Rich DeRosa: MIDI mock-ups – their effective use in jazz.

When I was hired by Jazz at Lincoln Center to create seven arrangements for string orchestra to accompany Joey Alexander and his trio, I decided to use MIDI mock-ups as an effective tool and presentation for this context.

Here is a list of my strategies:

1) I wanted to make sure that Joey would be most comfortable in his natural playing situation. Although Joey is a tremendous talent, he is still only 15 years old. To my knowledge, this would be the first time he would need to interact with a large ensemble and in the context of formalized arrangements.

2) I asked Joey to send accurate renditions of his current trio arrangements. It would be important to capture the arrangements that the trio was doing at this point in time. Some were tracks from his CDs while others were from live gigs. For each arrangement, I imported the trio recording into Digital Performer and then used the Tap Tempo feature within DP to get the digital grid (bars and beats) to align with the recording. This takes time – you must first choose “slave to sync” (with the Tap Tempo option) and then begin tapping along with the music without stopping. (The key controller is usually middle C on the MIDI keyboard which then triggers DP to begin tracking the tempo of the live recording). Once all of the beats have been recorded, it is essential to “Save” this information in the DP file. The next step is to have the sequence move within the Conductor Track so the computer moves in tempo with the live recording. If DP remains in the basic Tempo Slider mode, it will not read the Tap Tempo data. If the latter occurs, you will hear and see that the computer sequence will quickly be out of sync with the trio recording. (IMPORTANT: because this step requires a large amount of computer processing, I find that DP’s recording of each beat - Tap Tempo - works better before you import the live recording. So you’ll need to play the recording from another source and tap along within DP.) When all of the beats in the Conductor Track are recorded, you can then import the live recording. Everything should then align in accordance with the bars, beats, and meter.

3) With the trio tracks imported and the conductor track aligned with the recording, I was now ready to begin my creative process. In particular with a pianist, it is important for the arranger to stay out of the jazz pianist’s way harmonically. Scoring around a pianist’s performance helps with this aspect. Additionally, the arrangement will not interfere with what the trio does most naturally. The goal is to enable Joey and his band mates to play organically without having to learn new things or work around the string orchestra. 

4) On the business side, I would need to get Joey’s (and his father’s) approval before committing to any writing choices. So I recorded the MIDI strings into DP without writing anything. I mixed the tracks to an mp3 file and sent it to Joey and his dad (who is Joey’s manager). They were able to hear what the arrangement would sound like as they listened to Joey’s familiar trio recordings which were now enhanced with the string parts. 

5) Once approved, I then had to get the ensemble parts into Finale for the typical preparation of the score and parts.

6) Even with a high-profile venue like JALC, budget is still a concern. To prepare all of the musicians in anticipation of our rehearsals, I now used the demo recordings along with PDFs of the individual parts to establish a clear context. I sent the digital files via a file transfer service to all of the performers. As a result, Joey and his bandmates knew what to expect from the strings and the string players could practice their parts with the trio and with the MIDI strings. This helped guide the string players with phrasing, intonation, and expression. The preliminary preparation enabled us to make the most out of our budgeted rehearsal time. In fact, though we were granted four 3-hour rehearsals over two days, I was able to cancel the last one - everyone was very happy to have the extra free time while also feeling extremely confident about the music. 

You can hear the results via the following link:

This video features Joey’s composition “Soul Dreamer”. The trio arrangement is basically the same as his CD recording so my string arrangement was created around that version. The string orchestra arrangement works equally well in concert.

The next example features another of Joey’s compositions: “City Lights”.  In this example you’ll hear my MIDI mock-up of the arrangement as mixed with the trio’s recording.

My next blog will delve into specific arranging strategies when writing for strings in this context: concert performance with a small string orchestra (20 players) in the more rough-and-tumble jazz context. The arrangements from the Joey Alexander with Strings concert will highlight and demonstrate these concepts and strategies that will include ensemble size and breakdown (vlns, vlas, vcs), maintaining adequate presence within a vigorous jazz environment, providing textural contrast, bowing, harmonics, divisi, etc.

If you have questions, please contact me at richard.derosa@unt.edu

Featured image credit: Sopon Suwannakit


About the Author:

Richard DeRosa received a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Composition in 2015 for his big band composition “Neil” which is dedicated to Neil Slater: the director of the One O’Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas from 1981-2008.

