Artist Blog

Brian Krock: Zen and the art of fishing – How I learned to combat writer’s block

“I know that there’s a thing called ‘writer’s block,’ but, just that term—if it becomes kind of a reality, if you believe that term—you could maybe get writer’s block. Fearing it, you would bring it to yourself. All it means is, the ideas are not coming. You’re out fishing, your hook is in the water, you’ve got bait on it, but you’re not catching anything today. It just means that: you keep fishing. You’ve got to have patience.” -David Lynch

Last week, I released a new music video of my big band, Big Heart Machine, performing “Unblock the Stoppage,” the first track from our newest album Live at The Jazz Gallery. I composed this piece in January of 2018 in the midst of the worst bout of writer’s block that I have ever experienced. I’m sure you, dear reader, have been in a similar situation: fretting about an impending deadline, wasting hours sitting at the piano, staring impotently at a blank piece of manuscript paper (or computer screen, or whatever), pacing around the apartment leveling silent invectives at your delicate inner self.

I’d had writer’s block before, but never in such a crippling way. In retrospect, I think I know why I couldn’t write. At the time, I had just finished recording my first album of large ensemble recordings. I was a budding composer. Not even, really. I was aspiring to become a budding composer. I had never had any real deadlines before. Nor had I ever had any real expectations for my music. But now, with a studio recording under my belt, I was certain that I would never again be able to match its success. I wanted everything I was writing to be “better” than my previous efforts. I was sure that my band would be disappointed in my lack of creativity. I was, clearly, lost in my own head.

Releasing “Unblock the Stoppage” to the world last week got me thinking again about writer’s block. My hope is that sharing a simple strategy for dealing with the inability to compose will be of use to you. You can actually hear this strategy at work in “Unblock the Stoppage”; in fact, that is exactly what I’ve come to love about the piece. Let me explain.

“Things’ll come to you”

From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGu0ao_rdAk

I love what MF Doom has to say here, and if you find that you can’t write—and don’t have an impending deadline—I strongly cosign his advice to “leave it alone, do something else.” By all means: read, play with your children, sit in silence, go on a walk. These are certainly better ways to spend your time than sitting alone ruminating, and, as an added bonus, you may be struck by an idea when you are least expecting it.

But what about when a composition or arrangement is due soon? Maybe in a couple days? Tomorrow morning? You have to be able to deliver something at a professional standard if you’d like to build a good reputation and get more work. (Even if you don’t have a deadline, I think it’s a great idea to create artificial deadlines for yourself. Doing this will force you to at least write something. For example, scheduling a reading session with your friends is a great low-stress way to force yourself to finish writing something.)

In the case of “Unblock the Stoppage,” I took the advice of my former teacher, Jim McNeely (who incidentally wrote a beautiful essay for this very blog not too long ago). In a private lesson, Jim once told me to focus simply on filling as many pages as I could with notes. He instructed me to spin ideas out in any and every way imaginable without impeding myself by worrying about whether or not those ideas might be good or bad, useful or useless. I remember him saying, “Get a pencil in your hand, get your hand moving, and enjoy the process of exploration.” John Cage put it another way: “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.”

So, years after that formative lesson, I took Jim’s advice to heart. I filled many pages with sketches of ideas. As it turned out, generating the raw material wasn’t the real issue for me; the problem was that all of my ideas were totally incoherent. I couldn’t find a common thread. I couldn’t imagine a form that could contain such a weird admixture of nonsense. Despite my best efforts, I was still blocked up.

Looking at my sketches today, it’s clear that I was grasping at straws. A lot of my first ideas are just geometric shapes, random sequences of notes, and vague instructions to myself.    

On the third staff of this first page of sketches, I wrote a note to myself: “Vibes and piano have retrograde rhythms… one a composed accelerando, one a [ritardando].” This vague kernel of an idea would eventually become the culminating section of the entire piece! Except, instead of using only vibraphone and piano, I had the entire rhythm section slowing down while the horns simultaneously sped up, creating a novel and discombobulating effect.

On a subsequent page, I was further experimenting with temporal illusions. Look at the bottom left corner of the following page. I wrote to myself, “Each section [of the band] at [their] own pace.” This unclear instruction is followed by three staves of ideas that I spun out from the interval series of the composition’s main melody. Ultimately, I ended up freely presenting these at three structural junctures in the final version of “Unblock the Stoppage.” At these moments, the conductor cedes control of the band; sub-groups within the orchestra are instructed to listen to one another at proceed at their own unique pace, disregarding any musicians who are not in their indicated group.

On the same page, you’ll find a decidedly conventional harmonization of the main melody for the saxophone section. This bit made it into “Unblock the Stoppage” as well, in a moment where nostalgia for the classic big band sound is distorted by slow, microtonal undulations.

The following page just has a lot of scribbles and the instruction (in all caps) “THINK ABOUT MINGUS MEETS MESHUGGAH. SLOPPY GESTURES & TEXTURES.” I don’t know if I achieved the former, but I nailed the latter!

The point is, I had a plethora of ideas, but I hadn’t the slightest clue how they might work together as a lucid piece of music. Previously, my process had been more linear; idea A would generate the material for idea B, and these ideas would be clearly related by some common thread. The form would be obviously extrapolated from the inherent necessities of the material. But, in this case, I was a fisherman lost at sea, desperately searching for any beacon of light.

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”

As my deadline approached, and my desperation peaked, I was struck with the most obvious idea. Why not just paste together all of the pages of random musical material strewn about my studio? Why not simply embrace—nay, exploit—the incoherence of my ideas? That, in and of itself, could make for an interesting formal device.

As it turns out (completely unbeknownst to myself at the time [which is so often the case]), I was not the first composer to build an entire piece of music around disorganized, unrelated materials. In fact, one of my favorite contemporary composers, Andrew Norman, reached the exact same conclusion in dealing with his writer’s block while writing his orchestral composition “Unstuck.” In that piece’s program notes, Norman explained:

I have never been more stuck than I was in the winter of 2008. My writing came to a grinding halt in January and for a long time this piece languished on my desk, a mess of musical fragments that refused to cohere. It was not until the following May, when I saw a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and remembered one of its iconic sentences, that I had a breakthrough realization. The sentence was this: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and the realization was that the lack of coherence in my ideas was to be embraced and explored, not overcome.

I only discovered Norman’s composition while researching this essay, and I was excited by a number of eerie resonances shared by our compositions. Most obviously, our titles are uncannily similar. Looking more closely, I discovered that Norman- who is ten years older than me- wrote “Unstuck” exactly ten years before I wrote “Unblock the Stoppage.” It seems that we both had a moment of crisis in our late twenties due to impending deadlines and lack of cogency in our pre-compositional ideas. And we both ended up with musical works whose raison d’être was, essentially, lack of coherence.

Upon further reflection, I realized that these commonalities are in no way surprising. In fact, it’s safe to assume that this very thing happens to people in all sorts of creative endeavors: after some initial career success, the desire to better oneself results in a lot of second-guessing, hemming-and-hawing, and stressing out. These emotional barriers make the act of creating something new all but impossible.

Norman and I found the same solution to our problem with compositional ineffectiveness. We simply embraced our impotence! In Norman’s case, it seems that through wrestling with an overabundance of seemingly-random ideas, he stumbled onto a mode of composition that resonated not only with himself, but with the modern zeitgeist of short attention spans and overwhelming streams of competing information. His recent orchestral masterpiece “Play” inhabits the same sound-world consisting of an immense amount of discreet ideas deployed in rapid succession.

In my own case, since those anxiety-ridden weeks during which I composed “Unblock the Stoppage,” I truly haven’t had an issue with generating new music. I hope I’m permanently cured, but most likely, I’ll find myself blocked up again. I’m afraid it might be the case that we must go through a dry spell or ten in order to learn for ourselves how to deal with writer’s block- just as Norman, McNeely, Cage, MF Doom, and Lynch have all done. Maybe my experience will save one or two of you from such a fate, but as I sit here typing, I admit I’m doubtful.

So, when that inevitable moment arrives (if it hasn’t already), I leave you with this advice: it ain’t that heavy, my friend. We have to stop putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves to write the Next Great Piece. Instead, I suggest that a more effective goal would be to just write Something. Anything. Then, do it again. And again and again and again. In other words, have patience and keep fishing.


About the Author:


“Perhaps you’ve heard about a new big-band resurgence in New York. Near the center of that wave is this 18-piece ensemble led by a Midwestern-born multireedist and composer named Brian Krock.” (Nate Chinen, WBGO) Known mainly as the brain behind the behemoth band Big Heart Machine, composer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Krock writes music that simultaneously embraces and transcends the diverse array of musical genres he works within. A fierce and probing improviser on the alto saxophone, he has also had the opportunity to make creative music in New York’s classical, theater, and pop music scenes playing all of the woodwind instruments.

A recipient of a Master’s Degree in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music, Brian was a student of world-renowned jazz composer Jim McNeely and acclaimed opera composer Dr. J. Mark Stambaugh. Highlights from his long list of awards and honors include the Aaron Copland Recording Grant, the Manhattan Prize in Composition for his “String Quartet No. 1,” two ASCAP Young Jazz Composer’s Awards, a composer-residency at the Bloomingdale School of Music, and most recently commissions from the New York Youth Symphony and the Metropole Orkest with Grammy-winning R&B vocalist Lalah Hathaway. Krock’s music is notable for its seamless incorporation of contemporary classical techniques, heavy metal aesthetics, and free group improvisation. In this way, he hopes to continue the tradition of saxophonist/composers such as Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Tim Berne, and Henry Threadgill. For Krock, composition is a daily practice that challenges him to continually rethink the norms of the jazz tradition whilst paying tribute to the daring iconoclasts who paved the way toward creative freedom.

Artist Blog

John Hollenbeck: You are your biggest influence! – An email discussion about arranging with John Hollenbeck and Matt Horanzy

This blog consists of an exchange of emails between Matt Horanzy, when he was a student at USF, and I discussing my approach to arranging for the albums “Songs I Like a Lot” and “Songs We Like a Lot.” Matt has agreed to share this email conversation with the ISJAC community. In the time since we had this conversation, I finished and recently released the album “Songs You Like a Lot,” so I have included an addendum to our original exchange to give you an explanation of the final album of arrangements. In rereading our emails, I felt I needed to include some clarifications to my original thoughts. These clarifications are labeled and appear in italics.

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From: Matthew Horanzy
Subject  – Research Project question
Date: February 5, 2018 at 4:48:23 PM EST
To: John Hollenbeck

Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,

I’m currently working on a research project focused around your music, specifically your arrangements from the Songs I/We Like A Lot albums. My topic is going to be on your influences from wind ensemble music/composers. Having heard you speak extensively on this topic, I was wondering if you could point me to a few pieces or composers that you believe played a great deal of impact on your music for these two projects?

Can’t wait to listen to the new album!

Best,

Matt Horanzy

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On Feb 6, 2018, at 9:09 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

Hi Matt,

I appreciate the interest and question. I have to stop you at your premise unfortunately, because I do not believe that you need to be influenced by something to do something. I hear too much of that in fact. When I write, I try to let the material itself influence me and guide me. While I sometimes do answer the “influences” question, I am increasingly hesitant. I know it is harder to start at “nothing” and not get a head start from another person’s work, but that is how I work the majority of the time. I know it does not make for a good paper, but that is the truth.  😀

Feel free to follow up!

LATER CLARIFICATION: I believe influences will always be present and what we do is based on what we take in. But I do not believe it is necessary to look for influences or spend a lot of time trying to get influenced. The process of being influenced and letting those influences flow naturally out can hopefully happen organically without conscious intent. I have always gravitated towards music where the influences are not quickly evident and I get immediately turned off if I feel someone is stealing someone’s music consciously or even unconsciously. I realize the frustration in my answer and the educational value of copying others, but I do want to continually stress the significance of trying to come at your work from “you” and not “in the style of” someone else, as a mature goal.

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On 06 Feb 2018, at 09:17, Matthew Horanzy wrote:

Hi John – I do appreciate the email! I won’t pry at the subject, but I am now curious about how your statement of treating the big band “as a wind ensemble” (something I recall from your ISJAC talk) can be true without some kind of influence by certain pieces or composers from the idiom?

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On 06 Feb 2018, at 15:58, John Hollenbeck wrote:

Hi Matt,

This issue is a big one for me. So let me try to clarify.

The “big band as wind ensemble” concept was an important thought, a “what if” moment for me, not related to a specific piece or composer, but simply what I had NOT yet heard based on my experiences playing big band and wind ensemble music.

It is also just a general goal of mine. If my vehicle was the wind ensemble then I might be thinking of it the other way around, e.g. “try to put ‘big band’ into a wind ensemble context!”

I’m a firm believer of looking within for the answers, not to other people…it is much easier to be ethical and true to yourself if you can deal with just the music and not with what others have done. I realize that this does not lead to good papers or scholarship if you are told to look for influences and write about them. I think this way of educating is emphasized in jazz education to a negative degree.

In the case of the arrangements that I wrote for these recordings, the answers you are looking for can be extracted by analyzing the arrangements, because everything is built on the DNA of the original songs.

LATER CLARIFICATION: I am trying to emphasize that instead of just asking the composer/arranger for the answers, there is much value in actually studying the music first, looking for the answers on your own, and then presenting the composer/arranger with some very specific questions. The process of looking for the answers will often bring up unexpected rewards. I have discovered the first gem of a piece when looking at some other music and having it lead me to a new place, and it should be noted, a new place for the material too!

An example is the last section (starting at 8:53) of The Shape of Spirit from the album, Tunnel Vision by Ansgar Streipens and Ed Partyka. This material came directly from analyzing and learning Satie’s Gnossiennes No.1. I do not think the result has a direct auditory or foundational basis in the Satie piece, but I found some “new” material while trying to figure out what the Satie piece was about. This process reminds of all the times I went to a library looking for a specific book or score, did not find it, but instead made an unexpected book/score discovery!

_____________________________________________________________________


On 06 Feb 2018, at 18:14, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
 

All too often, I battle the challenge of resisting the temptation to draw from my favorite moments of other music. I’d love to hear how you manage to stay truly original – because everything has to come from somewhere… no? I can’t say that anything I’ve done has been due to “musical spontaneous combustion,” but listening to your music, I would believe if maybe you’ve had those moments!

Back to a stronger paper topic, yes I think perhaps going the direction of how the original works affected your arrangements could be more interesting. I’ll be looking on my own, but if there are any particular ones that you think might have some ideas/techniques that would really stand out in a presentation, I’d love to hear it right from the source!

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On 06 Feb 2018, at 18:31, John Hollenbeck wrote:

“because everything has to come from somewhere… no?”

Yes! From YOU! (:

In other words, from an organic mix of all of your experiences. I’m not sure if one needs to try to, or can, be truly original, but I think the point is to be yourself and to work with the material and let it dictate what you do. This is jazz to me.

Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences, but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.

About my SONGS I/We recordings:

Every piece has its own story, so it will be faster if you pick a few that you like or are curious about and then I may be able to help. (Sometimes I remember what I did, and other times it was done in a short period when I was in a zone so then I don’t really remember what happened!)

LATER CLARIFICATION: “Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.”

I’m arguing with myself on this a little when thinking of Coltrane because he was totally open to outside influences and looking for as much information as possible and then bringing it into his music pretty quickly. Yet despite that approach, the end result came through the Coltrane filter and therefore did not sound like a copy of someone else’s music.

_____________________________________________________________________


Feb 7, 2018, at 1:50 PM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

PS Rick Lawn transcribed the ISJAC talk for his insightful book, so here is more on the “wind ensemble” aspect that you asked about from his transcription:

Hollenbeck: It came down to not calling it a big band and not thinking of it as a big band. It has the same instrumentation as a big band, but it’s just a large ensemble. It could be a large chamber ensemble or a wind ensemble. But thinking of it like that helped me a lot because then I didn’t have to think about styles or conventions.  I just think of it as a group of people, and they play these instruments, and how could [I] deal with that. So that’s one thing that helped me a lot. Within that pretty traditional instrumentation that exists everywhere I just try to find a couple things that make it distinctive, that make it a little different. Having Theo Bleckmann in the band helps me stay away from what a traditional band sounds like.  He can sing like an instrument, he can sing with words, and he can make sounds. Having that one musician really helped me see how to open up the music.  And then having mallet percussion, nothing against guitar, got me excited about writing for the big band. It just wasn’t something I’d heard that much of. I’d heard some vibes before, but this allows me to incorporate things like crotales. It also gets me closer to that wind ensemble-like vibe that I wanted. And I think I haven’t even fully realized this yet. I have like 10 pieces that are sort of wind ensemble pieces.

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On 27 Feb 2018, at 13:53, Matthew Horanzy wrote:

I wanted to get your input about some analysis that I’m doing of a few of your charts. I was wondering if you wanted to provide a small blurb of what you recall regarding your thought process/motivic usage in each of these tracks, as well as anything you might find interesting to share!

From Songs We Like A Lot: Bicycle Race, Close To You, How Can I Keep From Singing, and True Colors.

These are some of my favorite recordings and pieces of music of all time… truly beautiful stuff.

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On Tue, Feb 27, 2018 at 4:34 PM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

At the moment, I’m drawing blanks on these arrangements. It would probably be better for you to ask specific questions and hopefully that will jog my memory. All of those arrangements were written in a short amount of time, so it is difficult to remember anything!

What I can say generally is that I look at the original melodies, sometimes the harmonies but usually just the melodies (maybe the bass lines occasionally) and then generate new material from them. I don’t usually bring new material into the arrangement.

To give you some more specifics, I will usually take the melody, retrograde it and then turn this line into something vertical (chords/harmony). Or I might take the interval set from a melody and process that into more sets and then use that. (ala Bob Brookmeyer)

In True Colors, Theo is singing the original melody, but very slowly, so it ends up sounding like a chant. The piano is also playing the melody and/or some material that was generated from the melody, but much faster, so it also does not overtly sound like the melody, but actually is! The hi-hat part accentuates the piano part and fills in the sub-divisions in a typewriter-like fashion. My goal was to create something that sounds free and not in an obvious meter.

 

The processes when I’m arranging are virtually the same when I’m composing. This article will give you more insight into “the process of processing”:

Click Here to View the Full Article

 

Also, I wrote an extensive analysis of Drewslate, a Claudia Quintet piece, that demonstrates in depth the composition process for this particular piece. It has been published in Arcana VIII, one edition of a series of journals that John Zorn has put together.

I would like to note that with most arrangements, I’m trying to keep the essence of the songs intact while giving them new life, like a new coat of paint or a renovation. The songs are still there but might sound quite different than the original.

LATER CLARIFICATION: The way I look at it, there is a scale of how much something can be arranged. In Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” from Songs I Like A Lot or “Blue” from Songs You Like A Lot, I felt like I just orchestrated the songs according to the players and instrumentation on this project. On the other end of the scale are “Get Lucky Manifesto” from Songs We Like A Lot or “Knows Only God” from Songs You Like A Lot which were arranged to the extreme, to the point of “re-composition,” which is why I re-titled them.

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On Apr 15, 2018, at 11:36 PM, Matthew Horanzy wrote:

Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,

Thank you for writing me several weeks (months?) ago! I’ve been digging deeper into your charts, and your words continue to ring true, with the majority of these works being creative manipulations of the melody.

