Artist Blog

John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 2

Part 1:

Part 2.

“Since many of our contemporary songwriters can’t find middle C with radar, the first function, I think, of the arranger is to make order out of chaos. Once that order is achieved the real work starts. The arranger must build a structure that supports the song. The song is the thing, and the arranger’s function is to make it memorable regardless of one’s personal feelings.”

© Henry Mancini 1982 (Letter to John La Barbera)

Yes, the “song is the thing” and one must recognize what exactly comprises the song.  Obviously it’s the original melody and chord changes, rhythm, and this is VERY important: the audience.  No matter how sophisticated or amateur an audience, they need a reference, and that’s the song.   The next step is to “make order out of chaos ” as Hank has mentioned.  This can be taking a tune that has minimal chord changes or rhythmic value and cleaning it up.  Nothing too drastic, but just enough for it to be allowed in public without disguising its original style, or intent.  Now state this cleaned up original first.  This is extremely important, state the original in a state that is as close to the original as possible.  After that, you can manipulate it as much as you want and they, the audience, will get it.  One of the advantages of age and experience is having observed listeners’ reaction to a given arrangement and understanding why it worked or failed.  And, if one looks at the breadth of an arrangement, the thread of what is the  audiences’ focus is the song or what substitutes for that song.  For introducing students to the art of arranging, I tend to use the melody as an equivalent of the song to get them going because to quote an old Broadway adage, “people don’t leave a show whistling the chord changes!”

Think of the original song/melody as the “before” picture and after you’ve remodeled it (made it memorable) we have the “after” picture.  Without the original the improvement has little impact.  A good example of this is an arrangement I originally wrote for Buddy Rich on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”  This was in the very early 70’s and I was still finding my way in this arranging game with plenty of technique and ideas but lacking in the finesse department.  Buddy turned it down and I was confused as to why he would do that to such a great chart (I thought).  As I matured I finally realized why the arrangement really didn’t work with a typical audience…it’s the customized car/hot rod without a picture of the original.  Had I started it out with even just a piano solo of the original melody and chord changes, what follows would have really worked for a general audience.   I recorded it on my first big band CD “On the Wild Side” just the way I originally wrote it and it should give you an idea of what I mean.  While we’re on the subject, once you’ve done a chart and have it played, fix any obvious mechanical mistakes and then leave it alone.  Know what you would do differently and then write two new charts.  I’ve known students who are still working on the same chart they did years ago and musically, haven’t grown an inch.

So let’s get down to the “real work” and break down the components of a typical arrangement and identify the song/melody.  We’ll “build the structure” using a big band jazz chart as our first example.

I like to think that there is a consistent thread that flows from the beginning to the end of a chart that represents the melody, implied melody, or the principal focus of the chart that is easily followed by the listener. For instance, in a short, traditional AABA form (“I Got Rhythm” changes for instance) big band swing chart of a standard tune, we start with the intro.

The lead trumpet plays the melody of the intro as the top line of a full ensemble scored in block voicings (spell-check hates that word).  This is original material the arranger creates as a piece of “support structure” Hank talks about.  Then we present the actual melody of the song using the original chord changes with unison saxophones for the first A, then soli saxes for the second A.  Unison bones pick up the melody on the B section and the last A section melody is scored for full ensemble once again with the lead trumpet presenting the melody.  So far a consistent thread that gives our audience a reference with which to compare what follows.   It’s been my experience that an audience actually absorbs what is originally stated no matter how unsophisticated idiomatically they may be.  They may not understand melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic concepts but the song does become embedded somewhere in their being.  I’ve also observed the reaction of intonation and dynamics on an audience.  As a body they can’t say “the clarinets are out of tune in the upper register,” but they sense something is wrong and either fiddle in their seats or lose interest in what’s going on at the moment.  The same is true for dynamics or lack thereof.

Getting back to our chart, we copy and paste that introduction as an interlude being careful to change it slightly (see “Nuts & Bolts” below).  Let’s say this time it’s lead alto playing the melody down an octave from the way it was first presented in our intro scored in block voicings with the bones.  Though somewhat customized, that melody is immediately recognized and becomes reinforced in the minds of the audience and in a sense, becomes part of the song.

Then we may have an improvised trumpet solo for the full AABA form…that is the melody now.  The backgrounds behind the solo (usually non-like instruments, saxes & bones) are subservient to the improvisation and should stay out of the way…they are not the melody.  We’re not selling the backgrounds, we’re selling the melody. (We’ll address this further later on)

O.K.  Let’s reuse that intro/interlude as a send-off or buildup to the shout chorus.  But let’s make sure to change it so it isn’t predictable.  How about starting with unison bones with the original intro melody and then have it pyramid by adding the saxes and then trumpets.

