Artist Blog

John Beasley: Composing and Arranging from my head to my iPhone

When I compose, I usually start someplace away from the piano or the computer. I start by hearing a tune in my head, and I’ve found the best way for me to get it out of my head is not to sit down at the piano – because at the piano, my muscle memory can get in the way, and I’ll sometimes end up playing what I already know, instead of trying to write down what I’m actually hearing. For me, it’s especially important to get the groove, and the tempo, and the form of the tune down first. That’s the architecture. I hear it in my head, and then I’ll try to sing it into my iPhone especially if I’m walking about a city, which I do often. I’ll sing bass lines, melodies, I’ll beat-box the rhythms; I’ve been known to sketch out the whole form of a five-to-six-minute song like that. Then I’ll go home and transcribe it. At this point, I’m not looking for particular voicings; I’ll do that at the piano for sure. But before that, it’s important for me to capture the essence of the composition – what I’m trying to say – without the filter of the piano.

After I do that, I’ll start working at the computer, getting the form into shape. Once you start to slowly transcribe your ideas, I find that just referring back to that first iPhone version will inspire new material. It activates that same initial feeling that you had when the ideas first came into your head. It’s not like I can sing that accurately, but hearing it will remind me of what I was going for. Then, at the piano (or the computer), I can figure out the right notes, and the right spacings, and all the rest. You often hear about jazz musicians wanting to play what’s in their head, right? Well, that’s what’s in my head – but now I’ve got technology to record and help me remember it.

In a lot of ways, it’s like transcribing an improvisation, as opposed to just staring at the computer and saying, ‘OK, what’s next?’ For a while, I would sit down at the piano and struggle with every note, like everybody does at some point, because at the piano, you’ve got too many options: ‘Oh, I could do this, or maybe this.’ But then it’s not straight from the heart, or from my muse.

It works pretty much the same way when I’m writing a big arrangement. I’ll sing the parts into my phone; of course, I can’t sing counterpoint with myself, but I can get the essence of it. I’m trying to get down the creativity, the spark of the moment, before I dive into the details. Also, I might have two or three different versions of the same tune, all recorded on my phone, each with different ideas. So then I’ll try to pick out which one I like best at that moment, when I’m actually ready to sit down and transcribe. Or maybe I’ll pick one section from each version.

I go through something like that with the voicings, too, in terms of getting down the basics and then cleaning it up later. At the piano, I’ll just let my hands go and follow my instincts, and put down whatever comes out. It might be too many voices – it might be 10-finger voicings, using pedal, whatever – but I’ll get it down, and then later go in and make it right from an orchestration standpoint. That way, at least I’ve got the sound I want, the harmonic concept, without struggling over the fine points right off the bat. It just goes much faster if you’re doing it in the moment; again, for me it’s like improvising.

If I’m arranging a work for hire, maybe orchestrating for a singer and it’s his or her song, that’s more like a meat-and-potatoes thing. If it’s already been recorded, I’ll make a take-down of the record: I’ll transcribe the original arrangement, especially what I hear on the rhythm track, so I can keep listening back to it in the computer. And then I’ll frequently refer to the original, because a lot of times, if you’re doing a ‘sweetening’ date – putting strings or a horn section over an existing track – there’ll be these nice little lines already in there, on the guitar or the piano. Keeping those in mind, I might double or continue the line, or support that line in some other way. (I learned this from Tommy Lipuma, my friend and great record producer who worked with everyone from Miles, Al Jarreau, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney). There’s already a lot of information in the original, and by using some of what’s already there, I can keep things from getting too crowded. Typically I’ll first do that, and then depending on who the artist is, and how many chances I think I can take, I’ll decide how much of myself I can put in there.

A good example is an arrangement I recently finished for Dianne Reeves, for her Carnegie Hall Youth Jazz Orchestra tour with Sean Jones. She wanted to do this George Duke tune, “Someday,” which is a really great tune with lots of interesting chord changes. But his version is only two and a half minutes long, and that’s not going to work for this big live-tour performance. The way the tune is laid out, though, it’s almost like three tunes in one. The A and B sections are like separate songs, and the real hook chorus is actually in the intro, which he doesn’t get back to until the very end. Also, this tune goes through a lot of modulations. I had to figure out a way to extend it, and then, at the end, when he gets back to that hook chorus, to let that really grow. So I had to come up with three different climaxes, in a way, in order to hit all those marks – including a joyful, gospel-type chorus to close it out, sort of like Earth, Wind & Fire. And then I had to come up with an ending that’s not corny.

But again, since this is kind of a hybrid, I took the information from George’s rhythm tracks, and then I worked to expand on that. I sort of went backwards. First I worked out the form from his record, and then I sat back, went for a walk, and waited till I could figure out how I wanted to start this thing. I waited till I heard it in my head. And then I sang it into my iPhone.

About the Author:

In the course of three decades, Mack Avenue recording artist John Beasley has carved an enviable reputation – or actually, two reputations. First and foremost, he is an uncommonly versatile, unerringly exciting pianist who has worked with such music icons as Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard – playing in the bands of both these trumpet legends while still in his 20s – as well as with Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, and Christian McBride (and even, for one night, with James Brown). But Beasley is also an accomplished composer, and a distinctive arranger who works regularly in film and television, earning five GRAMMY nominations and an Emmy nod along the way. And he has worked extensively on soundtracks, primarily those of famed film scorer Thomas Newman, including the James Bond hits Spectre and Skyfall.

Beasley’s arranging skills find no better showcase than on the albums MONK’estra (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), each of which received two GRAMMY nominations. MONK’estra is a smashing 15-piece big band that captures the spirit of Thelonious Monk’s singular music in fresh arrangements flavored with contemporary sounds that range from Afro-Cuban rhythms to hip-hop. Critics have called it “some of the most mesmerizing big band music of recent memory.”

Beasley continues to balance a multi-faceted career that includes co-producing albums with former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine; legendary guitarist Lee Ritenour; and oft-awarded vocalist Dianne Reeves. Every year, Beasley resumes his role as Music Director for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s globally heard International Jazz Day concerts, collaborating with the Institute’s Chairman Herbie Hancock. In 2017, this all-star concert was held in Cuba and broadcast throughout the world and on BET-TV in America. The 2016 event was hosted by President Obama at the White House and was broadcast on ABC-TV, gaining Beasley an Emmy nomination for Best Musical Direction.

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