John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 1

“...recognizing that an arranger can be as much a creative force in jazz as a composer or an improvising soloist. Like a composer, an arranger gives an original shape to a piece of music, creating unity and contrast through a variety of musical elements, including, harmony, rhythm, form, tempo, texture, and timbre. Like an improvising soloist, an arranger takes existing material... and uses it as the framework of fresh, new conception.”

© 2005 Jeffrey Magee, used by permission.

Most arranging books on the market today don’t really address the actual art or practice of arranging. I have most all of them (beginning with the Lang book from which Duke got a lot of his early techniques) and they are all wonderful references for beginner and pro alike but fall short of the real goal, explaining and teaching how to arrange. This shouldn’t be a surprise because as a true art, arranging is an intangible like painting and dance and a very difficult process to tackle in print. Techniques can surely be addressed but not the true art of expression that make us unique in this art form.

I’ve been asked by more than a few teachers, “How can you teach arranging? Other than transposition, ranges, form, etc., I hit a wall. I play examples from the classic combos (Blakey, Silver, The Jazztet) and big bands (Basie, Herman, Rich, Kenton, Ellington) but that’s where I get stuck.”

As with any discipline in the arts or humanities, one’s success for creating something new or adding positively to the canon, is to know what has been done before. How can you teach someone about color or light variants if they, the aspiring students, haven’t seen the vibrant shades of a Monet compared with the brooding sidelights of a Rembrandt? In music, there is no substitute for a listening background. Plain and simple. If you haven’t listened to a specific genre’ like big bands or combos, you’ll be spending a lot of time reinventing the V7 chord and 4-way voicings. In the art-form of jazz we are fortunate because our art, in recorded form, is a span of less than a century and we can pretty much absorb most of what we need in less time than one exploring the visual arts or other traditional art forms. However, basic arranging techniques are not unique to jazz so one must have a listening background in all forms and genres of music to be successful.

If you’re in this situation as a teacher or, as a student, and want to explore the art yourself, do so by understanding the most important periods of jazz writing. Understand that throughout the decades of small bands and big bands alike, the basic tenets of arranging remain constant: a primary melodic statement is supported with an answer from a voice offering a counter line.

When I started writing professionally all I needed was a box of “King Brand” pencils and a few pads of score paper. A lot has been added to the arranger’s tool box since then but the techniques haven’t changed. At the risk of sounding like I’m leaning toward the Luddite camp, I can still write faster on a score pad with pencil and feel it gives me an edge in hearing the chart. However, today’s technological advances have made certain aspects of our art a little easier and I strongly suggest one embrace every tool available, electronic or otherwise.

What should you have? Well, to begin, an up to date computer (these days this means nothing older than 3 or 4 years), notation software (Finale or Sibelius), sequencing software (MOTU Performer, Cakewalk Sonar, Logic, etc.), a good portable digital recording device, MP3 player or CD player and a few other goodies we’ll talk about later.

Let me make some general statements now that I’ll be repeating frequently, like a patient parent, throughout this text. These are things I know to be true and, hopefully, will keep you from getting bogged down in your work and therefore be more productive.

"Arranging Is Telling A Story"

Think about it. When one offers musical ideas to an audience in the form of an arrangement, it is similar to telling an old familiar story or fable but with a unique point of view. I liken it to having a conversation with musical ideas, usually between two persons telling a story and a listener or listeners. Sometimes there can be three talking but usually two, never one. Why?, because the listener can stay focused and not be distracted by extraneous comment or bored by only hearing the one voice. A single idea is fine but is really a speech not a dialogue. Let’s say a couple are recounting their recent trip to Europe. The principal story teller will outline the main content of the trip with side comments from the companion. When the principal storyteller pauses, the companion adds some comments or a rhythmic "yes" and, if they respect each other’s right to comment, the story gets told and understood in a seamless presentation. Yes, sometimes a pause or two and sometimes some minor but minimal repetition but depending on how skilled the speakers are, the listener will have a thorough representation of the trip. Can you see the parallel in a good arrangement? The audience knows the song (an old standard) and it’s up to you to make it fresh and keep it musically alive and interesting. The melody is presented by a principal instrument or instruments and is supported by a counter line. When there is stasis in the melody, the counter line becomes more active to keep the flow of musical content and the two become one. It has been shown scientifically that there is no such thing as true multitasking.1"People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself." Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that " for the most part, we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not," Miller said. "You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly." Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain. "Think about writing an e mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time," he said. "You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks," Miller said. "They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there's a lot of conflict between the two of them." Researchers say they can actually see the brain struggling. And now they're trying to figure out the details of what's going on. The brain can only fully concentrate on one thing at a time. So an average audience can only follow a single line and hopefully the musical statements and counter lines will become a seamless stream depicting that single line. Listening to vocal arrangements is a very good way to start, especially Nelson Riddle arrangements for Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

