Towards the end of the graduate program at City College, I met composer Mike Holober who assigned me to write a chart for a nine-piece jazz combo. That got me started with arranging. Around the same time I met met my wife Nicole Zuraitis, a vocalist and songwriter, and we started playing music together. I got to write arrangements for her and with her. Writing for a vocalist really humbles you because the best thing you can write is still secondary to the human voice.
I learned to look for the ‘stink face’ aka the face that happens if I write something too sophisticated for the song. For me the fun part is to sneak my hip stuff in the chart but make it unnoticeable.
I got a tip from a friend who told me that if I want an excuse to write some music I should book a gig. There is nothing better than a deadline and testing music in front of an audience is the best way to know what works and what goes in the trash. I booked a show when I went to visit my family in Israel and that’s how it all started. I would book a show and try to write new music for it. The busier I got the harder it became to produce new stuff for gigs.
It is hard for me to focus for too long so my workaround that is breaking my assignment into small bits, scheduling short sessions of one hour max and taking breaks outside walking the dog.
Staring at empty staves never did it for me so I have a few tools to get me started. I use the piano only when I know what I am trying to do otherwise I end up playing the same things since I am not a pianist. Sitting by the drums works best for me especially at the early stages of a piece. I do not have perfect pitch and the ideas I hear in my head are rarely fleshed out but playing something on the drums will make me hear ideas that I can poorly sing. That way I can get a sense of the tempo and a rough length of the sections. Sometimes I would come up with a bass figure I like and I would vamp it for a while until I hear melody/harmony, on top.
If I come up with something I like I record a voice memo on my phone singing the idea and explaining the context of it to my future self. Context is important because by the time I go back to these recordings I have no recollection of what I was hearing in my head.
I usually start by writing the peak of the chart and work backwards. Once I have that thick climax written it dictates the rest. It is a good way of controlling the urge to present the material too rich/harsh/big too soon. That goes both for density and orchestration. I also feel that starting at the top is like walking in the dark except for times when I have a clear idea of the whole arrangement. I also try to avoid orchestrating until later in the process, again that is because it can easily become a distraction from spelling out the main themes while they are fresh in my head.
In 2019 I received the Charlie Parker Composition Award/Manny Albam Commission for Big Band at the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and Tolerance is the piece I composed to fulfill the commission. Here are a few thoughts about the composition process.
Tolerance was mainly written during the early part of the pandemic during the strict lockdown. No rehearsals, no readings, no big band. No music. I was feeling lost, depressed and anxious. Isolation was hard. Not playing gigs was hard. Living life through the internet was hard. Not seeing my family and friends for so long was hard and not knowing when this is over paralyzed me. The political and socio-economic climate was heartbreaking and terrifying. In retrospect I see how this piece has some dark parts, especially behind the tenor solo and the C part. There was so much uncertainty during that time and I feel it is represented in the piece.
The seed of it started as a simple melody in 11/8. I listened to a lot of Farmers Market which gave me that balkan vibe idea and the harmony was influenced by Avishai Cohen’s (the bass player) folky tunes. It was my goal to make it sound simple and tune-like, folky and memorable.
I presented this melody multiple times, each time with a slight variation such as; accompanied chord changes, structures over a pedal, bass figures, soprano sax solos, three flutes, four cup mutes and guitar, soprano and four saxes against brass hits in bari and trombones, as well as a slightly different ending.
The idea was that the theme in 11/8 represents us all before the pandemic doing our thing. Right when we think we are in control of our lives something big happens and life takes you elsewhere, you land in the 5/4 section and you slow down.
Before the pandemic, I had a real piano in Brooklyn. I got it at a thrift store and it sounded ok. Certainly better than my Casio. I came up with this piano ostinato in 5/4 which is made of playing 5ths in different inversions in both hands and in different intervals between the hands. It implies a set of two 5/8 segments and is very flexible in this piece. On top of that ostinato figure I added a long tone line to contrast the melody in 11/8 and this became my second theme. Having my themes in 11/8 and 5/4 made sense to me as 11/8 is only one eight note away from 5/4 and it is easy to move back and fourth without breaking the flow or having to metrically modulate.
The bridge (call it C part) is the angry E and C# pedal sections that represent the immense frustration we were feeling during the forced isolation, to say the least. That section gave birth to the figures that fight against the tenor solo later in the piece.
I came up with this weird groove by practicing in 11/8 and trying to impose a broken swing pattern on top. My idea was to hide the meter as much as possible. The way I hear 11/8 on this one is just a bar of 4/4 and 3/8 which is very boxy of me because I’m not used to this time signature. I didn’t want it to sound boxy especially when the melody implies exactly that. It starts and revolves around the first downbeats of every measure. I wanted it to sound as if it was a folk melody that was passed on through generations by playing it on an ancient instrument… or something along those lines.
I try to use as many related ingredients and as possible and limit the amount of foreign ones that don’t relate. I don’t want the technique to pop up and distract from the mood of the piece. I don’t want it to sound random or purposely difficult/hip.
I find that creating many slight variations of the existing material works best rather than stressing out and trying to compose brand new stuff in the piece. It helps the music stay cohesive. It also helps generating the solo sections and as well as background for them.
I used the main theme to generate the intro, and ending, the counter lines and bass figures.
The main theme ends on an E so I re-harmonized that E about nine different times and played them in succession changing the order until it created a bass line that I liked. Then on top of that I connected the lines with a new simple diatonic line that was the intro and ending phrases.
The recording I have was done remotely during lockdown and is not officially released. I will record this piece with a live in person big band for my next album this year with the support of Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation so stay tuned.
Hope this post makes you want to write something, not matter your level or experience.
About the Author:
Dan Pugach is a GRAMMY® nominated drummer and composer living in Brooklyn, NY. He was born in Israel and moved to the United States in 2006. He served as the drummer for The Air Force Band in the IDF while attending the Rimon School of Jazz at the same time. He received a Bachelor of Music Degree from Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Terri Lynn Carrington, Hal Crook, and Joe Lovano, and an M.A in music from the City College of New York, where he studied with Mike Holober and Scott Reeves.
He is the leader of The Dan Pugach Nonet, a nine-piece ensemble playing his original music and his arrangements. This ensemble tours regularly and has played at Bird’s Eye Basel, The Zone in Tel Aviv, Blue Note Jazz, The 55bar, Smalls Jazz Club, The Jazz Loft, The Jazz Estate, Stowe Jazz Festival among respected Performing Arts Theaters across the nation.
In 2011 Dan received the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award for his Nonet piece “Discourse This!”. In the same year he was selected to participate at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Residency Program at the Kennedy Center, where he worked with Curtis Fuller, Nathan Davis and George Cables. In 2013 he received another ASCAP Jazz Composer Award for his Nonet piece “Brooklyn Blues”.
His debut 2018 nonet release “Plus One” on UNIT Records has made it to top 20 jazz radio charts and includes Dan’s arrangement of Jolene/Dolly Parton which has been GRAMMY ® nominated for Best Arrangement, Instruments with Vocals, alongside vocalist Nicole Zuraitis.
He is the 2019 winner of the BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize/Manny Albam Commission as part of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and the 2021 winner of the Café Royal Cultural Foundation Music grantee for producing his second album with his big band.