I wanted to ask some questions that were less technical in terms of analysis, but more conceptual. First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot. Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?

And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!

_____________________________________________________________________

On Apr 16, 2018, at 9:56 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:

“First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot.”

Not really, it felt similar – the main difference was in how the material was selected. I liked more of the material from the 1st project since I selected most of the pieces! But what I learned in the 2nd project was that I did not need to like a piece in order to make a successful arrangement out of it!

“Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?”

I learned that it might even be easier if I did not like the original piece, because then there was less pressure on myself to do it justice. Also, if I did not like it, I did not listen to it much ahead of time, so it was easier to make it my own.

“And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!”

Many, many pieces, but alas that list was on paper, and while I’m sure I still have it, I’m not sure where it is! For the last album in this trilogy, “Songs You Like A Lot,” we are inviting anyone to suggest a piece that they want me to arrange. We will then have an internet-wide vote, so I’m taking myself out of the selection of pieces!

To re-iterate, the process once I start arranging a piece is the same as my compositional process:

  • Find the core/cell
  • Process it and try to find the “gold” that is hopefully embedded in the material, something that speaks to me and gives the material a new life.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

August 9, 2020

An update to this email exchange: Songs You Like A Lot is done and is about to be released (August 14th) so I can conclude this conversation with Matt by giving you some insight into the whole project with the liner notes to this final album:

 

SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT

with Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

This is the final chapter of a trilogy of albums in which I explored and arranged popular songs. The entire project was made in collaboration with vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, pianist Gary Versace, and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. For the first recording, Songs I Like A Lot, I selected the majority of the songs for the album. Many of the songs I chose were from my childhood, and as I started to really listen to them again, I was surprised by how well I actually knew them. The second recording, Songs We Like A Lot, is composed primarily of songs that Theo and Kate liked and chose for me to arrange. Uri Caine held down the piano chair on this recording. And for this third and final recording, Songs You Like A Lot, we asked listeners to nominate their favorite songs for me to arrange. We then had an internet-wide vote on a list of nominated songs, and I chose (with the help of Kate, Theo and Gary) from the top 20 most popular songs.

This project brought up questions I asked myself numerous times: What is arranging? Why arrange? Why arrange popular songs? Is it still a “pop” song if it was not “popular”? Must the original still be recognizable in the arrangement? What can you arrange and what must be left intact so that the original is still there? When does it stop being an arrangement and transition to being a re-composition or original-composition-based-on-another-piece? And, do you have to like a song or composition to be able to create a good arrangement of it? Going into the project, my answer to this last question was “yes,” but now at the end of this project, my answer has changed to a definite “no.” As it turns out, for this recording, I was able to enjoy arranging pieces that I did not know or, in some cases, even like. This brought up subsequent questions: What does it mean to “like” a song? Is it possible to know a song so well, so completely, that even though you don’t really like the song, you realize that because you have heard it so much and know it so well, you end up kind of liking it anyway? (Yes!) And finally, how do you arrange something that you really do like, that you’re not sure you should even try to change?

What I do know is that above all, I want the listener to be reinvigorated and have their interest in the original versions of these songs revived! Through the course of this entire project, I have come up against many listeners that are so attached to the originals that any changes are considered blasphemy! I understand their feelings, but I also believe that this could be a great lesson in non-attachment? The Buddhists would say non-attachment is the key to happiness, so for the “poo-poo’ers” out there, consider this a path to enlightenment!

My arrangements may also highlight facets of these songs that were not obvious to the listener in the original, perhaps revealing hidden and exciting new layers. I sought to emphasize material that is present in the original, but not featured or in the foreground. I also tried to rewind what I perceived may have been the original compositional process to then figure out what I would do from that same point of departure. This approach always brought me down a much different path than the original composer. Throughout the course of this entire project, I also learned new methods of arranging that center in on how to change the original as little as possible while still achieving something “new.”

To give you some specifics on my process: in “Down by the River to Pray”, I let each verse exist organically in its own “room”, culminating in the last verse where all the “rooms” come together simultaneously. Keeping in mind the deep meaning this piece has to Kate, and many others, including myself, I tried to be very careful in not forcing the material, but allowed it to be what it wanted to be.

The Refuge Trio, a collective trio I have with Theo and Gary, was originally formed to perform in a Joni Mitchell tribute concert in New York City. In fact, the name of the band comes from her song “Refuge of the Road”. Having performed her work extensively, I knew that Theo could make “Blue” come to life in his singular way. I tried to do as little as possible with this one and mostly orchestrated the original piano part.

“How Deep is Your Love?” is a nostalgic tune for me. All of the Bee Gees tunes remind me of what was on the jukebox in the local bowling alley where I would bowl on Friday afternoons as a kid. Looking at the song many years later, the title’s question “How deep is your love?” took on an even deeper meaning to me and I heard an urgent intensity in these words, which I chose to emphasize.

The classic “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor was one of the most challenging pieces to arrange because I’m simply in love with the original and was reluctant to even touch it. I imagined how Kate would bring her own magic and then subtly shaped the original by accentuating certain qualities that were present but not explicit.

The Kate Bush/Peter Gabriel pairing in “Don’t Give Up” seemed very suitable to Kate and Theo, but in order to get away from the original, I thought it would be interesting to have them switch parts. This concept of switching is explored also in the last section of the song with an escalation of intense vocal hocketing. While the original version of this song fades out like a gentle pat on the shoulder, I chose to end this arrangement with a coach-like fervor, imploring: “DON’T!” (GIVE UP)

“Kindness” doesn’t officially belong on this album of arrangements because it is an original, but I love this magical poem by Naomi Shihab Nye and want more people to hear it!

“Pure Imagination” was arranged with Gary Versace and Theo Bleckmann in mind. These two musicians embody pure imagination to me, so I created a musical fantasy world as described by the lyrics for them to explore and make magic in!

The easiest solution to arranging extremely popular songs like “God Only Knows” (which was #1 on the voters’ list), is to simply re-orchestrate it. I chose instead to challenge myself to re-cast this classic in a new light. I had such a great time re-arranging the lyrics that this became the key to finding what often sounds like a completely different piece, which I call “Knows Only God.” Perhaps after several listenings of both versions, you will start to hear that “God only Knows” is still totally present and intact!

Songs You Like A Lot along with my other albums can be found on Bandcamp (the most friendly platform for musicians) in physical or digital formats. Because I know it is a challenging time currently for musicians and composers, if you would like a digital copy of SULAL but can not afford it right now, please write to: flexatonicarts@gmail.com with  “SULAL ISJAC SPECIAL” in the subject and we will send you a free download code.

In the years since this conversation, Matt Horanzy has moved to Washington DC where he enjoys staying busy as a guitarist, composer, and educator. He’s currently a member of the BMI Composers workshop, and his latest quarantine project entitled “Quartz” can be heard here:

 

I hope this article clarifies a process that is often mysterious and solitary.

John Hollenbeck


About the Author:

It’s traditional, when paying compliment to drummers, to draw comparisons with the octopus, implying agility beyond the means of a paltry pair of human hands. But when considering John Hollenbeck, the multi-limbed creature that seems most appropriate to invoke is the mythical hydra; for while Hollenbeck is certainly no stranger to rhythmic intricacy, it’s ideas that seem to spring forth like so many heads, two more arising as one falls away.

Hollenbeck is a composer of music uncategorizable beyond the fact of being always identifiably his. A conceptualist able to translate the traditions of jazz and new music into a fresh, eclectic, forward-looking language of his own invention, intellectually rewarding yet ever accessibly vibrant. A drummer and percussionist possessed of a playful versatility and a virtuosic wit. Most of all, a musical thinker – whether putting pen to paper or conjuring spontaneous sound – allergic to repetition, forever seeking to surprise himself and his audiences.

The prolific and unpredictable nature of Hollenbeck’s output has been evident since he first emerged as a leader in late 2001, releasing four completely different albums within a matter of months. Three of them (Quartet Lucy, the duo CD Static Still, and no images, featuring several different configurations) introduced the partnership of Hollenbeck and iconoclastic vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who continue to collaborate in a variety of offbeat settings. Along with keyboardist Gary Versace, they form the Refuge Trio, as boundary-free a small group as one is likely to find.

The last of that initial burst of creativity was the self-titled debut of the Claudia Quintet, Hollenbeck’s longest-running ensemble. Over the course of its eight CDs, Claudia has cemented its reputation as one of the most innovative and adaptable units in modern jazz, so deftly attuned to one another that Hollenbeck’s most dizzying compositional leaps are taken with an air of playfulness and skewed humor. Claudia’s latest release, Super Petite, is a potent package that condenses virtuoso playing and a wealth of ideas into ten compact songs.

Claudia has received grants from the Chamber Music America New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program to compose a suite which was recorded for 2009’s Royal Toast, and from Arts International and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation to travel to Brazil, Nepal, and Canada for performances. The quintet was commissioned by the University of Rochester to set the work of Kenneth Patchen as part of their 100th birthday celebration of the ground-breaking poet, which can be heard on the 2011 release What Is the Beautiful?, featuring vocals by Theo Bleckmann and Kurt Elling. The Claudia Quintet can also be heard performing the theme music to Poetry Off the Shelf, a weekly audio program on PoetryFoundation.org.

Hollenbeck has been acclaimed for his unique twist on big band music – most notably through the work of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, which trades the gale force blowing of most such bands for a multi-hued palette of tonal colors and rich, evocative atmospheres. Their third album All Can Work, pays tribute to the Large Ensemble’s late trumpet player Laurie Frink, a key force in the group and the jazz community. The JHLE received GRAMMY nominations for all three of its releases: All Can Work in 2018, A Blessing in 2005, and eternal interlude in 2008. John was nominated again in 2013 for his arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” from the album Songs I Like a Lot, commissioned and recorded by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, and pianist Gary Versace. That album and its companion piece, 2015’s Songs We Like a Lot, puckishly reimagine pop songs by the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Daft Punk, Queen and Burt Bacharach with big band arrangements, transforming familiar songs with surprising insight and audacious wit.

The composer’s large-band pieces have also been recorded by Austria’s Jazz Bigband Graz on 2006’s critically-acclaimed Joys and Desires. In 2010, the CMA/FACE French-American Jazz Exchange Program awarded Hollenbeck a grant to develop work with Daniel Yvinec and the Orchestre National de Jazz of France, resulting in the release of Shut up and Dance (Bee Jazz, 2011), which includes the GRAMMY-nominated composition “Falling Men.”

If these projects can safely be termed “jazz” (at least by those comfortable with the label’s more progressive interpretations), they should by no means be taken as indicating that Hollenbeck’s output is limited to even that genre’s most elastic borders. His growing body of commissioned compositions relate just as obliquely to the “new music” tag, exemplifying his ability to not so much defy categorization as to evolve beyond its necessity. One of Hollenbeck’s earliest appearances on record was as the composer of “The Shape of Spirit,” a piece for wind ensemble issued on the Mons label in 1998. The following year he composed “Processional and Desiderata” for wind ensemble and orator (released by Challenge Records in 2001), written for and featuring the voice and trombone of John’s mentor, Bob Brookmeyer.

John’s piece “The Cloud of Unknowing,” commissioned by the Bamberg Choir in Germany, fit comfortably alongside works by J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky & Paul Hindemith when it was released in 2001 on the Edel Classics label, while his 2004 chamber piece “Demütig Bitten,” commissioned by Germany’s Windsbacher Knabenchor, was released on the Rondeau label along with works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Josquin des Prez and J.S. Bach (again).  In 2002, his IAJE Gil Evans Fellowship Commission piece, “A Blessing,” featuring Theo Bleckmann’s stunning vocals, was performed to critical acclaim at the IAJE Conference; and in 2003 his IAJE/ASCAP Commission, “Folkmoot,” was premiered in Toronto, Canada.

In 2009, John compiled several recordings of his chamber pieces on the CD Rainbow Jimmies, made possible by his 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. The disc includes commissions by Bang on a Can and the People’s Commissioning Fund; Ethos Percussion Group funded by the Jerome Foundation; Youngstown State University; and a piece written for the Claudia Quintet’s cross-cultural educational journey to Istanbul, commissioned by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. Hollenbeck’s other notable works include commissions by Melbourne Jazz Festival; Edinburgh Jazz Festival; University of the Arts, Philadelphia; and Ensemble Cairn, Paris, France.

Hollenbeck received degrees in percussion and jazz composition from the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City in the early 1990s. He was profoundly shaped by the mentorship of two hugely influential artists: trombonist/arranger/composer Bob Brookmeyer and composer/choreographer Meredith Monk. His relationship with Brookmeyer reached back to the age of 14, when he attended the SUNY Binghamton Summer Jazz Workshop, and continued at Eastman, through NEA-funded composition study, and finally on the bandstand with Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra and in the studio with Brookmeyer and trumpet great Kenny Wheeler. For Monk, Hollenbeck composed and performed the percussion scores for five of her works: “Magic Frequencies,” “Mercy,” “The Impermanence Project,” “Songs of Ascension” and “On Behalf of Nature.”

Hollenbeck’s awards and honors include five GRAMMY nominations; the 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2010 ASCAP Jazz Vanguard Award and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship; winning the Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Contest in 1995 and 2002; Meet the Composer’s Grants in 1995 and 2001; and a Rising Star Arranger win in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics’ Polls as well as in 2011 for the JHLE as Rising Star Big Band. John was a professor of Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin from 2005-2016 and in 2015 joined the faculty of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.

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Rufus Reid: Preparation Is Key To Success! My WDR Big Band Experience

There were many lessons learned from the time I was asked to schedule a timeline to perform with the infamous WDR Big Band in Koln, Germany, with my music. For those who do not know, WDR, Westdeutscher Rundfunk is a German public-broadcasting Institution with the main office in Köln, Germany. NDR Big Band is based in the North in Hamburg, Germany. The HR Big Band is in Frankfurt, Germany. Each of these bands are made up of exceptionally talented jazz musicians, many who are from other countries, including the United States, as well as from Germany. These professional European bands have been around a very long time. I am deeply honored to have been invited this past March to perform my music with the WDR. My dear friend, Dennis Mackrel, was my conductor who made this memorable visit a most successful one on many levels.

(Watch Link: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?ref=external&v=576875436374551)

To become a good composer is somewhat similar to becoming a good player. One should have, at least, one significant role model for inspiration. One also has to be persistent, diligent, and consistent with conviction to be taken seriously, so they can be called again and again to play with other good musicians. Composers also want to hear their music played more than once, as well. You can be recommended that first time, but the second time is totally based on that initial performance. When are you ready? Watch, listen, study, and ask questions by seeking out those individuals who inspire you! When it’s time for your music to be performed on the stage, it must sound like it belongs there. How do you know? When people you respect give you an unsolicited thumbs up! Believe me, it will empower and carry you a long way! Begin being truly honest with yourself! Bottom line, the music you compose must resonate with others. The best compliment would be, “I’d love to hear that again!” Ultimately, it’s all on you.

In my many years as a professional improvising bassist, I have had the good fortune to perform and record with some of the greatest players who were and are incredible composers, as well. I have always been intrigued and baffled how they were able to conceive this incredible music. I began a quest to find out what this composition thing was all about.

When I joined the BMI Composers Workshop in 1999, I was thrust into an environment that was completely foreign to me. Intellectually, I understood we would be writing for a big band. I had written a few big band arrangements, but this workshop was about coming up with fresh ideas. Arranging requires its own set of unique skill sets to take a known composition and give it a new look and/or sound. I was asked to write what I wanted to write. I was NOT prepared to write what “I” wanted to write. I had no idea what that was! In that moment I felt completely at a loss to respond in any way. I had never been asked that question before, ever! The music I knew basically was already prescribed for a particular musical setting, i.e. music for film, television, a musical, a wedding, or a myriad of situations. So, the inner search was initiated to find out what actually pleased and satisfied me without being judgmental! HA! Fat chance of that not happening! At the time, the BMI Workshop had three exceptional coaches, Manny Albam, Jim McNeely, and Michael Abene, to help guide all of the individual participants closer to being yourself. In the five years as a participant, I was never told “No, that’s not good!” I was simply asked, “Is that really how you want it to sound?” That sent a huge message for me to return to the drawing board and keep searching! Another was, “That’s pretty good, but try orchestrating this with very different instruments!” We all have our comfort zones and I was asked to stretch and leave mine. I still have to NOT get too comfortable with what I come up with too soon in the process. And that is it! I have grown to love the entire process of composing! The constant search is very mysterious, extremely daunting, and exhilarating when you discover “it!” One of my oldest friends, the late Muhal Richard Abrams, said to never stop listening to all kinds of music. You might be surprised at what you actually like. Eddie Harris taught me not be afraid of any music. So, these past twenty years, I have conscientiously tried to do exactly do as they suggest.

Now, with all that said, one has to learn how to orchestrate so that idea sounds solid, while also “sounds!” It is clearly heard no matter of the density surrounding this idea. Finding the “sweet spots” of all instruments. Manny Albam used to call them the “money notes” because he was always on the clock and it had to sound good all of the time or people were unhappy! Whether you are on the clock, everything written must have a “sound.” The idea sounds. That voicing really sounds! The orchestration truly sounds. Everything is clear with articulations, dynamics, measure numbers, page numbers, chord symbols, and whatever else makes a great sounding chart, etc. etc. etc!

The WDR Big Band experience gave me a real taste of what the BMI workshop prepared me for! That in itself was extremely gratifying. I remember so well being told that you are in a good place when you finish a commission or any project. Now, have the confidence to put the score and parts in a package. Mail the package and do not expect to hear anything, except it was received, the first reading went well, and the music was liked by all! THAT, my fellow readers, is not easy to accomplish, but I am getting closer, I think!

The music I have written and performed with the WDR Big Band will give the listener a glimpse of what has happened in these past years. I was sent guidelines as how to prepare my music to send via PDF. All of the scores and parts had to be prepared by computer software. That made sense since we all use Finale or Sibelius software, but they did not want to see the “jazz font” at all. I had four charts with the jazz font. I know, supposedly, you can designate the change and push a button and that’s it. It isn’t quite that simple. The articulations changed. Then I said to myself, since I’m in this, let me see if I can tweak some parts and the domino effect came in. Oh my, did I mention I had a couple different versions of this chart in the computer and I tweaked and sent the wrong one? Fortunately, I caught most of the proofing issues before sending out nine pieces of music for this project. We rehearsed four days and all of the players were so on it about everything! Specific articulations had to be discussed and finalized before moving on. What one might think is a universal language for “jazz” articulation, is not that simple, particularly to those who do not know you or your music! When you are aware your music is new to everyone, the clearer everything must be at the outset! I had to adjust some measures in a saxophone tutti in one piece and correct some trombone voicings in another. This doesn’t sound like much, but folks, I was mortified! The score and parts matched, which is supposed to be a good thing, but they were wrong! I do not know how any of that could have happened! The computer messed up my parts, I am sure of it! DUH! I am truly happy that out of all the music I sent, this was minor, but it should not have happened at all at this level. If I had truly taken the time to proof and/or have someone else proof, the music would have been sufficient, as it should be.

