pursuit of a collective result. It’s the Yin and Yang of jazz arranging: We strive for individuality but we depend upon the work of others to realize what we have created. Gaining the full value of the performers and the satisfaction of our audience depends on our level of understanding and respect for their work and needs as well.

About the Author:

 

Michael Philip Mossman has been active on the international scene since the age of 17. And has recorded with his own groups and with a virtual “who's who” of the music industry.

Michael was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” for his “Afro-Latin Ellington Suite.” Michael has composed and arranged music for the films “Bossa Nova” and “Chico and Rita,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. His ballet “Beneath the Mask” was performed by Jon Faddis and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra with the Deeply Rooted Dance Company. His ballet, La Cova do Rey Cintolo was premiered in 2010 in Mondoñedo, Spain.

Mr. Mossman has conducted the Bilbao Symphonic Orchestra in Spain, and has composed and arranged scores for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Tri-Cities Symphony, Joe Henderson's Grammy winning Big Band album, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, Tito Puente, Mario Bauza, Slide Hampton and the Jazz Masters Orchestra, Paquito D'Rivera, the UMO Orchestra of Finland, the NDR Big Band of Hamburg, WDR of Cologne, HR Bigband of Frankfurt, HGM Bigband of Zagreb, Danish Radio Big Band, the Andalucia Latin Jazz Big Band, Heineken Jazz Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico, Granada Bigband, Sedajazz Latin Jazz Ensemble, and Ray Barretto's New World Spirit.

Following stints as lead trumpet with the Machito Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Michael became the musical director of Blue Note Record's "young lion" group, Out of the Blue. He recorded four albums for Blue Note with this group before joining the Horace Silver Quintet. Michael has toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, McKoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Zawinul, Slide Hampton, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jon Faddis, George Gruntz, Bob Mintzer, Steve Turre, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Tom Pierson, The Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, Benny Carter, the Gil Evans Orchestra, and the Count Basie Orchestra. Michael has played lead trumpet with the Michel Camilo Bigband, the Jon Faddis Orchestra, the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra and the Jimmy Heath Bigband among many others.

Michael has also been a key performer in Latin Jazz since his days with Machito. Mr. Mossman has performed and recorded with Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Chico O'Farrill, Ray Barretto, Daniel Ponce, Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Paquito D'Rivera, Bebo Valdez and Michel Camilo (including a screen appearance in the motion picture “Two Much”). Michael is featured in director Fernando Trueba’s highly acclaimed documentary on contemporary Latin Jazz, “Calle 54” as both performer and commentator. He also served as arranger and trumpet soloist for the legendary innovator of Latin Jazz, Mario Bauza and his Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra.

Michael is featured as lead trumpet and arranger on the Grammy winning album, “Song for Chico,” by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra as well as on “Un Noche Inolvidable” and “40 Acres and a Burro.” Solo releases by Michael Philip Mossman include “Springdance,” “Mama Soho,” “The Orisha Suite,” “Missa Afro-Cubana,” “Soul con Timba Live at Bohemian Cavern.”

Michael, a Yamaha Artist, is currently Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York City. Michael’s music is published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.