Now a fully scored shout chorus using a slightly augmented version of the melody.  The audience already knows this melody and immediately recognizes that the full ensemble is “playing around” with it.

Now let’s bring the volume way down by having the piano play the melody of the B section with the rest of the rhythm section.  Then let’s give the last A to the bones playing the melody in thirds.

And finally let’s “bookend” the whole thing with that intro/interlude/sendoff melody re-harmonized  to imply a modulation to a last full chord.

Though rather formulaic, this gives us a good representation of how a melody progresses throughout the arrangement.  Also, this is a very good schematic to get students stared on building their first big band chart.  Stay away from blues and 16 bar tunes at first, the shorter forms demand more skills.  Now for some nuts and bolts.

Nuts & Bolts

Make sure you know all of the basics.

Watson, describing Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet.”  (Trust me, this is going somewhere)

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge… That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled ’round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.  A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.  Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.  He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.  It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.  Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.  It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

WHAT you say?

Well, one should have all of the information committed to memory that is needed on a regular basis to keep the music flowing.  If you have to look up the transposition or range of an alto or tenor sax, you’ll never get the flow necessary to produce a seamless piece of work.  Know all of the mute possibilities and as many performance nuances (false fingerings, bends, slurs, etc.) as you can.  Score layout for all plausible ensembles is a must, as is part layout.   And don’t trust those “out of range” flags from your notation program, they aren’t always correct.  However, you probably don’t need to commit to memory the range and transposition of an oboe d’amore so why let that clutter up your brain.  When you’re standing in front of 6 or 60 musicians asking questions, you better be sure you have all of the basics committed to memory.

Trust your ears and inclination.

“The computer playback of an arrangement, no matter how sophisticated the samples, should not be totally trusted. It is not an acoustic instrument!”  

If you fail to heed this warning you might discard some wonderful voicing or orchestration choices and have an end result that sounds less than vibrant.  The beauty of any combination of pitches of an orchestration lies in the overtones produced by same.  Without them, a true digital reproduction is impossible.  If you heard a playback of any of Gil Evans’, Thad Jones’, or Bobby Brookmeyer’s scoring with the best of computer generated sounds, you’d more than likely think them unacceptable.  You have to see it on the page, hear it in your head, and believe it.

“Copy & paste is your best friend & worse enemy”

Copy & paste is to computers as col  (come sopra) was to our hand written scores in the old days… “let the copyist do the work.”  All well and good, but it invites one of our enemies, predictability, into our work.  Even the slightest change to a block of copy & paste satisfies the requirement to “make it memorable.”  If you use your introduction as an ending or interlude/sendoff, change it slightly…add a few more measures, change a rhythm or harmony, change the meter and it will add continuity and avoid redundancy.

More on this later on.

“Never use your principal instrument to work out ideas.”   

Those who do tend to migrate to the same tonal centers, clichés, implied harmonies; it stifles new ideas.  Use your head for all of your initial work, your brain has no melodic limitations, no chop problems, nor anything else one might encounter on his or her principal instrument.  If you can, at first, stay away from the keyboard and just use your head.  This may seem impossible to some but with practice it’s something I think everyone can develop with varying degrees of success.  At the student level, non-wind players, especially pianists, have the most difficulty in becoming successful arrangers…they don’t have to breathe!  Quite often they tend to overwrite and their work sounds too busy.  Typically the left hand block chords become the trombone section and the right hand becomes the saxes or trumpets.  Space is the key here…let the players and material breath.

“Everything we do in arranging is dictated by tempo.”

Length of introductions, types of voicings, orchestrations, interludes, length of solos, all should be dictated by tempo. The number of measures needed for brass and strings to change to and from mutes and the saxes to change to and from doubles are all dependent on tempo.  So too for the note length of your backgrounds and also number of chord changes per measure.  It seems obvious but this isn’t always considered as a major tenet of arranging but it is.  In general, faster tempos demand longer note durations for your background notation and slower tempos the reverse.  If you think about it, the vertical voicings in a ballad are more strongly reviewed by an audience than those of a fast sax soli… tempo, this is key!  Again, we’re talking about audience perception and the more time they have to dwell on any individual event, the more unique and precise it must be.

About the Author:

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.

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