One of the issues at hand for me at this juncture in my life, is, I am attempting to compose other music outside and away from the jazz mentality or sensibilities. This has required me to become more articulate with literally everything on the music page. When you write for your band or players who are familiar with you, the music should still be clear enough to have a smooth initial rendering. Theoretically, I am well aware of the importance of proofing, but somehow it still eludes me. That’s when it hurts when you get busted for it!

The moral to this story, is no matter how savvy you are with the computer software, one should have another set of eyes and ears to help proof your music. I wish to be asked to return to perform and write for the WDR Big Band again in the future. Hence, preparation is the key to success. “Gots to be more careful!”

 


About the Author:

Photo by John Abbott

For the last 50 years, Rufus Reid has been a consistent, formidable, and influential presence in the jazz world as a bassist and educator. His performances and recordings with Eddie Harris, Nancy Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Andrew Hill, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and Quartet, Kenny Barron, Stan Getz, J. J. Johnson, Lee Konitz, Jack DeJohnette, to name but a few, has cemented his stature as one of the great living deans of the jazz bass. His receipt of the 2006 Raymond Sackler Commission resulted in his five-movement suite for large jazz ensemble, Quiet Pride-The Elizabeth Catlett Project. In November 2015, this album received two Grammy nominations, for Best Large Jazz Ensemble and Best Instrumental Composition. Rufus Reid is a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in the field of composition, which resulted in the three-movement symphonic work, Mass Transit. In April 2016 he was named Harvard University’s Jazz Master in Residence, participating in public conversations and also performing in concert with his original compositions. In April 2017, Lake Tyrrell In Innisfree, Rufus’ third symphonic work was debuted in Raleigh, NC by the Raleigh Civic Symphony. May 2017, Rufus Reid was awarded the America Composers Forum Commission to composed, Remembrance, for Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble to be premiered in July 6-7, 2018. In December 2017, Newvelle Records, an all vinyl recording company, will release the Rufus Reid Trio, “Terrestial Dance,” featuring the Sirius Quartet. February, 2020, Newvelle Records release his second vinyl duo recording, “Always In The Moment,” with stellar pianist, Sullivan Fortner. A distinguished educator as well, for 20 years Rufus was Director of the Jazz Studies Program at William Paterson University and was instrumental in building the program’s international reputation as one of the leading jazz schools in the world. He has recorded more than 400 albums and a dozen albums as a leader and authored a seminal text and DVD for bass methodology, The Evolving Bassist. Rufus’ continues to evolve as a composer and “The Evolving Bassist.”

Artist Blog

Jason Palmer: Getting a Foot in the Door of the House of Composition

Thank you to the ISJAC for inviting me to contribute to the blog.  I didn’t know about this resource before the invitation, and I’ve learned a ton since diving into the archives.  I’d like to offer up a commentary on my journey through the world of composing creative music in a small group setting with the hope of inspiring those who are wanting to jump into the process but may not know a path to take.

I’ve been afforded the opportunity to present clinics on improvisation, composition, and everything in between over the past 20 years in places near and far.  One of the proverbial questions that always arises is, “So how did you approach composing original music?” So here are a few ideas that I have been relaying to musicians getting their pens/keyboards wet in the composition game:

Composition as Improvisational Language

When I arrived in Boston in 1997 to attend my undergrad, I met Darren Barrett, the great trumpeter/composer who was just finishing his studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music.  I asked him about the idea of composing and how he approached it.  He told me, “You know, when you’re composing, you’re documenting what springs from your improvising mind.  It’s all improvisational language.”  This idea initially sent me for a loop, but eventually made sense and settled in nicely.  Darren later relayed a relating idea of writing out solos to tunes that you’ve been working on just to have something in front of you that you can play variations on.  I started to really work on this and that’s when the idea of composing for small groups (what I was into at the time, and still am) started to take shape.

Contrafacts are our Friends

I took the idea “composing in real time” and locked myself in a practice room with a tape recorder, a pair of headphones, and my CD Discman.  I brought recordings of songs that I really dug at the time on cd with me, put on headphones and started playing along with them (in many ways, that’s a lot hipper than playing with an Aebersold or iRealPro), while at the same time recording myself practicing in those sessions.  I then listened back to the practice sessions and transcribed anything from my playing that I thought could become a composition.  What I later realized was that by doing this, I was able to “creep” into the habit of writing out melodies that were already attached to a particular chord progression.  Below are a few examples of contrafacts that I’ve recorded:

Found It (an original based on Myron Walden’s Like a Flower Seeking the Sun)

3rd Shift (an original based on Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer)

Learning Songs to Write Songs

As I began to write contrafacts, I did my best to become more mindful of making a stronger effort to learn about the art of composing interesting harmonic progressions for improvisers.  At the time, I didn’t know many songs but I was attending a weekly jam session at Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston, where tunes that I didn’t know were being called left and right.  I made it a point to go to the local record stores (there were about 5 really good ones in Boston/Cambridge at the time) and spend all of my work study money on records that had the quintessential versions of the songs that I had to learn on them.  I then transcribed the song(s) on the record along with all of the other songs on the record, which built my repertoire immensely.  It was there that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the foundations of consonant/dissonant harmonic functions in this music.  This gave me the ability to compose without relying on chord changes from other tunes and only returning to that idea when I feel the itch!  I always tell my students that you don’t have to give up the idea of learning more standards if you want to start to compose original material and vice versa.

Have a Band/Gig?  Write Flexibly for It!

I was lucky to have a steady gig on the weekends leading my own band for over 15 years in Boston at Wally’s Jazz Café.  It was really an incubator for compositional experimentation for me.  It was unique to me because I was able to test out new material constantly (with no artistic constraints whatsoever) for an audience that didn’t necessarily come to hear us play.  While I found that to be a welcomed challenge, I also faced the challenge of writing music for great musical bandmates that juggled busy life/school schedules, therefore limiting available time to rehearse.  There was also the aspect of hiring subs, which always altered the repertoire for any given night.  I started to compose and organize older compositions of mine into 3 graded categories that I found to be useful.  Examples are at the below the description:

Grade 1:  Songs that are easily sight-readable by any competent musician, needing no rehearsal.  Fun songs to improvise on (“blowing tunes”) that make the band sound like “a rehearsed band”.

 

Grade 2:  Songs that would need to be looked at ahead of time for most competent musicians, but don’t necessarily need to be rehearsed beforehand.  These songs strengthened the idea of what a “band” sounds like to novice listeners.  These songs have unconventional song forms, challenging harmonic progressions, and melodies that need shedding before hitting the stage.

Grade 3:  Songs that need a thorough rehearsing with the band.  These songs are written to push and advance my technique and challenge my bandmates as well as the audience.

After you’ve composed pieces and considered what level of musicianship is required to have the songs come to life in a way that you’ve hoped for, considering organizing them into separate books that can be easily pulled out to match the appropriate personnel in your band for any given gig.

It’s my sincere hope that at least one person finds something helpful from post.  I invite everyone reading this to take any or all of the information and run with it!

Sent with LOVE,

Jason Palmer


About the Author:

Jason Palmer was recently named to the inaugural class of the Boston Artist in Residence Fellowship for Music Composition.  He also received a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works for 2019.  In 2011 and 2017, he was named a Fellow in Music Composition by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2014, Jason was honored as a recipient of the French American Cultural Exchange Jazz Fellowship where he collaborated with French pianist Cedric Hanriot, collaboration on an album and touring the United States and Europe. Jason won 1st Place in the 2009 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and was cited in the June 2007 issue of Downbeat Magazine as one of the “Top 25 trumpeters of the Future”.   

In addition to performing on over forty albums as a sideman, Jason has recorded thirteen albums under his own name on labels Ayva, Steeplechase, Whirlwind, Newvelle, and most recently with Giant Step Arts. Four of his recordings were reviewed by Downbeat Magazine, all receiving 4 stars or better. Jason has toured in over 30 countries with saxophonists Mark Turner, Greg Osby, Grace Kelly, and Matana Roberts, and has been a featured guest artist on multiple projects in Portugal, Mexico, Canada and Russia. 

In addition to a heavy performing schedule, Jason Palmer offers his passion for improvised music as an Assistant Professor of Ensembles and Brass at Berklee College of Music. Jason has also served as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University and at New England Conservatory. He has also served on the faculty at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.

Artist Blog

Asuka Kakitani: A New Outlet for Big Band Composition Sprouts in the Midwest

What is TCJCW?

The Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop (TCJCW) was born in 2017 soon after my husband JC Sanford and I moved to Minnesota with our daughter for our new adventure after over a decade in New York City. Both JC and I are some of the lucky people to proudly call ourselves former members of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. For the readers who aren’t familiar with the BMI Composers’ Workshop, here is a quick description from the BMI website: “The workshop was founded in 1988 by acclaimed composer/trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, composer/educator Manny Albam and author and jazz authority Burt Korall. […] The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop stresses exploration, ranging from the traditional to the new. The primary emphasis is placed on individuals and their ideas, along with the acquisition and understanding of techniques that make possible the execution of thoughts and the development of personal language within the big band setting.”   The way the workshop functions is that the participating composers would meet weekly in a quasi-classroom setting led by the world-class “faculty” composers who go through the “students’” charts and offer guidance and suggestions based on their wealth of knowledge and experience. From time to time, guest composers would come in and present their music and sometimes look at participants’ charts, adding a freshness to the process. Usually on the last Tuesday of the month, there would be a reading session in which some of the most skilled players in New York City volunteered to read new big band charts that were composed by the workshop participants. In the summer, a handful of the “best” works from the season would be performed by the BMI/New York Orchestra at the Summer Showcase Concert, and guest adjudicators would select the “very best” work as winner of the Charlie Parker Composition Prize and an accompanying commission for a new work to be premiered on the next year’s concert. And this is all tuition free. As far as I know, there has never been a situation like this anywhere else, and definitely not one with this much sustaining power and influence over several generations of creative composers worldwide.

I received excellent training while I was a student at Berklee College of Music from people like Greg Hopkins, Ted Pease, and Scott Free, but being in the workshop was one of the most important and meaningful times for me while I was in New York, if not for my entire life. I remember that precious time fondly, even though I was extremely shy to make friends during the first year. Because of the workshop I moved to New York from Boston, wrote many pieces, heard many pieces of fellow composers, made many composer and performer friends, and even had some drinks with my hero Jim McNeely, the musical director of the workshop at that time, along with Michael Abene and Mike Holober. Most importantly, I got to hear the workshop members talking about their ideas, processes, and inspirations. I also had the chance to talk about mine, and I received lots of feedback from fellow composers and the musicians of reading band. Much of the advice I got still often pops out when I compose, so the value of the workshop has been lasting for me, even after 12 years since I finished my time there. I feel I was incredibly lucky to be able to be there as the time I spent and what I experienced at the BMI workshop are very special gifts that I carry everywhere I go for the rest of my life.

The Beginnings and Growing Pains

When we decided to move to MN to live closer to JC’s family, we wanted to try to take the legacy of Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely with us and see if we could plant a little seed to grow and spread the spirit of the BMI workshop in the Midwest. We hoped that given our time at BMI, plus my studies at Berklee and JC’s long relationship with Brookmeyer, we had the experience to try and create a similar scene.

Minnesota welcomed us warmly. It is a truly great state to be an artist. They have many enthusiastic and passionate organizations to support artists such as the American Composers Forum, Springboard for the Arts, and the McKnight Foundation, in addition to the MN State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils, and JC and I have both been able to take advantage of some of the opportunities these organizations provide. Not long after our arrival in MN, we connected with like-minded composers in the area who became co-founders of TCJCW, Aaron Hedenstrom, Adam Meckler, Dave Stamps, and Kari Musil, and we started to have meetings and reading sessions modeling the BMI Workshop as best as we could. Before our move, JC knew a few people, but we basically didn’t have much connection to the MN jazz scene, and we had no idea what to expect. We are very thankful to our friends Dave Hagedorn and Pete Whitman in particular who gave us a long list of recommendations for musicians and Mac Santiago has provided a space for us at Jazz Central Studios (a gem of Minneapolis!) for our meetings and readings. We were pleasantly surprised that many musicians were interested in playing new music and donating their time to playing reading sessions, and we’re so grateful for their high level of talent and willingness to be involved.

Our first workshop year was very successful, overall. Of course, not having a massive corporation like BMI to support us, we had to adapt our plans and expectations to fit our specific situation, logistically and financially. It became clear from the beginning that we weren’t in a position to have our organization function exactly as BMI did, so we became a kind of workshop/composers’ collective hybrid for practical reasons. We also had to adjust to the fact that, unlike NYC, most of the top musicians in the Twin Cities area have something resembling a 9-5 day-job, which limited our weekday scheduling options. Yet during our first season, the six of us managed to collectively create more than 15 original works, we raised over $3,000 on our Kickstarter campaign, found private donors to match our campaign funds, had over 100 audience members collectively for two concerts at Studio Z (a gem of St Paul!), and featured BMI Charlie Parker award winner, NY-based composer Nathan Parker Smith as a guest composer/conductor on our Fall concert. We are deeply touched and thankful to everyone who donated funds for our concerts, came to support live the music, and the musicians who played reading sessions and concerts throughout the season. It was a complete blast and felt really like we were making a difference and building something that could grow and grow.

Our second year was very different from the first. Many of the composers became busier in their lives, and schedule conflicts grew more numerous. Therefore, we weren’t getting the output that had been generated our first season. As a result, we only had two reading sessions and no concert. (I have to confess that I myself wasn’t there to help much because I took a year off due to commissions that needed to be finished.) JC and I talked about the workshop constantly during that year. We were frustrated and discouraged and didn’t know what we could do about it, even though we tried several different approaches to attempt to accommodate everyone’s availability to keep all the composers involved. We constantly evaluated whether or not it was even worth the effort. On several occasions we were on the brink of dissolving the whole organization. Maybe something like this just wasn’t practical or sustainable outside of New York.

The Women I Met Who Opened My Eyes

In July 2019, the big band Inatnas Orchestra that I co-lead with JC in MN (also a new product we started after arriving in MN and seeing how talented the players were) had a concert at a great jazz club in Minneapolis called Crooners. It was a really fun gig with great energy, and we were very happy. After the gig, a young girl, maybe a high school or college student, stopped me to say something like “I just wanted to say it was great.” She continued “I think you are great.” And then she was gone. I even didn’t catch her name. Somehow, something about her reminded me of myself from 15 years ago when I was at Berklee. The time I went to many concerts and loved and was inspired by almost everything I saw. I had many dreams that were just waiting to come true (and still do now!). I hoped that night that the music touched somewhere very deep in the girl’s heart, and she will remember that night even if she can’t recall the specifics of the music she heard. That magical feeling I had from my interaction with her has stayed with and helped to get me motivated again.

A few months after that gig, I had the amazing opportunity to meet a musician whom I have admired for a long time. In person she was a warm, deep, and beautiful person just like her music. Afterwards, I was lucky to be able to exchange a few emails with her to tell her how her music has influenced me. I sat down and thought about when I was first introduced to her music, how her voice inspired me, and how her compositions brought me into a new world of poems. I was sort of shocked to realize how big her impact was on me. And again, a younger me from 15 years ago showed up. The girl who was anxious to soak up everything she experienced. And then, something in me clicked, and a deep realization struck me.

I could see with a much clearer eye that everything I was around all my life made some sort of impact on me and my music. I knew this already on some level, but it was a sudden understanding that whether we want to or not, we all affect each other. So, I felt a strong urge to see if TCJCW has the potential to make at least a small difference in my new community.

Maybe I’m at a certain age that people are starting to think about the next generations. Maybe because I have a young child and see my music students on a regular basis, I started to care more about what influences I might have on others. Maybe seeing people in Minnesota who work hard and contribute to the community not only being an artist, but as a curator, artistic director, radio host, vice president of a non-profit organization, and donor to fund various projects made me feel like I’m a responsible part of the community that I’d like to help make better. Probably all of those things happened at the right time at the right place.

New Beginnings

Spoiler alert: TCJCW didn’t fold. We just kicked off our 2019-2020 Workshop year. Based on an online composers’ lab I participated in hosted by composer William Brittle through New Amsterdam Records this past year, we changed our in-person meetings to online ones using Zoom as a platform. This change not only allows us to have more flexibility in scheduling our local composers, but we also have been able to include more composers from outside Minnesota and wherever they live to join us. We schedule regular guest clinicians to talk about anything related to large ensemble jazz composition and to also view and comment on workshop participants’ pieces. In October, JC gave a conducting/rehearsal technique clinic that he used to give at the BMI Workshop to talk about his experiences in many projects including being the conductor of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble for 16 years. For the rest of 2019, our guests include a return by Nathan Parker Smith, leader of his own unique prog-rock big band, Bob Washut, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Northern Iowa and a prolific big band composer, and Ayn Inserto who studied closely with Brookmeyer and has taught a Compositional Techniques of Bob Brookmeyer course at Berklee.

 

At the workshop, we ask each other questions, give suggestions, talk about ideas, and exchange information. We ask each other to take risks, go beyond our comfort zone, and be curious and stretch our musical language. We don’t judge each other’s music. We try to inspire, influence, and learn from each other. Then we discover the results of the risks we take at the reading sessions, played by some of the best musicians in the Twin Cities area. It is a perfect opportunity to try a whole piece, some shorter ideas or fragments in several different orchestrations, experiment with extended techniques on various instruments, practice rehearsal technique and conducting a band, get feedback from the musicians, and socialize to make friends and musical connections. The participants who are not in the area send their parts, and we can read down and record their chart for the composer to review. All the reading sessions are open to the public, and we also are planning to stream them, so you can watch from home (see below for our FaceBook page)! We will end the season with our Showcase Concert in May 2020, and we will premiere 7-8 pieces that were created in the workshop by the participants. We will have guest judges to choose “the best composition” at the concert and commission a winner to compose a new piece to be premiered in the Fall 2020 by the JazzMN Orchestra, one of Minnesota’s premium professional big bands. Again, we’ve had to alter our practices to fit our current situation due to practicality, but still we aim to emulate the workings of the BMI workshop as much as we are able.

The Future

We’ve had to remind ourselves many times that we’re playing the “long game” and that lasting change and building a solid foundation takes time. Our goals are to continue to grow as best as we can. We really look forward to establishing ourselves financially through donations and grants and hopefully eventually some corporate sponsorship so that we can regularly bring in guests artists like we did with Nathan, which was incredibly fun and very impactful for these local musicians and listeners who hadn’t heard much of anything like his music before (check it out, if you haven’t!). Building a strong pipeline between NY and MN is one of our main goals since we decided to move here. We are also accepting applications from folks not affiliated with the Twin Cities area who want to be involved. If you or anyone you know would be interested, please visit our website at www.tcjcw.org or our FaceBook page at https://www.facebook.com/tcjcw/.

By the way, part of my motivation in writing this blog was to show anyone interested in trying to start an organization like this in their own community that it can be done, as long as you sculpt it to the practicalities of your area. If you have questions about getting started (or would like to commiserate about the difficulties you’ve already experienced), please get in touch!

 

TCJCW Fall Concert 2019 (abridged)

 

TCJCW Inaugural Summer Concert, July 2018

 


About the Author:

“A musical impressionist and supreme colorist” (Hot House Magazine) aptly characterizes the Japanese-born composer Asuka Kakitani. Her deep love for nature and animals inspires Kakitani to transform her imagination into epic musical stories that DownBeat Magazine described as brimming with “sumptuous positivity and organic flow.”