Since 2001 Mr. DeRosa has arranged and conducted music for Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to feature Toots Thielemans, Annie Ross, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Roberta Gambarini, and Renée Fleming among several other notable artists. He was a prime arranger for the theater project (A Bed and a Chair) featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim and created an arrangement of Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea for the swing jazz Broadway show After Midnight.  Mr. DeRosa was also a featured arranger for the Wynton with Strings concert celebration in 2005.  His most recent project as a featured conductor and arranger for the LCJO was Bernstein at 100 which premiered in November of 2017.

In October, 2018, Mr. DeRosa was the featured conductor and arranger for the concert productions of Joey Alexander with Strings which also premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In 2012 the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, invited Mr. DeRosa to conduct and present his music in concert. After several other engagements with the prestigious ensemble, he served as their chief conductor and musical arranger from 2014-2016. He arranged and conducted the CD/DVD recording My Personal Songbook (released in 2015) which features the music of legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter who is featured with the band. A second CD titled Rediscovered Ellington (released in 2017) features his longtime music partners Garry Dial and Dick Oatts. Together they created unique and modern arrangements of Duke’s rare and unheard tunes. Mr. DeRosa’s newest CD release (2019) is Beyond Borders which features Gregor Huebner (violin) and Richie Beirach (piano) that includes new arrangements of several Beirach compositions. WDR projects with other guest artists include Joshua Redman, Stefon Harris, Kurt Elling, Patti Austin, the New York Voices, Ola Onabulé, Ute Lemper, Bill Mays & Marvin Stamm, and Warren Vaché.

Other commissioned arrangements have been recorded by the Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, and Glenn Miller big bands, vocalist Susannah McCorkle, trumpeter Dominick Farinacci on his CD Lovers, Tales, and Dances, and acclaimed solo violinist Anne Akiko Meyers on her CD Seasons….Dreams. Mr. DeRosa has also served as co-arranger, orchestrator, and conductor for the critically acclaimed recording projects When Winter Comes featuring guitarist Fred Fried, Dial & Oatts: Brassworks, and a double CD project That Music Always Round Me which Down Beat Magazine selected as one of the top recordings in 2015. Dial & Oatts composed music to fifteen poems by Walt Whitman and brought in DeRosa to create the arrangements for choir to be featured with a jazz chamber group that included Dial on piano, Oatts on saxophones and flute, and guest trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Mr. DeRosa’s arrangements for orchestra have been performed by the Kansas City Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Pops, the Portland Maine Pops, the UNT One O’Clock Lab Band with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, the Czech National Symphony, and the Swedish Television and Radio Orchestra in Stockholm. Other European jazz bands, including the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, have commissioned his compositions and arrangements.

Mr. DeRosa’s compositions for television, film, and theater include background music cues for Another World, As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, commercials for Telex, Bristol-Meyers, and Kodak, various documentaries broadcast on PBS, orchestrations for independent films Gray Matters, Falling For Grace, and Standard Time, and more than twenty original music scores for the national touring U.S. theater company ArtsPower as well as orchestrations for Frankenstein, the Musical. He has also composed scores for videos and hundreds of audiobooks for publishing companies including Bantam Doubleday Dell, Random House, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and Prentice-Hall.

Earlier in his career as a performer, DeRosa toured and recorded with Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Susannah McCorkle, Jackie Cain & Roy Kral, Chuck Wayne, and Marlene VerPlanck. Other employers include Marian McPartland, Gene Bertoncini, Warren Vaché, Larry Elgart, Peter Nero, and vocalist Chris Connor.

Mr. DeRosa is a recipient of UNT’s Presidential Faculty Excellence Award. In celebration of the university’s 125th anniversary, he composed a work for orchestra and jazz quintet titled Suite for an Anniversary. Mr. DeRosa is a full professor and the director of jazz composition and arranging. His former teaching positions were at William Paterson University, Manhattan School of Music, and The Juilliard School where he taught advanced jazz arranging for studio orchestra.

He is the author of Concepts for Improvisation: A Comprehensive Guide for Performing and Teaching (Hal Leonard Publications) and Acoustic and MIDI Orchestration for the Contemporary Composer (Focal Press) co-authored with Dr. Andrea Pejrolo. The latter book has experienced worldwide success, having been translated into Chinese in a subsequent edition. An expanded 2nd edition was published in November of 2016.

Mr. DeRosa’s publications for public school jazz ensembles are available through Alfred Music (Belwin Jazz), Smart Chart Music, J.W. Pepper, Barnhouse Music, while several of his works for professional-level bands are available through Sierra Music. All of this music is available through e-Jazz Lines. Mr. DeRosa remains active as an adjudicator and clinician for music festivals and is the artistic director for AJV (American Jazz Venues), an organization created by his late father, noted jazz education pioneer, Clem DeRosa.