HERE is a routine I've used to give students an easy roadmap to follow and in doing so, to think about the linear flow of an arrangement. Basically I have them use five (5) different devices to get them going with harmonizing the LAST tool to use.

I break it down to

ECHO Echo the melody.
ANSWER Similar to echo but not as strict.
LINE Guide tone line used under very active melody.
RHYTHM Rhythmic punctuations or pedal points between melody statements.
HARMONIZE Vertical harmonization.

 

I could have had a cute little acronym, HEALR, if the order of use weren't so important. However, the order of use is important and it really gets students to realize how a simple counter line can add to the strength and flow of a piece and not get bogged down in vertical harmony plodding.

Here's just a small example of line/counter line from my composition "Roman Notes" from my latest CD Caravan. The echo/answer is obvious:

 

Blog Illustration Revised 7-14-16

Here's a video of the score & recording. This example starts in the middle of page 4.



Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArQjAZnQfV0

 

Next time, the real deal: concrete arranging guidance for all styles of music.

Part 2: http://isjac.org/artist-blog/john-la-barbera-on-arranging-part-2


About the Author:

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John La Barbera is a Grammy® nominated composer/arranger whose work spans many styles and genres. His studies at the S.U.N.Y at Potsdam, Berklee College, Eastman School of Music contributed to his love of writing and strengthened his skills for a career in composition and arranging. He went on to play with and write for many renowned jazz artists and is now one of the most respected composer/arrangers in jazz. His works have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme', Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods just to name a few. Though his major output has been in jazz, he has had works performed and recorded for symphony orchestra, string chamber orchestra, brass quintet, and other diverse ensembles. Most recently, Mr. La Barbera was chosen from among dozens of applicants to participate in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute at UCLA. As a result, John was one of sixteen composers commissioned by the JCOI to compose new works that incorporate jazz and symphonic music. "Morro da Babilonia" was the resulting work and was recently presented by the American Composers Orchestra in New York City at Columbia University's Miller Hall.

John's Grammy® nominated big band CD "On The Wild Side" along with "Fantazm" and his latest "Caravan" on the Jazz Compass® label, have been met with tremendous artistic and commercial success and are on the way to becoming a jazz big band standards. Mr. La Barbera is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Louisville. Among his numerous organizational affiliations are Jazz Education Network, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, NARAS, NMPA, American Composers Forum, and a writer/publisher member of ASCAP since 1971.

He is a two-time recipient of The National Endowment for The Arts award for Jazz Composition and has served as a panelist for the NEA in the music category. His career has recently been profiled in "Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience" and in dozens of publications and encyclopedias. John's published works are considered standards in the field of jazz. education.


Article Copyright © 2016 John P. La Barbera
All Rights Reserved

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself." Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that " for the most part, we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not," Miller said. "You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly." Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain. "Think about writing an e mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time," he said. "You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks," Miller said. "They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there's a lot of conflict between the two of them." Researchers say they can actually see the brain struggling. And now they're trying to figure out the details of what's going on.
  • Paul Read

    I’d like to thank John for writing our inaugural blog. Our blogs will be published once per month and will be written by notable and accomplished jazz arrangers and composers.

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