She is the founder of the 18-piece ensemble the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra, and their first recording Bloom has been featured on the international radio program PRI’s The World, acknowledged as one of the best debut albums of the year by DownBeat Magazine Critics’ Poll and NPR Music Jazz Critics’ Poll, and All About Jazz called it “absolutely superb.”

After she relocated to Minnesota from Brooklyn, NY in 2016, she co-founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop, which aims to foster creative and forward-looking composition for the modern jazz orchestra in the Twin Cities area. Kakitani also co-founded and conducts Inatnas Orchestra with her husband, composer/trombonist JC Sanford, that features both of their music and some of the best jazz musicians in the Twin Cities area.

In 2019, Kakitani’s string quartet Three Stories of Birds was premiered by Artaria String Quartet at the Bridge Chamber Music Festival in Northfield, MN. She will premiere Ghost Story of Yotsuya by the new music group Zeitgeist at Studio Z in St. Paul, a culmination of a five-day composer workshop with the group in August. She will also premiere her collaboration with percussionist Dave Hagedorn, a 45-minute solo percussion suite that was funded by the Jerome Foundation will be premiered in January 2020.

Kakitani has been the recipient of grants and awards including the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, the Manny Albam Commission, the Jerome Fund for New Music from the American Composers Forum, Brooklyn Arts Council, two Composer Assistance Grants from the American Music Center, and recently was awarded a 2019 McKnight Composer Fellowship.

 

https://www.asukakakitani.com

Artist Blog

Jihye Lee: Originality comes from who you are

I often wonder how I got here. Being a jazz composer seemed far from my fate but I paved my way, built and followed a new destiny.

I do not hail from a musical family, only having six months of piano lessons when I was nine years old. I had no real exposure to classical or jazz music, just the pop music that was on TV. My only instrument was a recorder, with which I would play all the cartoon theme music key in C and it naturally developed my movable Do solfege. When I was young what I really wanted to do was singing but I was a shy kid so I repressed the urge until my late teens. I remember visiting my friend’s rock band, eager to join the circle as a vocalist. I said I wanted to be a guitarist instead because I felt singing required a thick skin. After a year of self-taught guitar playing, I desperately wanted to dive deeper into the art and finally decided to take up singing. I studied music theory books, at the same time listened religiously to and imitated many female pop singers.

I was still hungry after graduating Dongduk Women’s University with a degree in Voice Performance. During that time I noticed my personality was a bit different from other singers. I was more interested in writing music than singing itself. I sort of settled on a singer-songwriter path, but could not resist my desire to do more, especially composition. I picked up the dream that I had given up a long time ago because of my previous financial situation. Withdrawing all the money that I had saved up over the years, I decided to move to Boston and attend Berklee College of Music.

What is this jazz orchestra? I knew I wanted to study composition but did not know what I would encounter. Since the songwriting course was focused on English lyrics, I did not even try – I barely spoke enough to survive. Film Scoring and Contemporary Writing and Production were too threatening because I was not good with technology. I had one choice left, Jazz Composition. I heard big band music for the first time in my life, both from recordings and live performances. Of course I had no idea about the instruments and how to write for that many people, but I was certainly enchanted. Several months after declaring my major in Jazz Composition, I received the prestigious Duke Ellington Award; in that moment I almost fell to the ground not just because it was a big surprise but because I was out of money and this scholarship was a sign that I will make it through somehow. With the help of many miracles and supporters, I was able to finish all of my studies including a masters degree from Manhattan School of Music under the direction of the great Jim McNeely.

Situations can be perceived from different perspectives. Although I was neither a prodigy (maybe I was but no one cared!), nor had the support system to become a musician, I like how my life has unfolded. It makes me unique and I show who I am through my music. Since my path as a composer is not traditional, I am actually encouraged to be bold and not to think what is right or wrong in writing. Having little musical background can certainly be a minus and I am always trying to catch up. I feel embarrassed when I contemplate my old works. I do not even know what I was thinking sometimes and I will forever carry this doubt as I learn and improve. Nonetheless, flashes of creativity does creep through if you listen to your true self.

Transitioning from pop singer to jazz composer is an uncommon experience and people will see it through their prejudices. I like the fact that my experience gives me different angles to jazz composition. It not only provides me with the lyricism to my melody writing, but listening to all the pop music makes me think about characters in every composition, something with which people can identify. Also since I am not an instrumentalist, I do not have the habit of going to the piano or guitar right away to play chords and melodies, instead I first come up with an idea, image, or message and try to find a way to express them through musical elements. For example, I used only one bass note throughout my composition ‘Unshakable Mind’ to symbolize the meaning of the title.

Click here to see an example of the bassline from “Unshakable Mind”

Composition is form of record-keeping for myself. As my life changes, so does my music and I am not afraid of that. When I first moved to New York in 2015, everything was chaotic, my personal life and the city itself and my music reflected this. At that time, I wrote music for myself as an emotional release. I was able to endure the hard times because I composed. After a few years, I am more relaxed and my music is becoming less complicated and easier to listen to, harmonically more of tonal sense as well. All living things change. I am happy and excited to discover what will come of my life and writing. What I should do is to be honest and keep on documenting. Composition also can be like raising a child. Sometimes you kind of have to surrender, give up on creating the perfect piece but accept what is given and work hard to polish and develop it further. You learn how to love it regardless how imperfect it may be.

Jazz welcomes you to be yourself. It is the most accepting art form to which everybody can contribute, making it as lush and diverse as who we are, so as long as we accept ourselves first. Jazz does not exclude based on gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age and so forth and I am blessed to have found that home to which I can belong. Be true to yourself and be happy with what you have in life. Never pretend to be someone else and keep on searching for what you really want. I remember Jim McNeely told me once that he enjoys working with students who tell a story more than students who write well-written music. I am well aware of how important it is to hone a skill – a skill can be taught but originality through life cannot.

I am still a novice composer, enjoying all the ups and downs, at least trying to enjoy. I dream to keep on creating something that only I can offer to the jazz scene. I wrote many words and these are not my final conclusion but the thoughts that I have now. I just wanted to share my story and encourage everyone to create the music with their originality. Your background, whatever it is, makes you the one and only.


About the Author:


Jihye Lee is a New York-based jazz composer and bandleader.

She was an indie pop singer-songwriter in South Korea. Feeling that something was missing, Lee followed her curious heart and embarked for uncharted waters in 2011. She studied at the Berklee College of Music where she was introduced to big band music for the first time in her life, leading her to forge a whole new path in jazz composition. Soon after, she would receive the prestigious Duke Ellington Award for two consecutive years along with other scholarships and honors, confirming her hidden ability.

After graduating from Berklee, Lee organized a successful crowdfunding campaign for her first big band album, April, which was co-produced by Greg Hopkins and recorded with musicians consisting of other Berklee faculty and professionals from the Boston area. In 2015, with generous funding from school scholarships and the CJ Cultural Foundation, Lee finally moved to New York to study with Jim McNeely at the Manhattan School of Music.

Lee released her album, April, in 2017, garnering global praise as a fresh original voice on the jazz composition scene. She has presented her music in the United States and Asia at various venues and festivals including the DC JazzFest.

The BMI Foundation awarded Lee with the Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize in 2018. Recently, she has written music for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz. She is currently working on her second album.

Learn more at jihyemusic.com or by emailing info@jihyemusic.com

 

Artist Blog

Jim McNeely: Pausing at 70

I recently lurched into my 70th year–my eighth decade (sobering words to write!). Yes, “age is just a number,” I know.  But 70 has caused me to pause and reflect on some of my experiences, and more importantly, what I’ve learned from them.  There is one overriding theme: every time my age would hit a “Big X-0 (4-0, 5-0, etc.)” I would get a sense of not only how much I had learned, but also how much more I didn’t know. With each new decade I felt that both the “knowns” and “unknowns” had increased. In reaching the “Big 7-0” I think I’ve learned an incredible amount, yet I’m awestruck by all that’s left to learn.  

Some History

Growing up on the north side of Chicago, I knew little about jazz until I was about 13. I had taken piano lessons since the age of six. My teacher, Bruno Michelotti, also taught me theory, saxophone and clarinet. Being a nice Catholic boy, I was considering two different Catholic high schools.  One Sunday afternoon I saw the “stage band” from Notre Dame High School in Niles on a local television broadcast.  Something in me said “yes!” I entered NDHS as a freshman in 1963. Little did I know where that would take me.

In my sophomore year my father bought me Russ Garcia’s The Professional Arranger Composer. I devoured it; I learned so much about theory, voicings, and melodic writing from this book.  From that I got the idea to write a big band arrangement.  My band director was Rev. George Wiskirchen, who was one of the premier big band educators in the Chicago area.  It was my fortune to be in his school; and he encouraged me to write that arrangement (he was also the first person to tell me to “comp” behind a soloist).  I found an Ernie Wilkins blues head called Blues Go Away. I wrote a five-chorus arrangement: unison sax melody, sax soli melody, solo chorus with background, shout chorus, and out melody.  I’ll never forget the first reading: sax melody, fine; sax soli: when they first burst into 5-part harmony I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.  I thought, “Garcia was right, that’s how you do it!” Solo chorus and background, passable. Shout chorus was an unmitigated disaster.  Out chorus, fine.  I thought, “The stuff that sounds good I’ll keep doing; the stuff that sounds bad, I’ve gotta find a different way.” That process has continued through today.

In spite of the shout chorus disaster, Father George was encouraging.  I went on to write six or seven more big band arrangements while in high school.  I got to study a few scores along the way (including copying parts from a few of Oliver Nelson’s original pencil scores). The learning continued. One time I brought in Freak Out!, the first album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I played a couple of cuts for Fr. George.  My adolescent mind thought “This will really bug him, heh-heh.” He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you write something like that for the band?” Completely called my bluff.  And I wrote! He also had me and my friend Nick Talarico write music for the school’s marching band. One show featured a medley of She’s Only a Bird In a Gilded Cage, segueing into Coltrane’s treatment of My Favorite Things (I got those sousaphones pumping!). Along with having to deal with challenges like this, I also got my first invaluable experience writing to a deadline.

In 1966 I heard the University of Illinois Big Band at the Collegiate Jazz Festival at Notre Dame University. Again, something in me said “Yes!” So in 1967 I entered the U. of I. School of Music. There was a student in the graduate program there named Jim Knapp.  He was writing some gorgeous music for big band, both original compositions and arrangements of standards.  I was so intimidated by him I didn’t write a note until he got his degree and left for Seattle (where he still resides, still writing remarkable music). I was encouraged by John Garvey, the director of the U. of I. Jazz Band.  Again, some things worked, some things didn’t.  As a composition major, I was studying with Morgan Powell, a wonderful composer and trombonist who was writing music deep in the cracks between jazz and contemporary classical chamber music.  The music I wrote as part of our lessons was mostly for mixed ensembles.  Along with classes in counterpoint and fugue, I was able to take classes in ancient and medieval music, African music and Persian classical music. I studied Balinese gamelan music and serial composition. So much music in the world!

With both my high school and university experiences, I was lucky: there was no one there to tell me “you can’t do this”; “you’re not supposed to do that.” And I learned that, as with my piano playing, the more I did it, the better it sounded. I made decisions faster.  I developed more options. Took more chances.

The Process 

I recently finished writing the forward to a remarkable book called Bob Brookmeyer in Conversation with Dave Rivello (coming out soon on ArtistShare). In it Bob imparts his general advice for composers: “Write music.” Two words. My early experiences taught me that you learn to write music by writing music. You can glean information from scores, teachers, recordings, and peers. It’s all there, good and important.  But unless you write, you will never grow.

Here is the basic process:

  1. Write some music
  2. Hear your music played
  3. Evaluate your music
  4. Repeat 1, 2, & 3

To flesh this out:

1) Composition; composer. These are loaded words in Western culture.  We are told that composition is difficult. We are told that Bach, Beethoven, etc. were THE GREAT MASTERS. Okay, they actually were, along with a lot of other folks, but that doesn’t take the rest of us out of the picture.  If I tell my non-musician neighbors that I write music, their response is “oh, nice”.  If I tell other neighbors that I am a composer, gasps and “oh-wows” ensue. Forget that nonsense. Composition essentially requires courage, bolstered by confidence.  Confidence in the note I’m putting on the paper.  Confidence that I can follow that note with another one.  Confidence that my musical ideas are valid simply because they are there.  Confidence that my musical ideas are valid on their own terms, not in comparison with anyone else, no matter how much I may admire them. Confidence that I have the tools to shape and develop my ideas. Confidence in my ability to get the piece finished and played. The last four “confidences” might take time to achieve.  But the first–confidence that this one note must go on the paper, and I’ll find another to follow or precede it–is crucial.  And that confidence comes from doing, doing, doing and doing.

2) If you want to write music for human players, you must hear your music played by human players (duh).  Computer playback is simply not good enough. Having your music played live is the only way to develop gut feelings about balance, timbre, density, range, and playability.  Have it played in a reading session; better yet a real rehearsal, or a composition workshop. Ideally, rehearse it to the point where it can be performed. More than once. Your music will start to tell you what it wants and needs.

3) Listen to what you’ve written and evaluate it with absolute, brutal honesty. What sounds the way you thought it would? What sounds different? Why? Sometimes a student will tell me “That’s what I’m hearing.” Is it really? Maybe that’s what you kinda, sorta thought it might sound like. Or maybe you were thinking, but not really hearing anything at all. A defensive attitude will just get in your way.

4) Repeat—as often as you can.

Writing, Learning, Writing, Learning

When I moved to New York City in 1975 I had little thought of pursuing a writing career.  I wanted to play the piano. Meet people. Play with some of the well-known bands at the time.  When I joined Thad Jones/Mel Lewis in 1978 I thought, “I’m playing this great music of Thad’s, and Bob Brookmeyer’s. Who am I to write for this band?” That changed the next year when Thad left to live in Denmark, and Brookmeyer came in as musical director of the newly-titled Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra.  Bob knew I wrote small group music, and I tried to talk a good game about writing for big bands.  He encouraged me to write something for Mel.  So I did. We rehearsed it, and actually attempted to play it on a few Mondays. It was dreadfully overwritten. But Bob heard a few things of value, and said, “Write another one.” That’s one of the greatest things I’d ever heard in my life! So I did. The second one was a little better. Around this time I had one of the greatest arranging lessons ever. Mel had hired a French Horn player and wanted me to write her some horn parts. Kendor Music sent me ten scores of Thad’s (this was the pre-Inside the Score era). I had to really analyze what he did in order to squeeze in another note between the trumpets and the trombones. I felt like a whole world had opened up. I no longer just thought I heard what was in his writing, I actually saw it, and got my hands on the piano to play it. I began to sense that until then I had really been writing piano music, merely transferring it to the score paper. “This C# is in the range of a trumpet, I guess I’ll put it in trumpet 3.” Now I was starting to hear a band when I wrote. The piano became more a medium through which I would hear the ensemble, not simply a piano. This was a gradual process that took many years to mature, but it started with writing those French Horn parts.

I learned other lessons from musicians in Mel’s band.  I’d brought in one piece, and at the rehearsal lead trumpeter Earl Gardner said, ”McNeely, you’ve got to give us some time to rest.” I said, “Well, after the head you guys don’t play for a long time.” Earl said, “No, it’s that when we’re playing, we need to get the horns off our faces some of the time.” My semester of trumpet class at the U. of Ill. hadn’t prepared me for this! In another arrangement I started with flügelhorns going up to a double high F#. After passing out the parts the trumpet players laughed.  Again, Earl: “McNeely, do you really want this?” Not really knowing what I wanted, of course I said “Yes, it is.” “Okay!” We played it. I immediately understood the hilarity and re-wrote the intro.

My time with Mel’s band (’79-’84) afforded me another incredible arranging lesson: to sit at the piano every Monday, playing such great music. Hearing the harmonies; the inner voices (especially first tenor, closest to the piano); Thad’s rhythmic language; Brookmeyer’s cranky harmonies. I loved it all, week after week. It was learning by osmosis. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.

My working with Brookmeyer led to five years of writing and conducting music for the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany.  I had pretty much carte blanche with them.  I wrote a lot of original music, some for soloists like John Scofield, David Liebman and Phil Woods, and some without a “name” soloist. I was able to try so many new ideas, and get immediate feedback, from the musicians and from my own listening.  For one project I realized that brass mutes were a big mystery to me.  So I threw caution to the wind and just went for it.  Every arrangement had different combinations of mutes, and a lot of woodwinds. Most of it worked, some of it didn’t. And I learned a lot. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.

Being “of a certain age” I came up writing with pencil and paper.  I’m glad I did.  Pencil, paper and keyboard get my hands on the music. The process is physical and tactile.  One time, years ago, I decided to try composing directly on the computer. I felt like I was looking at the music through a window—like visiting someone in prison.  I decided I wanted to be in touch with the music.  I’ve since learned the value and role of the computer, especially with all the writing I do for European ensembles.  I do the final stages of scoring in Finale.  But the beginning and middle of the process are done with a pencil—I love the feel of the paper and the smell of the eraser.  I love the anticipation of looking at blank pages of a large-format music manuscript book—wow, what’s going to happen here? No bar lines, no systems—plenty of room to let the imagination flow. Before I know it, it’s filled with scribbles. I use some, I don’t use others. But they are all part of the overall process.  A leads to B leads to C leads to D…..leads to R. I might continue on to W, but then decide to stay with R. But R would not exist without A-Q and S-W.

People who’ve studied with me know that I am very big on planning a piece. The shape. The form. The color. The surface sound. But I’ve also learned to be flexible in those regards. In 1993 Jon Faddis asked me to arrange a program of songs from the Benny Goodman repertoire for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. One of tunes was Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing. Goodman’s original version featured a free duet between himself and drummer Gene Krupa.  For the mid-‘30’s this was quite an advanced concept.  Thinking of this, as well as the duos that John Coltrane played with Elvin Jones or Rashied Ali on drums, I wanted to feature David Liebman on soprano sax and Victor Lewis on drums. Using Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall recording as a loose model, I carefully planned my arrangement.  I composed call-and-response figures for the band, with Lewis answering.  Then Liebman would solo, followed by a similar composed call-and-response section with him. I orchestrated the drum solo section and started sketching the section for Lieb.  That’s when the phone rang.

The copyist, rightfully concerned about the approaching deadline, told me, “I need the score tomorrow.” I promised her I would overnight the score that evening.  I hoped the FedEx guy would come at 8.  He showed up at 7.  My wife scrambled to put together the envelope and mailing label.  I quickly scribbled “4 bars Lieb, 4 bars band answers; 2 bars Lieb, 2 bars band” into the score, then “copy mm. 180-195” and tacked a final bar onto the score.  Folded it up, put it in the envelope and sent it off.  I felt that I had really blown it, because I wouldn’t get a chance to show off my carefully crafted section for David.

It turned out that the arrangement as finally written and performed at Carnegie was tremendously exciting. Building off of the orchestrated drum passage, Lieb and the band screamed through the whole final section. Most of the audience went wild, and some walked out. I was thrilled with both reactions. Thanks to the copyist and the FedEx guy, I got my first Grammy nomination with this arrangement.  More importantly, I learned that sometimes it’s possible to over-think, and over-plan.  It’s jazz.  Always consider the balance between the pre-written and the improvised.  The piece isn’t about me. It’s about the music. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.

Sing, Sing, Sing Excerpts (Carnegie Hall, 1993)

The Takeaway

These experiences, along with countless others, helped shape me as a composer, arranger, and teacher.  I had band directors who made time for student composer/arrangers. Teachers who knew the value of a few encouraging words as opposed to a whole mouthful of discouragement. Feedback from musicians playing my music. Copying parts from other people’s scores. The value of both hearing, and later saying “Write another one.” I was fortunate to be in situations where I could ask “What if?”, instead of “Am I allowed to…?”. Where it was okay to take risks, and at the same time accept and learn from the results. I learned that I didn’t know everything, and that’s okay.  That I needed to listen honestly to my writing, then act on what I heard. That I had to acknowledge my weaknesses, not as failings but as part of being human—it was up to me to strengthen them. That not everyone will love what I do.  And as important as thinking, mulling, stewing, and planning are, action—doing—overrides them all.

Speaking of doing, I’ve got a lot more writing to do; so it’s time to get back to my studio. A deadline is fast approaching, with six arrangements due. Time for more action.


About the Author:

Jim McNeely was born in Chicago, moving to New York City in 1975.  In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.  He spent six years as a featured soloist with that band and its successor, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (now The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra).  1981 saw the beginning of Jim’s 4-year tenure as pianist/composer with the Stan Getz Quartet.  From 1990 until 1995 he held the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet.  At the present time, he leads his own tentet, his own trio, and he appears as soloist at concerts and festivals worldwide.

Jim’s reputation as composer/arranger and conductor for large jazz bands continues to flourish and has earned him ten Grammy nominations. In 1996 he re-joined The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as pianist and Composer-in Residence.  He is also chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Other recent work includes projects with the Danish Radio Big Band (where he was chief conductor for five years), the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. The New York Times has called his writing “exhilarating”; DownBeat has said that his music is “eloquent enough to be profound”.  And he won a Grammy for his work on the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s “Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard” on Planet Arts Records.

Jim has appeared as sideman on numerous recordings led by major artists such as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, David Liebman, Art Farmer, Robert Watson, and Phil Woods. He has numerous albums under his own name.  The latest is the Grammy-nominated “Barefoot Dances and Other Visions”, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band on the Planet Arts label (“superb…a feeling for arranging orchestral colors that is magical”—All About Jazz.com)

Teaching is also an important element of Jim’s work. He is on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music. He was involved with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop for 24 years, including 16 years as musical director. He has appeared at numerous college jazz festivals in the U.S. as performer and clinician. He has also done clinics and major residencies at dozens of institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt.

He may be contacted via his website: www.jimmcneely.com

        

Artist Blog

Rich DeRosa: Strategies for string orchestra arrangements in a recording studio setting

Recording technology has provided the arranger/orchestrator with alternative possibilities. The studio environment in contrast to live performance is analogous to making a film versus creating a stage production in a theater. The film maker can use techniques that transcend the normal capabilities of live production which must occur in real time.

There are situations where recording in a studio can be done as if it were a live concert but it can also be quite expensive. Most budgets cannot typically accommodate a full orchestra recording simultaneously in a studio. As an alternative, many productions (especially commercial ones) overdub various groups of musicians who may never see each other while others mix MIDI production with only a few live players.

Jazz projects today often require alternative thinking. This is especially true where strings are employed. The sound of a string quartet and a string orchestra are quite different. (Listen to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” as performed by a string quartet versus a string orchestra to appreciate the aesthetic difference). When arranging strings for someone, this is an important distinction. Sometimes a client has the sound of a lush string orchestra in mind. It’s important that the person realize the cost that is generated to accommodate the latter choice.

To illustrate these alternative strategies, I will discuss two projects where the featured artist wanted the large orchestral sound and how the use of technology in the recording studio can satisfy the client’s preference while respecting the budget.

The first project is from the CD Lovers, Tales, and Dances which features trumpeter Dominick Farinacci. The selected example from the CD is an aria titled “E Lucevan Le Stelle” from Puccini’s opera, Tosca. Although Dominick had a record company supporting his project, the lion’s share of the budget was allocated to the studio (Avatar, NYC) and multiple jazz guest stars (Kenny Barron, James Genus, Lewis Nash, Jamey Haddad on this track with Joe Lovano and Joe Locke on others). Dominick at the time was a recent graduate of the Juilliard program so it was most economical for him to hire his student friends to cover the orchestral parts which included two quintets (string and WW) along with a harpist.

The WW and harp parts weren’t an issue as these instruments sound wonderful as solo voices. But the strings needed to sound lush so multiple layers would be necessary. This requires overdubbing. The first layer must be as good as possible with respect to intonation and timing. It usually takes three layers with a small group (6-10 players) so this project would require even more. In general, a string quartet or quintet is not ideal because the tonal identity of the individual player is still rather present. With slightly more people in the basic layer it is easier to get a homogeneous sound. But the budget could handle only the smaller size.

If you’ve read my two previous blogs for ISJAC you’ll remember how I used MIDI mock-ups effectively to forecast the sound of the arrangement to be performed live in a concert hall. The mock-up would also be as effective for the recording studio.

First, the product needed to be presented to Dominick. He came to my home studio to hear the MIDI orchestra laid in with his quartet tracks from a previous CD recording. Dominick had created a unique arrangement of Puccini’s aria with his quartet. I used that recording and scored the orchestral arrangement around it.

Here is Dominick’s quartet recording blended with the orchestral MIDI instruments. You’ll notice the MIDI trumpet in the beginning and then Dominick’s entrance at 1:07 where I cut into the quartet recording. On the back end you’ll hear where the MIDI tracks (including the MIDI trumpet) provide the arrangement’s ending (at 3:07). Dominick was thrilled with the result; unbeknownst to me at the time, he decided to share this version with the producer who also became excited about the project because he now knew what to expect at the recording session.

Another aspect of recording projects is that they are often done in fragments. Much like a film production, where scenes are shot not necessarily in chronological order but more in accordance with location (at the beach, in Paris, etc,) or based upon an actor’s availability (a cameo star is available during a certain time when his/her scenes must be shot), the same occurs with music production. The rhythm tracks would be recorded first and those players would be long gone before the orchestral players arrived.

Here is another invaluable advantage with a MIDI mock-up. When the rhythm section players were getting ready to record, I had them come into the control room with their respective parts and follow along as they listened to the MIDI mock-up. This enabled them to hear their (accompaniment) part in context with the orchestra tracks that didn’t exist yet.

Cick to View Full Score

 

In anticipation of the recording production schedule, I needed to record the music sections out of chronological order. We would begin recording with the jazz group at bar 17. But also notice that Dominick finishes Puccini’s melody in bar 16 which sustains into bar 17. As a future marker for the ProTools engineer, I had Dominick record the phrase “wild” which means with no reference to tempo. While Dominick sustained the last note, I conducted (and spoke “3-4”) to bring the rhythm section into bar 17. (The count-off, which would ultimately be erased, functioned as an important aural reference during the overdubbing process for the orchestra to match tempo immediately.) Once the rhythm section entered, the process was relatively straight-forward for this stage of the recording.

When the orchestral players arrived, it was most sensible to start recording at bar 17. The main reason was to get their intonation to match the pre-recorded jazz musicians. With one layer established, we did several more while in this location. As the layers accumulated, one concern would be the skewed balance of the string instruments: the low strings would eventually outbalance the violins. When inquiring with the engineer, he assured me that, during the mixing phase, there would be enough isolation to bolster the violins as necessary without automatically raising the level of the lower strings. I could have asked the lower strings to tacet in subsequent layers but it’s nicer for the players to perform together. Their individual passes would also provide more choices for the engineer and producer.

With the main body of the chart recorded, it was time to record the introduction. The tempo fluctuates dramatically, so entrances were determined by listening to a melodic phrase and then responding. It was more effective to stop conducting (similar to a fermata) and let Dominick or one of the WW players perform a phrase with a full sense of rubato and then bring in the next important down beat for the strings.

Although Dominick had already recorded bar 16 for the rhythm section recording, I asked him to record it once again within the context of the orchestra. The ProTools engineer would now have a more solid marker to unite both segments of the chart and also have two choices to consider for this important melodic phrase.

With Dominick, the WW players, and the harpist recorded, it was time to add the layers of strings. The melodic phrases in the wind parts would help the strings find their entrances and unite with their first layer. You can hear the results of the studio recording directly below.

As a reminder from my previous blogs, the MIDI mock-ups of the arrangements for this CD production also helped the orchestral musicians prepare their parts in context with the jazz group. They would ultimately have to play to a pre-recorded rhythm section so this also helped them get acclimated to that situation.

There were also some unforeseen issues that caused significant delays in the production schedule. As the orchestral overdubs were scheduled late in the series of events, the allotted time became much less than anticipated. Although this was stressful, the players’ previous preparation with the MIDI demo enabled us to get a satisfactory product.

* * * *

The other studio production was for a CD titled When Winter Comes which features guitarist Fred Fried. Fred had heard my work on the Dial and Oatts project, Brassworks, and wanted me to do something similar for his compositions but showcased with strings instead of brass. I knew that Fred had a large string orchestra sound in mind. But his project was self-produced so it would be important to work within Fred’s personal budget.

We agreed that six tracks would feature strings (recording one tune per hour for a double session in one day). I used eleven string players (6 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass). Fred’s trio consisted of Steve LaSpina on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. They would record first. (Steve would then join the orchestra as the sole double bassist on a subsequent day several weeks later and Fred would add guitar parts where he was alone with the strings).

With the jazz trio tracks recorded, I began to create the string arrangements and MIDI mock-ups for Fred to hear. These recordings would ultimately be used for the string players to practice with. There would be no rehearsal. These players were NYC pros and it would have been quite difficult to assemble a mutual time to rehearse. Besides, there was no room in Fred’s budget to pay for a rehearsal. We would meet in the studio and perform each piece within a designated hour.

The first layer of string parts is always most challenging because of coordinating with the pre-recorded tracks and getting adjusted in general to the studio environment. After the first layer was complete, I added two more layers to create a 33-piece orchestra.

As mentioned previously, it was practical to record the strings primarily where the rhythm section already existed. Then we would deal with any other sections that featured the strings alone.

As with the Joey Alexander project, my strategy for the arrangements was to feature the strings in various ways that would best compliment Fred’s compositions. For the title track, Fred’s tune is set for a fast swing tempo as the melody moves slowly above the groove; it is strong and memorable.

To create a dramatic contrast, I decided to feature the strings in an extended prologue to suggest a programmatic image of the onset of winter in New England (Fred lives in Cape Cod, MA). The jazz trio would represent the arrival of winter’s first snowstorm. The strings would represent the intrinsic intensity of the atmosphere just prior to the storm’s arrival.

The prologue features Fred’s melody but it is re-harmonized in a modern, abstract way. To keep the focus on the “atmosphere” I refrained from using the double basses until bar 26. In general, notes in the bass register usually clarify a harmonic impression and also add significant weight or anchorage to any sound. I wanted the music to “float” and have the harmony be more vague. The rubato tempo was very important as well. The mood of the prologue would be tenuous and unfold one phrase at a time. To control the pacing, you will notice a fermata placed in strategic locations.

Click to View Full Score

You may be wondering how the prologue could be layered. Unlike the arrangement for Dominick where melodic phrases helped the players navigate through the bars, there was no strong aural reference. I would need to rely on a click track to guide my conducting which would then help the string players during the overdubbing process.

With my MIDI strings recorded in Digital Performer (it’s important to stay on the digital grid by first recording to a steady tempo), I recorded a rubato tempo in the Conductor Track (remember to use the Tap Tempo tool). I would use the recorded (rubato) click track in the studio and conduct the strings to it. But the problem remained with the random number and speed of the clicks inside any given fermata. There was a significant chance that I could lose track of beat 1 in any given bar or inside a fermata. I decided to record my voice reciting the beat numbers in each bar and the “extra beats” within each fermata. To prepare the entrance for the first bar, I also needed warning clicks as a count-off to establish adequate precision within each layer.

With headphones to broadcast the click and my vocal beat numbers, I was able to conduct the strings effectively to create a dramatic rubato tempo and also align the subsequent layers to create a lush string orchestra sound.

You can hear the results below:

I hope you enjoy listening to this music.

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 Crossing 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.

Artist Blog

Rich DeRosa: Strategies for string orchestra arrangements in a jazz concert setting.

When Jazz at Lincoln Center commissioned me to write seven arrangements for string orchestra to accompany Joey Alexander and his group, these were my primary considerations:

    1. Strike a meaningful balance between featuring the orchestra and Joey’s group.
      • The first set will feature Joey’s group alone so the second set will definitely need to feature the string orchestra in a distinctive limelight.
      • But it will also be important to allow the jazz group to do what it does naturally without being constrained by overly-written orchestrations.
      • The string orchestra will be performing live in a more vigorous jazz environment. Its size will probably be 1/2 to 1/3 the size of a typical orchestral string section. Therefore, it will be important to write in a way that will provide enough strength to balance effectively with the jazz group.
    2. A string orchestra, as beautiful as it may be, essentially offers a monochromatic timbre. I like to find effective ways to instill contrast:
      • Activity vs. space – a constant presence can dull the senses.
      • Full texture vs. thin texture – feature high and low frequencies as well as the more typical tutti sound.
      • Offer a variety of tone and expression – natural or normal, harmonics, tremolo (bowed and fingered), etc.
    3. Find a contrasting concept within each arrangement. Some arrangements feature the strings alone in spots. Others feature the strings mostly in support. Others feature the strings in a highly interactive role with the jazz group.
    4. Appropriate number of string players with regard to the music and the budget.

I decided not to use basses – we couldn’t afford them and I felt that, for this project, they weren’t really needed. I asked J@LC for 22 players (14 violins, 4 violas, and 4 cellos). They were able to give me 20 players so the violin count went down to 12.

  1. Avoid excessive divisi but look for opportunities to use open strings for additional pitches. In general, with significantly fewer players than in a full orchestra, I refrained from creating moments of excessive divisi when the jazz group is playing. Assigning two pitches to my six 1st violins will reduce their power and presence by 50% (three violins on each pitch). Although double-stops (each player plays two pitches) may be possible, they increase the potential of intonation problems and can make the performance more cumbersome. However, an open string can easily provide an extra pitch along with one stopped string (but the two strings must be adjacent). The process is simple for the player and there is no loss of power.

With the basic strategies outlined, I began the creative process. In an effort to set the strings in different ways, I considered each composition’s context to determine how contrast could be achieved from one arrangement to another.

Joey’s composition “Soul Dreamer” is in a fast 3/4 but flows inside a feeling of ‘1’. This is marked primarily through the chord progression (Fmi – Eb – Db – Eb) with each chord inhabiting a bar. The resulting 4-bar “loop” becomes more pronounced as melodic phrases are presented within each loop. This motion can become insidiously aggressive and its presence is readily displayed within the jazz group. The strings will better serve the composition and its mood by offering a distinctive contrast. They capture the programmatic feeling of dreaming, floating, and panorama via three aspects:

  1. high frequencies that are slow and relatively soft;
  2. phrases that mostly avoid the bar line as well as the vortex of the 4-bar loop;
  3. avoid full chords in the violins – use mostly wide intervals – primarily perfect 5ths. This provides a sense of transparency.

Strings are great for creating a long sustain. This will add a sense of calm but it is important to use pitches that are common to any moving harmony. The need to move will cause distraction.

Though I have mentioned a concern for using divisi within the violins when power or presence is needed, you will see that I have chosen to do exactly that; but it is for a different reason. Since the breakdown of the string sections is set at 6644, the divisi is used here to reset the proportion within the three pitches in the violins during the introduction. All of the 1sts play the high Eb. When the Ab emerges in bar 10, one desk of 1sts moves to the Ab to join with the 2nd violins. In bar 12, as the G emerges, one desk of 2nds remains on Ab while the other two desks of 2nds plays the G. This provides an equitable distribution of players (4/4/4) with all three pitches.

A similar purpose exists in bar 54. Although, with a quick glance, it appears that there are five different pitches spread across the orchestra, a closer inspection reveals that the harmony is simply the sound of an open Ab major triad presented, from the top down, as C-Eb-Ab. Although the notes of the triad could have been assigned accordingly to the 1st violins, 2nd violins, and violas, I have the cellos handle the bottom pitch (Ab) to provide more girth and lushness. The 2nd violins are assigned a divisi to reinforce the top pitch – C – in the 1sts and the middle pitch – Eb – in the violas). Since there are three desks of 2nd violins, I assigned one desk to join the 1st violins while the other two desks join the violas. Ultimately, the breakdown for this triad results as follows: C with 8 violins, Eb with 4 violins and 4 violas, Ab with 4 cellos.

Click here to see Soul Dreamer (score excerpt)

You can hear the result via the video recording of the concert.

Joey’s composition “City Lights” is much more energetic. In this context, the strings are placed inside the composition’s rhythmic phrasing to intensify the energy.

During the intro, a long sustain is used but the 1st violins are directed to use bowed tremolo for more energy. This technique is also employed in bars 21-22 as it enables vigor and crescendo.

Strength in numbers is important in vigorous jazz contexts. For adequate presence and a bold, dynamic statement, strings sound most powerful when playing the same idea in octaves as you can see in bars 20-22.

Pads are very effective as a soothing contrast to the energy of the jazz group. But the texture can become more interesting when switching registers. In bar 25, the 2nd violins and lower strings establish a darker pad in contrast to the high 1st violins that emerge in bar 32. The friendly key of D minor provides a good opportunity for them to use natural harmonics; this creates a more ethereal but still resonant sound. In addition, since both pitches are on open strings, each player can easily perform these two harmonics simultaneously. With no need to divide the 1st violin section, 100% power is retained. In contrast to the ethereal quality of the violins, the lower strings return with a fuller pad that builds into a break to prepare the melody.

When the melody enters, the listener is pleasantly distracted with something new so the withdrawal of the strings will not be disappointing. The phrasing of the melody is designed as a clear 4-bar statement with an equal amount of space following the phrase. This provides an excellent opportunity for the strings to respond melodically in an antiphonal manner. Separate bows are used for vigor with the sustained note occurring during an up bow. This facilitates the crescendo which is dramatically important. (In bar 47, you will notice that two of the 8th notes have what we would typically think of as a slur. This marking indicates that the notes within the slur are to be played within one bow stroke. My choice here will result in an “up bow” on the following sustained pitch.) Another benefit in this key is that the quick vacillation within the “melodic answer” (bar 46) is handled easily because the Ds at the bottom of the phrase are found on an open string. The cellos do not have an open string in that range so the phrase is harder physically and more challenging with regard to intonation. To be inclusive but cautious, I simply cued the phrase as an option. By the way, notice that the cello part is written in tenor clef. With pitches above middle C on the piano, unlike when writing for trombone in a jazz context, the classical trombonist, bassoonist, and cellist normally read in tenor clef to avoid multiple leger lines.

Click here to see City Lights (score excerpt)

While listening to the entire arrangement, you’ll hear how the aforementioned concepts are utilized. As a reminder from my previous blog, here is the MIDI demo version with Joey’s original studio trio tracks. When creating a MIDI version of an arrangement that is to be used for live performance, it’s important to write the music within the confines of the instrumentalist’s practical performance ability.

“Peace” is a beautiful ballad that is also composed by Joey.  This seemed like a perfect opportunity to feature the strings alone and have them set the mood. (Joey’s subsequent entrance with the melody has greater stature as a result.)

With the strings unobstructed, it’s possible to indulge in divisi to create thicker harmony without concern for losing presence. But I wanted this piece to unfold gradually so I still opted for presenting only one note at a time. For a subtle entrance that emerges gradually, the “up bow” indication is important (typically, a string player will start with a “down bow” on beat 1). The request for no vibrato is also important as it creates a sense of stillness.

Each pitch sustains to create a fuller texture that evolves gradually. You’ll see in bar 2 where I indicate divisi for the same purpose as before: to create an equity of 4/4/4 while using three pitches in the violins. The 4 violas enter in the latter part of bar 2. In bar 3 of the viola part, the first set of double pitches (Ab, C) is to be performed as a double stop to preserve a 4/4/4/4 continuity (violins and violas) within the chord texture. The Ab is established previously in bar 2 so the additional C in bar 3 occurs in a staggered fashion. This helps the player with intonation since both pitches aren’t played simultaneously.  As the music thickens harmonically, and to avoid more abundant intonation concerns, the viola section (and the cello section) divides to perform the subsequent sets of double-pitches. Although the violas and cellos at this point are designated to have only two instruments assigned to each pitch, they are larger and naturally stronger and fuller than the violins. As a result, there is less concern with the numerical imbalance.

Though breathing is not required to perform on a string instrument, it can be quite dramatic to create a sense of “breath”. The breath mark in bar 3 is placed deliberately for effect. It signals a saturation point for the opening pyramid while the brief moment of space also allows the players to reset, find their next pitch, and change into a slightly more relaxed character.

The intro culminates with its fullest harmonic texture as it is heard in bar 5. But, with only 12 violins, I still choose to use only 3 pitches within both sections to maintain a 4/4/4 equity. Actually, there is another option that I could have considered: The E in the 2nd violin part is playable on the highest open string. The B below is playable on the adjacent A string. This means that a double-stop could have been performed with all six of the 2nd violins easily performing both pitches. But the open string (E) makes the use of vibrato impossible. To cultivate more warmth at this point, I chose to have the 2nd violins divide in favor of using vibrato by playing the E on the A string.

The chord in bar 5 is a Bb7 with both lowered and raised 5ths and lowered and raised 9ths. Of the seven chord tones only six are employed; from the bottom moving upward they are: D – Ab – Db – Gb – B – E – Ab (the melody note is doubled two octaves lower in the cello section). The root (Bb) is omitted purposely. First, the sound of Bb is already present in the cello part in the beginning of bar 4 and the tonality of the intro centers on Bb (note the opening pitch – high Bb – in the violins). But, more importantly, I want the chord in bar 5 to have a sense of floating. The strings are assigned as follows: 4 violins on each of the top three pitches. The lower four pitches are split evenly with 2 violas and 2 cellos assigned to each pitch.

The strings cadence and subside as Joey presents the melody. They become even more still and gradually withdraw. Common harmonic tones are crucial here. Notice how thin the texture is in bar 6. If too many chord tones remain, they will become “trapped” by the harmonic progression and will need to move which will prevent a sense of stillness.

Click here to see Peace (score excerpt 1)

Bars 34-49 show how various register placement and texture (monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic) can provide welcome contrast within a ballad.

Click here to see Peace (score excerpt 2)

“Freedom Jazz Dance” provides another stark contrast with an opportunity to explore different colors from the strings. Joey’s soulful ostinato chord progression sets the mood for this version of FJD. It feels more introspective while still offering elements of blues and passion. The cellos are tethered to the ostinato to flesh out the texture and provide more bottom. Simultaneously, this allows Joey a bit more freedom with his left hand so he isn’t necessarily nailed to the ostinato. The violins create a lofty “ceiling” that floats above the groove and ostinato. Although their function is similar to “Soul Dreamer”, careful inspection will reveal that the interval of choice is the sweeter and fuller 6th in contrast to the hollow perfect 5th that is abundant in “Soul Dreamer”. 

As with “City Lights”, the nature of melodic phrases followed by space naturally invites a melodic response from the strings. The rhythms here are intricate so bowing is once again important to naturally aid the string player in capturing the right phrasing. It’s more natural to have heavier accents in the down bow position. Consecutive bows (whether up or down) can also prevent the string players from rushing.

Click here to see Freedom Jazz Dance (score excerpt)

During the solos, the strings are used similarly to a big band format: riffs are cued as the improvised solo reaches its first saturation point. Subsequent cues are used as the solo intensifies and climaxes.

Although there are a total of seven arrangements for this program, I’ll stop with these four as I believe there is enough here to demonstrate the strategies.

I hope you enjoy listening to this music.

My third and final blog in this series will delve into specific arranging, conducting, and recording strategies when writing for strings in the recording studio. Topics include MIDI demo preparation, click tracks, conducting, layering to create a larger string orchestra sound. The examples are from other projects that were recorded for CD productions.

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

 


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 Crossing 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.

Header Image Credit: Alex Chilowicz.

Artist Blog

John La Barbera: Basic Tools For Better Arranging

I recently revisited a magazine article I did on arranging over 30 years ago to see how germane it is to today’s world of scoring.   Surprisingly, except for the fact that musical styles and industry practices have changed drastically (in the commercial advertising world we got paid to do demos and we recorded with live musicians), the basic tenants of presenting the fundamentals of arranging haven’t changed.   Here’s an abridged and slightly updated version of that article.

BASIC TOOLS FOR BETTER ARRANGING

As a young arranger, I was always searching for some work that actually described the process involved in making orchestral arrangements.“- Glenn Miller, 1943

Well, Glenn, we’re still looking for that one text that gives us the secrets and lays it all out for us.  Unfortunately, that book will never exist, because arranging is an art that evolves hand-in-hand with music composition and technology; it is changing constantly.  And, since it is an art, one can’t effectively break it down into hard rules and regulations.  We can, however, list and explore the various musical techniques that one might use to get a working knowledge of the field.  It doesn’t matter if you use a pencil and score paper or a mouse and a notation program, the principles and techniques still apply.  Okay, La Barbera, quit talking and show us some hip voicings.  Sorry Glenn, no voicings yet.  So often, the novice assumes that the secrets of arranging lie in the chord voicings used by the various greats of the art.   Nothing could be further from the truth.   We have to learn what arranging is before we get to any of that.   Here’s my definition of arranging:

Arranging, in music, is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety for a listening audience.

The composer gives us the melody and we, as arrangers, strive to give it variety.   Henry Mancini has said, “The song is the thing, and the arranger’s function is to make it memorable, regardless of one’s personal feelings.”  And variety, musical variety – is what makes the song memorable.   This musical variety comes from our knowledge of the tools of arranging and how to use them.   An arranger is very much like a magician.  After presenting a melody to an audience we try musical sleight-of-hand to keep their attention, because if the audience can predict what’s going to happen next, we lose their attention and therefore are not as successful as arrangers.  We’ll list some of those tools in a little while, but first I want to explain the last part of my definition – the audience.

As arrangers (or composers or performers for that matter) we are always dealing with an audience, whether real or imaginary.   If we wrote or played music just for ourselves, it would not truly be a creative art.   To be successful in the musical arts, one must always acknowledge the existence of a listener and create accordingly.  It’s somewhat like the old riddle of “if a tree falls on your Pro Tools Rig in the woods and there is no one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound?  Suffice it to say that with even one set of ears around, the whole event has an impact.  It becomes memorable.  I believe that the success of our great arrangers is partially due to their conscious or subconscious acknowledgement of a listening audience.  So, if you think about it, the arranger’s job is to take a melody/song and play it for an audience for a certain length of time without boring them.  If we played the same melody over and over with the same instruments for six minutes, with the same chord changes, they’d be searching for the rotten egg emoji.  We have to give it variety and make it memorable so as to keep the audience’s attention.  It’s just that simple.  How we keep their attention shows our talent as arrangers.  If we wanted to break down my definition into rules or commandments of arranging, we’d arrive at something like the following.

Rule 1: Thou Shalt Not Bore

Strive to give the song or melody as much variety as necessary to capture and please an audience, while at the same time keeping the integrity of the composer’s musical idea.  This is such a fine line – balancing one’s arranging techniques against the intent of the composer while maintaining a stamp of individuality – that it can take a lifetime to learn to do it consistently.

Rule 2: Know Thy Place

We must always remember that, as arrangers, we’re subservient to the melody and must write accordingly.  Unlike composers, we arrangers are not allowed the luxury of personal likes and dislikes when it comes to the melody or the musical style we have to work in.  Disdain for a certain style or song shows through in your musical arrangement.  (The hardest job I ever had was when Count Basie asked me to arrange Rubenstein’s “Melody In F”  for his band.  I didn’t care for the song as a Basie-style tune, and I stared at blank score pages for weeks.) We have to divorce ourselves from our musical prejudices, listen to all kinds of music, and be prepared to cover any style with sincerity.  Remember what Hank Mancini said – “regardless of one’s personal feelings.”

Rule 3: Know Thy Boss

Remember that we are ultimately working for someone else.  When we take the job of arranger, we are not working for ourselves but for an audience with a composer or producer in between.  We must strive to please both but fight like hell for the audience when confronted with a choice.  I tell students that if I can get five percent of John La Barbera (a creative uniqueness or stamp of identity) in a chart, I’m more than pleased.  The hardest pill to swallow is when you bring your finished masterpiece to a bandleader or producer and he/she immediately cuts out the hippest interlude you’ve ever written.  All of us, no matter how famous we become, must be prepared to give up our most prized musical child at the whim of the client.  The best advice I ever received from any arranging book was from Mancini’s Sounds And Scores [Cherry Lane].  I underlined the last paragraph on page 1 in my copy:  ” …  Finally, don’t fall in love with every note you write … Be prepared to eliminate anything that tends to clutter up your score, painful as it may be to do so.”  Even if you are the composer /producer and it’s your record label featuring you as the artist, the audience is still the boss.  Keep that in mind and you’ll find arranging decisions much easier to make.  Now then, if you’re still with me, we’ll move on.

Rule 4: Know Thy Styles

We must be familiar with the idiom in which we intend to place the melody.  In simpler terms, if you have never listened to current pop styles like R&B, or Country Blues groove, etc., then you can’t successfully arrange a melody in those styles.  Or, if you’ve never heard second line, you’ll be spinning your wheels when it comes time to cover that style.  So, it’s obvious that if you aren’t familiar with a style of music, you can’t competently arrange in it.  That seems pretty obvious, but I’ve seen students try to arrange a big band jazz chart who have never heard of Basie or listened to Stan, Woody or Duke.  So, before we can become arrangers, we have to know our musical styles and learn what instruments, rhythms, and harmonies are basic to each idiom. 

Now, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of arranging by listing some of our tools and putting them in an arranging road case.  These are what I call the five basic variations used in arranging, and we’ll get our roadie to pull them out one at a time and illustrate how each of them works.  The devices in each category are just a starting point.  I’m sure you’ll have your own ideas so add those as necessary.

RHYTHMIC VARIATION

1.  Change the rhythm of the melody.  Of course, no brainer.

2.  Change the rhythmic feel; double time, half time etc.

3.  Gradually speed up or slow down the tempo.

4 .Refrain from using one rhythm for any length of time. 

5.  Displace the melody relative to the bar line by a uniform value.

6.  Change the meter 4/4 to 3/4.  (My arrangement of “So What”  is a good illustration)

Slightly varying the rhythm gives new life to the melody however, this is effective ONLY after you’ve stated the original.

The audience needs a reference before it recognizes a variation.  I believe this is true for all of the variations we incorporate.   

It’s been a common practice for years to go to double time for the blowing on a ballad and then back to the original tempo to take it out.  Gradually speeding up and slowing down is a great device (Brad Mehldau and other groups have used this very effectively) but it takes some rehearsing.   

Changing the meter is a great way to add variety.  My arrangement of “So What”  is a good illustration.

Then imply 4/4  and eventually get there.

The next tool in our road case is

HARMONIC VARIATION

1.  Substitute chord changes (reharmonization).

2.  Change melodic modes (major to minor).

3.  Use counterpoint to imply new harmonies.

4.  Modulate to new keys, either subtly or drastically.

Every melody comes with its own harmony or set of chord changes, whether given or implied.  If we change the harmony after our audience has heard and absorbed the original chord changes, we automatically create variety.  So, the use of substitute chord changes, or reharmonization, is one device in the harmonic category.   Another secret that seasoned writers share is that a new device introduced into the chart has effect, but the more devices or variations you add to a chart at the same time, the less impact each will have (i.e.  modulating and using a substitute change for the new target key down beat…softens the impact).  Keep this in mind when you are  tempted to empty the whole road case of tools into the same section of a melody.  As with all devices in arranging, we must remember that we are working for the song.  Anything we add has to support the melody and not overpower it.  I find that harmonic variation is the one tool that’s most overused by arrangers and is an area where we can get into the most trouble.  Hip changes, used for the sake of being hip, rarely fit comfortably into a well-balanced chart.

Now that we have two arranging tools at our disposal.  Let’s go on to another.  I call the next device:

PERFORMANCE VARIATION

1.  Vary the articulations of the melody. 

2.  Vary the dynamics of a phrase or section. 

3 .Use ornaments, such as trills, turns, and grace notes. 

4.  Use pitch-bend or modulation.

5.  Take advantage of the basic instrument mutes (plungers, straight mutes, hats, etc.) and combinations thereof (plunger wa-wa over straight mute, bucket over straight, cup in bucket, etc.).

6.  Use effects that are unique to individual instruments, such as half valves, squeaks, flutter tongue, sub tone, etc. 

Performance variations encompass quite a few items that we don’t always think of when doing an arrangement and, to me, is one of the most important tools we can use.  I believe it’s what’s above & below the notes that make music and the uniqueness of an arrangement. 

These are the performance techniques are the one uses when playing music – articulations (long, short, etc.), ornaments (turns, trills, shakes, flips, pitch-bend, vibrato, etc.), and dynamics (crescendo, decrescendo, subito p, sforzando, etc.).  Using any of these performance devices in your arrangement is a sign of a seasoned writer.   Just as an orchestra conductor studies all of the nuances of string bowing techniques, we must be familiar with all of the unique sounds and variances of each instrument in the band.

Mixtures of muted and open instruments is a wonderful way to add variety to an already stated melody…it adds color and the repetition of the melody is acceptable to an audience.   The hat or derby is probably one of the most versatile mutes for brass but it has fallen out of favor these days.  Muted brass in buckets produce wonderful colors.  Look how a bone deep in the hat coupled with alto and trumpet creates a life like French horn sound at the end of the shout chorus.

Also, like Basie, using cresendi, subito p, and back and forth adds so much variety to the passage.

Here’s a link to the entire chart in case you want to check it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZIA_zYlF_0

“What about chord voicings , aren’t you ever going to get to chord voicings like clarinet lead over two altos and two tenors?”

Sorry, Glenn, not yet.  But that brings up an interesting point.  People tend to interchange orchestration and voicing.  They use the term voicing when they really mean orchestration and vice-versa.  It’s very important to understand the difference.

When beginning students come to me with questions about arranging, the first thing they usually say is something like, “I’ve been working on this chart and I want to use this sax voicing but I’m not sure if it will sound.”  Or, “Will this half step between the cellos and violas work?”  This aspect of arranging, the voicing and orchestrating of chords , is just another tool in the art, but it always seems to attract the most attention.  I guess it’s like a slick paint job on a Porsche – the most important parts are under the hood, but the paint job gets the attention, So, let’s clear this up right now.  Voicing is the putting together of chords in a certain way, with the notes stacked in a certain order.  Orchestration is simply what instruments are assigned to play the notes you included in the voicing.

VOICING

1.  Close.

2.  Open.

3.  Cluster.

4.  Unisons & Octaves.

Let’s talk about voicings.  We all should know the difference between a closed voicing and an open voicing, a cluster and an octave unison.  Voicing techniques, especially in jazz, are usually the individuality stamp of the arranger.  I would voice and orchestrate a certain passage differently from my colleagues.  If we’ve listened enough to any idiom we can probably pick out the individual arrangers by their style and voicing techniques.  Traditionally, a composer/arranger would give a sketch of his or her work to an orchestrator, who, in turn, would use standard rules for assigning the different musical lines and chords to conventional bodies of instruments.  In today’s music, there are so many new instruments, recording techniques, and consolidations of music styles that there are fewer and fewer standard rules of orchestration.  So what was once a separate trade has now become an additional, necessary skill of the arranger. 

To recap, the voicing is the type of chord structure (unison, close, open, octave, unison, cluster, etc.) and the orchestration is the body of instruments assigned to play the voicing.  Orchestration and voicing allow us to create unique sounds or musical colors by combining different instruments.  If we think of voicing and orchestration as two separate entities, it will be much easier to understand our job as arrangers.

On top of the endless possibilities and permutations of traditional acoustic instruments, we now have to contend with the modern instruments (world instruments, synths, samples, etc.).  These new instruments are a challenge in themselves, and the combining of acoustic and electronic instruments gives us further combinations with which to achieve unique musical colors.  We can truly spend a lifetime experimenting with voicing and orchestration, but it shouldn’t take the beginning arranger that long to find those combinations that fit and seem comfortable with his or her writing techniques.  These combinations go toward making up an arranger’s style.  For example, Nelson Riddle’s harmonic variation use of Lydian motifs identifies his work just as Gil Evans’ and Duke Ellington’s unique orchestration of their voicings identify their work.

Simply changing a line from unison to octaves gives it an entirely new character and an audience will accept the same backgrounds and chord changes.  Here’s an example using my arrangement of “Esperanza.”

Here’s a link to full video of the chart in case you want to check it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHN0FEgQRRY

There is one more device – melodic variation.

“Hey, that’s the composer’s job!”

Yes Glenn, sort of.  Melodic variation, this last piece of essential equipment, is composition.  The composer rarely gives us intros or endings.  The arranger is usually expected to furnish those.  We arrangers are also required to compose counterlines, interludes, and background melodies as well, in order to give existing material variety.  Here are some thoughts worth pondering:

Arranging, after all, is a euphemism,” according to Alex Wilder, “For it includes composition as well as orchestration. The introductions, countermelodies, transitions, and reharmonizing are all more than just orchestration.  But by using the word arrangement, they get two skills for the price of one.” 

“The true art of orchestration,” Walter Piston declared ,”is inseparable from the creative act of composing music.” 

And from Nelson Riddle: “An arranger occupies, in music, that shifting, almost indefinable ground between an orchestrator and composer.”

MELODIC VARIATION

1.  Creating and using countermelodies against melody.

2.  Variation of melody or fragment of melody used for interludes between sections.

3.  Introductions and endings based on newly created material.

It’s undeniable that arrangers must wear many hats in today’s music industry and must function sometimes as composers and orchestrators.  That’s why arranging is not a hack trade but an art that takes years to perfect.  So if you get discouraged because it doesn’t come to you right away, or, if after years of arranging, you still seem to get stuck, don’t worry;  join the club.


About the Author:

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John P. La Barbera is a Grammy® nominated composer/arranger whose writing spans many styles and genres. 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 meld jazz and symphonic music. “Morro da Babilonia” was the resulting work and was presented by the American Composers Orchestra in New York City at Columbia University’s Miller Hall. His “Drover Trilogy” for string orchestra and corno da caccia was recorded by the late Dr. Michael Tunnell and has recently been released on Centaur Records. John’s Grammy® nominated big band CD “On The Wild Side along with “Fantazm and his latest “Caravanon 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. As co-producer and arranger for The Glenn Miller Orchestra Christmas recordings (In The Christmas Mood I & II) John has received Gold & Platinum Records and his arrangement of “Jingle Bells” from those recordings can be heard in the Academy Award winning film “La La Land.” Mr. La Barbera is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Louisville’s School of Music and an international clinician/lecturer whose topics range from composing/arranging to intellectual property and copyright. Among his numerous organizational affiliations are Jazz Education Network, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, NARAS, American Composers Forum, Chamber Music America, and a writer/publisher member of ASCAP since 1971.

John’s Sunday morning big band jazz radio show, “Best Coast Jazz” on WFPK has been a mainstay on public radio for over twenty years and is streamed worldwide. 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.

 

Artist Blog

David Caffey: The Jazz Soli: The Arranger’s Solo

“The jazz soli is the arranger’s solo!” I can’t remember who it was that I first heard say that, but I believe it is absolutely true. I’ve always been intrigued by jazz solis, saxophone solis especially, but also brass solis and trombone solis.

A soli is the spot in a jazz arrangement where you as the arranger have the opportunity to write something that represents what you would play at that moment if you were the soloist. Of course, since you are writing it down, you can work with it until it says exactly what you want it to say, which is very different than improvising the solo. The composer whose soli writing I found to be most compelling early on in my studies was Thad Jones. Who can forget the saxophone solis on Groove Merchant, Don’t Git Sassy, and Fingers? And Little Pixie, in which even the opening melody sounds like a soli? Little Pixie is really soli writing from the beginning to the piano solo. It is two different “soloists” (brass and saxophones) playing and then trading 16s, 8s, 4s, and 2s. This is really exciting music that builds at an amazing pace!

In recent years I have written a number of jazz arrangements and compositions that include solis by saxophone sections, brass sections, trombones, and mixed instruments. I’m happy to share some of the ways I go about writing a soli and a few of the techniques I use.

The most important aspect of a jazz soli is the melody. It seems obvious, but I’m sometimes surprised how often I hear solis that don’t have interesting melodies. It’s important! When I began writing a saxophone soli for an arrangement of Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike, I knew that I needed to come up with a melody that was “Freddie-like.” I studied Freddie’s solo on his recording of the tune and discovered that it was a perfect example of the “Bebop Scale approach” to improvisation. I decided to write a melody that sounded like what Freddie Hubbard might have played, without using any quotes from his solo. The written soli follows and there is a link to the recording of the arrangement.

The first eight measures of the melodic line include very clear usage of a downward moving F bebop scale that begins with an enclosure of the root, which is a typical element of bebop language. The downward, mostly stepwise, bebop scale of measures 1 and 2 are followed by an embellished arpeggio of F9 beginning with the 7th moving to the 9th, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th. It’s a classic looking (and sounding) bebop phrase consisting of “down by step” and “up by arpeggio.”   It’s interesting how the line in m. 176 on beat 3 moves chromatically down to the 7th on the Bb9th at m. 177. That Ab is drawn out in a bluesy fashion, appropriate for a blues tune and it is something that a bebop player might do. At the end of m. 179 there is an enclosure surrounding the F# (3rd of D7) followed by a chromatic enclosure of the A (9th of Gmi9) and a diatonic enclosure of the G. Use of the diminished whole-tone scale for the line in m. 182 is also idiomatic. These are melodic elements that Freddie Hubbard uses in his playing, so it fits very well in an arrangement of his tune.

Example 1) Birdlike by Freddie Hubbard, arranged by David Caffey; mm 173–225

Click to See the Full Example

(The soli begins at 3:51 of the recording.)

I often use guitar melodically with the saxophones on a sax soli. I have done this fairly consistently over the last seven or eight years. The guitar adds a sonic quality that somehow focuses the saxophone section sound in a way that I really like. This allows me to write the saxophones in 5-part voicings without doubling the melody an octave lower. The guitar plays the melody an octave lower than the lead soprano sax. In this arrangement there is a trumpet used on the melody in unison with the soprano saxophone. Using the trumpet seemed appropriate since it is a soli on a Hubbard tune in which I’m trying to be consistent with his solo style. This combination provides a beautiful color and allows for voicings with more density than the more typical voicings used in sax solis. The denser chord voicings do not obscure the melody because there are three players on different instruments playing the melody. The melody comes through clearly.

One of the first questions that comes up when writing a soli is “how do I begin.” In Shades of Blue I decided to use the melodic figure that appears in the highest point of the melody (m.20) of the A sections as the source for the opening statement of the soli (m. 120). The rhythm shows up again in m. 127 and there is an extended version of the first motive in m. 131. If you have a good idea that works, use it more than once (but perhaps not more than three times).

Example 2) Shades Of Blue by David Caffey; mm 120 – 148

Click to See the Full Example

(The soli begins at 3:47 of the recording.)

The opening measures of the soli demonstrate ways to use very thick 5-part voicings that work well. The voicings in m. 120 use the four pitches of the B diminished 7th with one added pitch drawn from the B diminished scaled. The fifth  pitch chosen in each of the voicings is in the 2nd tenor part and is a half-step below the pitch in the first tenor part. This creates a distinctive dissonance that colors a diminished sound, making it interesting rather than bland. This can be used on altered dominant seventh chord voicings, as well. I learned this technique from studying Thad Jones’ scores. In his scores, you can find brass voicings with eight different pitches, all derived from a single diminished scale.

The five-part voicings in m. 120 are cluster voicings. These work because there is a third between the top two voices. Cluster voicings are also used in mm. 121 and 122. The voicing for the F7(#9) in m. 121 uses, from bottom to top, the 7th, #9th, 3rd, #11th, and 13th.  The first voicing of the following chord in m. 122 consists of the 3rd, b5th, #5th, 7th, and #9th. And it moves on in a similar fashion. This makes for a meaty saxophone section sound. You can open up the voicings with Drop 2, etc, and get the same kind of sound.  The two voicings beginning on beat three of m. 125 are good examples of this.

I try to create balance by separating passages that are technically difficult with passages that are relatively easy. The music needs to breathe, and so do the players! In the Shades Of Blue soli, you will see that there are three spots that have sixteenth note lines. Before and in between those technically challenging spots, there are measures of melody with relatively easy and straightforward rhythms.

I sometimes use a single scale to harmonize a melodic line in a soli like this. In m. 140, for example, the melodic line in the soprano sax is a diminished scale for an octave followed by three chromatic notes moving downward to the concert C on beat two of m. 141. Beginning with the C, there is another diminished scale moving upward. Using the process I described above to voice a diminished chord for five voices, I found a voicing to begin on and then ran all of the voices in exact parallel motion with the soprano. It was quick and easy, and it sounds good! This technique can work well using diminished-whole tone, whole tone, blues, pentatonic, and bebop scales. I recommend not over-using it, though.   

The saxophone soli in Blue 16 is another example that uses the guitar with the saxophones an octave below the soprano sax. The baritone sax is often an octave below the soprano sax, as well, in contrast to the approach used on the previous two solis. 

Example 3) Blue 16 by David Caffey; mm. 132 -179

Click to See the Full Example

(The soli begins at 5:21 of the recording.)

An example of the technique of using a single scale to harmonize a melodic line can be found in measure 174 of Blue 16. In this case a pentatonic scale is being used. The soprano sax line was written first. The first voicing for the saxophones was created after testing the line that it could be followed throughout before running out of the range. Then each part has the pentatonic scale line from their starting pitch. Another example of this technique can be found in m. 156.

Measure 175 includes another version of the diminished scale being used to create the voicings throughout the line. In this case, when the line moves upward, the chord tones are approached from a half-step below. When the line moves downward, the chord tones are approach from a half-step above. In this context I think of the scale as being a “melodic diminished scale.” When moving upward the connecting notes of the scale are ½ step below the chord tones; when moving downward the connecting pitches are ½ step above the chord tones. The concept is similar to a melodic minor scale in which scale degree 6 and 7 are raised going up and lowered going down. Another good example of usage of this can be found in mm. 158-159.

Finally, just remember that it’s all about the melody…


About the Author:

David Caffey has appeared as a clinician, adjudicator, and guest conductor at music festivals, conferences, universities and schools throughout the United States, in Canada, and in Europe. He was inducted into the California Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 2011. His compositions and arrangements have been performed in concerts and festivals in Europe, Asia, Australia, Mexico, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Canada and throughout the United States. He has won awards for musical composition from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and the National Association of Jazz Educators (NAJE).  He served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) from 2004 to 2006 and is a Founding Member of the Jazz Education Network (JEN). He also serves on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers (ISJAC). Most of his published compositions and arrangements are available from UNC Jazz Press. His most recent CD, ALL IN ONE by the David Caffey Jazz Orchestra, was released in October 2018 by Artist Alliance Records and is available at Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes. The band’s first release, ENTER AUTUMN, was released in October 2015.

Mr. Caffey recently retired from a career in Higher Education and is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Northern Colorado, where he served as Director of the School of Music from 2005 to 2013.  His work as a college professor and arts administrator spans 44 years and includes previous appointments in Jazz Studies at California State University – Los Angeles, Sam Houston State University, and the University of Denver. He relocated to Southern California in August 2018 and is working full-time as a composer, arranger and music producer.

Artist Blog

Chuck Owen: The problem with approaching composition from an improvisational perspective

When I first started composing & arranging seriously for jazz ensembles as an undergrad at the Univ. of North Texas (then NTSU), my interest was focused primarily on exploring the rich harmonic world jazz embraces – studying and experimenting with voicings and orchestration to create colorful and evocative settings.  Odd meters and complex, disjunct (particularly funk) rhythmic figures?  Loved them too!!  But as to melody??  Well, I largely viewed that as something that I could extract quickly, simply, and intuitively from the harmonic structure.  I mean, that’s what we do as improvisers, right?    And, form?   Frankly, there just didn’t appear to be much to wrestle with; as the strophic use of song form was (and is) ingrained throughout the jazz tradition.  So, most formal considerations seemed pretty codified; with variations limited largely to whether to employ an intro or coda and when/where to use background figures or a sax soli.

As you might expect, my vision of what jazz composition is  . . or can be . . . .has changed a bit since that time . . . . as has my compositional approach.  For the last 25 years, at least; my energy, focus, and struggles (and I have a LOT of these!), seem to have coalesced precisely around those 2 areas – melody and form – that I tended to toss off early on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love orchestrating and creating evocative voicings as I believe anyone who listens to my work will readily recognize; but I see these now existing in service to advancing the melodic and formal development of the composition. 

Why the change? 

I use analogies to the other arts a great deal in my teaching – particularly literature, film, and architecture.   While comparing a melodic idea to that of a character in a book/movie is certainly not a novel concept, it is an apt one.  If the reader or movie-goer isn’t able to develop a relationship with the main character. . . .and the more personal, the better . . . . they’re typically not invested in the story.  There simply HAS to be at least one character (if not more) that is unique, relatable, intriguing, and evolving.  Stop for a minute – read that list again!!  Unique . . . relatable . . . . intriguing. .  . . . and evolving!  Wow – what a challenge to create a melody in that vein!! 

Likewise, form can be seen as essentially the plot or narrative structure.  If it’s too predictable (or too convoluted for all that matters) we tune out!  I’m guessing we’ve all read books or watched movies in which every scene seems telegraphed from the outset (often just a rehash of another plot) and no matter how many buildings/cars/politicians are blown up, or how stunning the cinematography or prose is, we leave with little we (want to) remember.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine our listeners would be most intrigued by a formal structure that involved both a logical progression/evolution of ideas as well as a few unexpected twists or turns along the way.

While many of the students I work with seem to greatly admire composers/works which I feel embrace the values just set forth; I’ve often been struck by their resistance to really wanting to spend time (or possess the patience) to fashion the strongest possible melody or work on formal and melodic development beyond largely formulaic practices.  While it’s all too easy to dismiss this as mere laziness on their parts (and sometimes it is!); for the most part, I think that assumption misses the mark.

Actually, I think it’s our background as jazz musicians/performers that often leads us astray!

Oh, that will probably raise some eyebrows . . . and, admittedly, I’m being somewhat purposefully provocative.  However, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the oft-heard adage “improvisation is spontaneous composition”, I’d like to clearly and unequivocally state that “jazz composition is not and should not be confused with improvisation”.   

Composers are endowed with two things the improviser (by definition) does not possess – time and reflection!  Our ability to improvise can (and should!) prove extremely advantageous in coming up with melodic ideas; but the jazz composer must resist the desire to accept the very first phrase that comes to her/him as if its manna from heaven.  Challenge it!  Seek competing ideas.   Evaluate its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.  Is it open to being transformed over time and, if so, how?  Tweak it, live with it . . . how does it sit two days later??  These are all luxuries the composer has that the improviser does not.  Take advantage of them!! 

It’s equally important for the composer to recognize that many of the formal structures and devices used to this day on the bandstand are historical constructs of convenience and necessity – devised explicitly to facilitate gigs, impromptu performances, and improvisational settings where musicians are not only working without any notated music, they may never have even met each other before.  Here, there is a clear and compelling NEED to rely on conventional structures . . . to simply call the tune, count it off, and play!  There’s not enough time before each tune to discuss how an expansion of the form during the second solo might build intensity better or how a 13-bar restatement of the 2nd half of the bridge might be the perfect, elegant intro needed.  Strophic repetition of the song form for solos is not only tradition, it’s an absolute necessity . . . . . as are stock intros and codas.

The composer, however, is not constrained by such pragmatism.  We get to dream bigger!  In dealing with form (ultimately, a much, much longer conversation!), recognize how it can be used, effectively, to help the listener understand the context of the musical ideas.  Repetition, in and of itself, is not problematic.  It can be highly effective in giving the listener a sense of grounding and in reinforcing important ideas.  But it should not be employed simply for the lack of anything better to do  . . . .or because of convention.  Even more critically, it is through careful and imaginative use of form that the composer has the opportunity to profoundly influence the flow, contour, and proportions of the piece – creating an actual story rather than merely staging an event.  (I’ll briefly draw your attention to the use of the word “influence” rather than “control”.  While an appropriate subject for another blog, I believe strongly that good jazz composition embraces an improvisational sensibility and seeks to provide those performing the music with creative input and opportunities even in the most highly scored works.) 

So, having read to this point, you might be surprised to learn that I continue to use song form as the basis for almost all of my composition.  It’s the jazz tradition I grew up with – and a jumping off point I still find very fertile compositionally.  If viewed not as a rigid pre-fab structure but as a foundation that can support an infinite variety of expandable/collapsible walls, windows, doors, and a few cozy nooks – you’ll understand my comfort level with it. 

I’m attaching a formal outline to “Warped Cowboy” from my last CD “Whispers on the Wind”.  You’ll note both its expansiveness (the piece is over 14:00 long and is comprised of two major themes – each of which employs song form) and, hopefully, its economy.  The solo sections’ chord progressions are based on the prior song forms (primarily the “Cowboy” theme) but have been altered to create not only a better solo environment but to allow for the story to breathe and evolve in a manner that is both logical and continually fresh.  You’ll also notice they differ not only from their original iteration – but from each other as well.  As Stephan King likes to say, “The world moves on.”   You’ll also note the absence of any section marked “Transition”.  In my mind, every moment is a transition of some sort.  By understanding where we are headed we can fashion these moments so that the final arrival or climax feels inevitable, even if not completely expected.   

If you’re interested in delving a bit deeper, study scores for “Warped Cowboy” as well as a number of my other recorded works with the Jazz Surge are available on my website store:  www.chuckowen.com along with the CDs and full charts. 

Listen to Warped Cowboy:

Click here to download the Formal Analysis for “Warped Cowboy”
Click here to download the Motive Sheet for “Warped Cowboy”


About the Author:

Chuck Owen is Distinguished University Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida.  A nationally respected educator, having established USF’s acclaimed jazz program, he is recognized equally for his unique compositional voice; one steeped thoroughly in the jazz tradition but drawing on a diverse array of additional influences from contemporary classical and American folk/roots music to Latin styles, funk, hip-hop, . . . even country!  The result is an evocative, thoughtful, and frequently quite playful/joyous body of work.

The recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and five GRAMMY nominations, Owen has written for or had his compositions performed by the: Netherlands’ Metropole Orch., Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orch., Tonight Show Orchestra, Brussels Jazz Orch., Aarhus Jazz Orch. (Denmark), Scottish National Jazz Orch., Cincinnati Symphony, US Army Jazz Ambassadors and numerous others. 

Owen’s primary creative outlet, however, is his own 20-piece Jazz Surge.  Founding the ensemble in 1995, Owen serves as conductor, primary composer/arranger, and producer of its six highly-feted CDs, including:  River Runs (2013), a stunning 5 movement genre-bending work Rufus Reid described as, “.  .   . . .a tour de force of contemporary orchestral composition” and the Huffington Post called, “a masterpiece of aural sounds”, and  The Comet’s Tail (2009), critically acclaimed as “riotous and joyous” (JazzTimes), “muscular” (Downbeat), and “deserving of universal attention” (All Music Guide).  Both recordings garnered Grammy nominations with Chuck individually honored in 2014 with Grammy nominations for both Best Instrumental Composition & Best Instrumental Arrangement.

The Jazz Surge’s most recent project, Whispers On the Wind, expands on the American folk and roots leanings of River Runs enlisting the evocative violin of Sara Caswell, the luminescent harmonica of Gregoire Maret, and an array of acoustic guitars deftly played by Corey Christiansen.  In it, Owen has created a sound that is drenched in atmosphere – at times buoyant, playful, and triumphant . . . .  at others, melancholy, mysterious, and intimate – but always coming straight out of the American heartland.  Feted with four 2018 GRAMMY nominations (for Best Large Jazz Ensemble recording, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Jazz Solo – Sara Caswell) the reviews have been similarly glowing: 
“creative, poetic . . . . wildly personal” – Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
“ an impressive melding of Montana and 52
nd St.” – George Harris, Jazz Weekly
“ episodic, dramatic, and picturesque.” – Scott Yanow, NY City Jazz Record
“. . . an impossibly winsome combination of slow burn with spontaneous combustion. 
                    Reality on a sizzling hot silver platter.” – Carol Bank Weber, Medium.com

Owen presently serves as the founding President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers).  Previously he has served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education, as a “governor” for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and as a panelist (Chair) for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Awards, and numerous regional arts associations.  The Director of the USF Jazz Ensemble for 30 years, he has led the group in performances at international jazz festivals as well as with renowned guest artists. He is the recipient of the USF President’s Award for Faculty Excellence as well as both the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award and Outstanding Research Award.

Chuck’s most recent compositions for jazz ensemble are available on his website:  www.chuckowen.com   Other publications are available through UNC Jazz Press as well as EJazzLines. 

Artist Blog

Florian Ross: Quo Vadis Jazz Composition?

It was probably roughly 25 years ago, when I fell in love with the sound of the big band for the first time. At that time, at the age of just under 18, I was one of the a pianists rehearsing with the Youth Jazz Orchestra of Baden-Württemberg (German province/state) and simply enjoyed bathing in that sound… even in the sound of a youth orchestra! And I still love it.

Over the years I have struggled through many ups and downs, learned to deal with the high pressure of being a bandleader, and learned to endure and positively redirect the blunt (and mostly justified) criticism of the orchestra musicians. I have internalized that musicians lend me their talent, bring my music to life – and for that I am always grateful when I’m standing in front of a band.

I have learned the trade. I know how and for whom I have to write so that it sounds like I want it to sound. I write fast and hardly ever out of context. There are little if any surprises when rehearsals begin. Alterations in the pieces are seldom necessary. The notation is legible and playable (although I am still eager to learn), and reality matches my imagination.  In other words, I am happy to have arrived here after many hard lessons and efforts: The Big Band has become a reliable tool for me to awaken my music.

What do you do next when your craft has reached a certain level? One should take care of what was most important even before climbing the base camp of the Ability Mountain: the music! But what is that, exactly? Skills are only tools that help to materialize creativity.

I find music should include aesthetics, surprise, fun, drama, (and architecture, but that’s just me). Music that inspires me contains these ingredients. When I listen to music nowadays (any style), it’s neither clever time signatures nor interesting voicings or instrumentations that touch me. It’s the things that are not so easy to grasp.

As in any art form, I believe, the goal should be to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. I am afraid that the effort to learn and understand any art form can lead to losing oneself in the eagerness of this (craftsmanship) battle. It can happen that you divert your focus from the music to the technicalities of it without even noticing. Losing oneself can happen especially if you have worked your way through academia, which can ultimately lead to a loss of awareness of aesthetics and tensions of the ‘whole’ – however, in my opinion this is really the core and definition of good music.

Nowadays, a good part of my everyday life consists of passing on this message to the younger generation, be it as a piano teacher or in the field of composition. Especially through the regular encounters with young instrumentalists and composers, it is becoming increasingly clear to me what is all too often forgotten: The return to the core of music creating and music making!

The “skill first, then creativity” approach is just as wrong as the “creativity first, skill not

needed” approach. However, much of young composers’ works sound as if they are following either of these two polar positions. Of course, just as it took me decades to understand this, you can’t blame the youngsters – but you can blame the old guys!

It should be our task to ask the next generation of Big Band composers’ questions continually:

  • Do you know what you want to achieve with your piece?
  • Which story do you want to tell?
  • Is it the words that interest you or is it the story?
  • When and why do you want to surprise?
  • Are you writing a poem, or just a collection of beautiful words?
  • What’s more important? The construct or the content?

These are just a few of the questions that, in my opinion, often fall far short of the mark. As a result, many young composers paint with an abundance of colours, but don’t know whether they’re painting a portrait or a landscape. I hear many interesting words, sometimes sentences, but few stories – especially not those that are personal and different from other stories. I hear music so overloaded with tension that it becomes boring and superfluous. Yes, even a 10/8 beat and quartertones can be dull.

There’s also a lot of stealing going on, which I usually approve of and even encourage my students to do. However, there is nothing worse than cheap stealing – or just stealing gestures instead of story telling.

On the other hand, I also come across stories in which the definitions of words are not clear, grammar is erroneous and punctuation is incorrect – although, this seems to happen less often, nowadays.

One needs both: tools to build and a plan what you’d like to build, and why – only then will one be lucky enough to create something meaningful. It would be a mistake to concentrate on either or the other, especially at a young age. One should always look at the ground and at the sky.

Especially now, when I had assumed that I could relax a bit after many years of struggle with the acquisition of skills, I have to realize that a new mountain appears on the horizon: the recollection of the beauty, the ugliness, love, aggression and drama of music – all that I had always loved. A new, old task that is worth mastering.


About the Author:

Florian Ross Pianist, Composer www.florianross.de

Florian Ross likes travelling unusual paths. Born in 1972, he studied piano and composition in Cologne, London and New York with John Taylor, Joachim Ullrich, Bill Dobbins, Don Friedman and Jim McNeely.

The first of Ross’s numerous albums was released in 1998 under his own name. Ross’s recordings look closely at both the multifaceted jazz tradition and his extraordinary handling of contemporary material. In all formations, from trio to quintet, from string orchestra to brass ensemble, Ross succeeds in reconciling two seemingly different musical forms: improvised and composed. While many of his European colleagues consider it a virtue to distance themselves from the mainstream, another camp makes an effort to continue the American jazz tradition in Europe as authentically as possible.

Florian Ross’s music is a refreshing break from this often embarrassing programmatic context. Ross not only ignores the demarcation line but translates traditional aspects into a language of the present. His lack of interest in the idea of “higher, further, faster“ corresponds to his fondness for deeper sound regions and warmer timbres, as sounds oscillate between blue, orange and terracotta.

This foundation invites inspiration: the architecture is occasionally daring but never cool. Intellect and feeling do not exclude each other; the head listens to the stomach and vice versa. The music radiates balance, something that is often propagated but seldom achieved. The stark and songful does not trigger disquietude within Ross; on no account edgy actionism. He knows that it´s not what you say but how you say it, and that less is (sometimes) more.

It is impossible to simply reduce Florian Ross to a pianist or improviser, or even an arranger and composer, as his work cannot be limited to a single genre or category. He is much too much the pianist to abandon himself solely to the compositional architecture, and much too much the composer to succumb to a mere fascination of the piano. He is a musician who thinks, hears, writes and plays musically.

Artist Blog

An Interview with John Clayton

NOTE: Interview conducted by Paul Read on Jan 10, 2018 at 2:30 PST.

ISJAC: Hey, John. Thanks for doing this.

JC: Happy to do it

ISJAC: Where are you at the moment, Los Angeles?

JC: Yes, I am in Los Angeles. I actually was born and raised here and finished school at Indiana University… hit the road for four years and then moved to Holland to be with my, then, girlfriend, now my wife, and played in a symphony orchestra for five years.1The Amsterdam Philharmonic.

ISJAC: You were with the Basie band before you went to Amsterdam?

JC: Yes. After I finished school I went on the road with Monty Alexander and Jeff Hamilton for two years. And I missed out on my dream to play with Duke Ellington – he died while I was still in college – and one of my other dreams was to play with Count Basie. I was studying with Ray Brown and I knew that Ray knew Count Basie very well. So I asked him if he could look into helping me get in touch with him. He said, “Sure” and the next day I was talking to Count Basie [laughter]. He called me and said, “Young man, I hear you would like to play in my orchestra.” and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Basie”. And he said, “Well, I’ll have my manager call you.” and it just so happened that his bass player was leaving in two weeks, so I let Monty Alexander know I had this opportunity and he gave me his blessing. I went with Count Basie and that’s where I really got bit by the writing bug. I’d never studied composition or arranging but I fell in love with that music being able to hear it every night there in real time. I knew how to transpose for instruments and I had some fantasies. So, I asked Mr. Basie if I could write some music, and he said, “sure”. I wrote something that was embarrassingly bad.  [Laughter] I was frustrated, certainly, but I wasn’t put off and I wasn’t discouraged. That’s the best way to put it.  So on one of my breaks I took the recording that Basie had done years before with Neal Hefti of a song called “Splanky.”2Recorded on The Atomic Mr. Basie. (YouTube video posted by Warner Bros.) “Which is “the 6th most critically acclaimed album of 1958, the 25th most acclaimed of the 1950s, and the 837th most acclaimed of all time, based on an aggregation of hundreds of critics’ lists from around the world”. Wikipedia.

ISJAC: Right.

JC: “Splanky” has an amazing shout chorus,3See the Appendix at the end of the article for an score excerpt showing the ‘triple lead’ approach. and I got goose bumps every time we played it, so I wrote a sketch of everything that was happening in that arrangement. The intro, I wrote it in words…you know: piano – Ab pedal in the left hand, drums plays with sticks, bass playing the pedal. Roman numeral two: melody played in unison by the brass with mutes (and I didn’t know which so I wrote cups, buckets, question mark). Sort of walked through it in words like that, and then I went back and I transcribed as many of the notes that I could hear. From that, I noticed that when we got to the shout chorus I could hear on the recording that the lead trumpet note happened to be the same note that the lead trombone player was playing and the same note that the lead alto was playing so I had discovered this ‘triple lead’ concept of writing…

ISJAC: Yeah, I hear that from time to time in your writing…

JC: Yeah, and the thing that it provides is a lot of clarity for the melody.  So I learned that whenever I want that kind of clarity I could use ‘triple lead’ or even ‘double lead’.  Anyway, that was the beginning.

ISJAC: How much music did you write while you were with Basie? Were you producing an arrangement or composition once a week, once a month?

JC: It went from once a month or every three weeks or so…it was never once a week.

ISJAC: Yeah, that’s a lot!! [Laughter]

JC: I also acknowledged that I did not have the chops to write that fast. And, by the way, they paid me for the arrangements.

ISJAC: That’s great of course.

JC: It was kind of shocking that I wrote my first endeavour and I got paid for it. So that was great.  And they not only paid for the chart, they paid for the copying too.

ISJAC: What a tremendous learning experience. To be inside a band like that, to be playing with the band, and hearing all those colours, and the orchestration. Everything is right there for you. As opposed to learning about those things from a purely theoretical standpoint.

JC: I absolutely agree.

ISJAC: Whenever I played saxophone in a big band, I would particularly notice what the trumpets and trombones were doing…. I mean I couldn’t avoid it…they were sitting right behind me [laughs].  But it is a truly amazing story that you started writing while you were in the Basie band!

JC: And, of course, the guys were very helpful. They had excellent writers in the band: Bobby Plater, Eric Dixon, and Dennis Wilson. Dennis was my homey because he was my age. He was a schooled writer because he studied at Berklee, and he would show me things about writing technically. And the other guys in the band would say things to me off the cuff that turned out to be invaluable – things that I think too many writers don’t know or don’t do. For instance, they’d see me working on a score, and that I was frustrated because we just played it and I’d be making some edits and corrections and they’d say, “Hey, what are you doing?” and I’d say, “Oh, this didn’t sound very good and I just want to change this or that”, and they’d say, “Well don’t change that! Just write another one! And the stuff you didn’t like in this one, don’t put it in the new one.”

ISJAC: Great advice.

JC: And that was so spontaneous on their part, but so deep for me and I followed their advice. With their encouragement, I kept writing and writing and writing. Another time, earlier on, one of the writers in the band was looking at a score of mine and he asked, “You write a ‘C’ score?” I replied [hesitating] “Yeah”, and asked me, “Well why?” and I said, “I don’t know” and then he said, “Don’t do that! Write a transposed score.” So I said, “OK” and that was that.

ISJAC: And is that what you do now?

JC: Yes. I write my sketches in C but then I always write transposed scores. Honestly, I’m at the point now where I have an assistant, so I usually write detailed sketches and use shorthand that she understands and can decipher. I’m in a lot of situations now where I have to write very quickly and so having an assistant is very helpful.

Incidentally, when I write a score, I don’t use notation software. I have Sibelius because I thought I should have it but I really don’t use it. I had Finale before that because I thought I might use it, but I have so many shortcuts that the software slows me down. It’s just the way I write.

ISJAC: I totally get that. It’s so much easier to write something on paper rather than have to look on page 135 of the manual to find out how to put something or other on the score for the first time.

JC: Yeah, and also, let’s say I’m writing a more extended piece. I sit at my piano and to my left is my desk and to the left of my desk, are two music stands. Now, I may need to refer to page 12, or 23 and 35 and, if I have to scroll on a computer, and have a couple of screens open, it really slows me down. But I do understand the importance of that technology and all my charts are computer-generated now and it is great to have those files. I do recognize the value of it. Its just that writing-wise, it’s just not the way I work.

ISJAC: And your assistant puts it into the software? Is that what happens?

JC: Yes. She copies them into the software. I’m not the kind of person who writes one line and says, “Here, make this sound like Thad Jones.” [Laughter].  I mean all the notes on the score are my notes.

ISJAC: You mentioned Thad Jones. He was in the Basie band long before you, right?

JC: Yes, long before.

ISJAC: Was he an influence on your writing?

JC: Huge. Yeah, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Quincy Jones, Billy Byers, Oliver Nelson and Henry Mancini.  I got to work with him [Mancini] in my early days, so I really got to hear his treatment of orchestra and big band and big band with strings and all that. And – I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out – those are some of the people that really had an influence.

ISJAC: That’s a pretty heavy list. I read a story recently about Thad writing on the band bus. I think the story was in that book that came out last year, “50 Years at the Village Vanguard.”4“50 Years at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard) ” by Dave Lisik and Eric Allen available at www.skydeckmusic.com. Do you know that book?

JC: Yes, I know about that. I don’t have that yet.

ISJAC: I haven’t read all of it yet, it’s pretty comprehensive, but at one point one of the members of the band noted that Thad would be writing a score while riding the band bus and that he was able to shut out everything. Just completely absorbed in what he was doing. Apparently the music was for whatever event they were heading to – a recording session or whatever it was. It takes such great concentration to be able to do that with so much going on around you.  Really amazing.

JC: I think that’s something you learn to do, I mean, if you desire to do it, you figure it out. In fact, I got my chops together doing the exact same thing on the Basie bus. I would sit in the back of the bus and write my scores and then, when we got to the concert hall, or wherever we were going, I’d go to the piano to check things. You know, you do write a little differently when you write away from the piano. It’s not that you write more safely, it’s just that you write things that are a little more familiar to you. And so, yeah, I still write that way. At one point, I had a lesson with Johnny Mandel and he encouraged me to write that way because I played him one of the songs I had composed, and he said, “Mmm, did you write that at the piano?” And I thought about it for a moment, and I said, “Yes I did”, and he said, “Yup, sounds like it. You know people don’t sing chord changes, they sing melodies.” And so, whenever possible I try to write away from the piano. That was a major lesson for me. So to this day I write away from the piano and use the piano it to check what I’ve written.

ISJAC: Do you find yourself singing while you write?

JC: Yes. You know, the musicians have to have a chance to breathe when they play or sing what I’m writing.

ISJAC: I’m curious about something that I think every writer faces as they evolve, and that is developing good judgement or taste. You know, how much you decide to put here or put there. Or when there is enough of a particular idea and its time to move on. I guess I’m referring to the intuitive side of things. Finding rhythmic ideas that feel good, sound good and swing. Do you have any thoughts that would be helpful to students or up and coming composer/arrangers that you might want to share?

JC: I’m big on models. I find training wheels are a really good thing because we’ve all got ideas. We’ve all got fantasies. But if you are in the beginning stages of it, there’s a lot that you don’t know. And if you write from rules, it sounds like you are writing from rules.  To free yourself from that you need to put your feet in the shoes of the masters – the people you are interested in and that have influenced you. When you put your feet in their shoes, you go well beyond the analytical level.  You develop a feel for what they are doing. You develop a feel for the phrases and textures and for the apex of the phrase or the piece – and, of course, that’s really what you want. You don’t merely want to write from an analytical, left brain, point of view. You want to naturally flow the way that the music you enjoy listening to does.

I haven’t had that many composition/arranging students but sometimes I believe sincerely that they kind of don’t want to do what I say. And that’s fine…that’s cool…but if someone was studying with me, I’d would have them work on a three-tiered project. The first part would be to find a piece that they like, that’s close to their level. Don’t focus on a ‘level 25’ piece right now. Focus on something with an  ‘11’ or ‘12’ level of complexity. They are going to have to work hard to get it right,  but because it is close to their level it will be an attainable goal. So, for someone who is just starting out writing, I’m not going to send them to a later Thad chart or later Brookmeyer work. I’m going to send them instead to explore a piece they love. It might be Neal Hefti or early Quincy Jones or something like that where the textures are more at their level.

They would start by describing the piece in some detail using words – including describing the moods. Is it an exciting piece? Is it a romantic piece? What does the mood of this music say to you? Because that’s what we are ultimately doing as writers: we’re expressing ourselves and taking those moods that we want to express and attaching sounds to them.  And they would have to describe the structure of the piece. For example, they would describe the intro, where the melody is, who is playing it, what the textures are…just in words. And then they would have to go back and, as best they can, transcribe the notes of the entire piece. There are some options here if the task is too difficult.  It could be that they don’t transcribe the bass line, or only transcribe a sample of the piano voicings, or not transcribe exactly what the drummer is doing with all of his or her limbs. Then the work is not as daunting as it might seem at first.

So that’s the first tier or part of the project, and then the second tier would be that they would have to write their own piece based on what they just analyzed and transcribed.  Of course they can change things, but they should respect the model they’ve just analyzed. So, instead of an 8 bar intro, they might write a 12 bar intro instead for the new piece. They should note things that were particularly noticeable in the piece they transcribed. For example, they might hear that the trumpets were in a certain register and so, in their piece they would write the trumpets in a similar register. It could be that the composer stuck to tensions like 13s and 9s and maybe just occasional alterations to a certain harmonic structure. Well, they should do the same thing. In other words, if you are going to write something in the style of Mozart, you probably shouldn’t use Ravel-like harmony.

And then, the third part of the project would be to write something that has nothing to do with the first two.  You know, whatever you’re feeling – wherever your fantasies take you. So you don’t feel like you’re becoming a carbon copy of that other music.

And then I would have them go through that whole process three or four times. Then they would have a good 12 pieces that they have have really put their heart and soul into. Some of this is analysis based, and some of it is putting your feet in the shoes of another composer and imitating certain aspects of their writing.  And then finally they do whatever they want to do.

Along with that advice I would address three things that I define as gaps in the skills composers or arrangers that I see today. Number one would be transposing. Become comfortable with writing transposed scores. I can’t tell you how many times, having been instructed by writers in the Basie band to do this has saved my bacon.  I’ve been in so many recording situations or rehearsals when I’m standing in front of an orchestra and a hand goes up, the red light is on, and someone says, “John, can you tell me what my note is in the first bar of letter C?” I look and I see that they are playing French horn, and then I have to do an immediate vertical analysis of the score and figure out what that person’s note has to be changed to. Well, someone else could say that they never write a transposed score and still would be able to answer the French horn player’s question, but then, you don’t know what kind of situations you are going to be in and you may have to conduct someone else’s score and that score might be transposed.

Also, I think that the tendency nowadays in education is to allow students to prepare just enough to get through the gig; just enough to get through the recital; just enough to make it through the lesson; just enough to get through the concert and then move on to the next thing. And that’s kind of the nature of what happens in a lot of schools. But if you look at all the things that you feel good about having done, they reflect, I think, over-learning. You’ve done it so many times you don’t have to think about it. It feels really comfortable. But I think that it is too easy in some instances to be satisfied with doing an adequate job –accepting that that was your best effort and then moving on.

Luckily in my life I’ve had enough people who wouldn’t let me do that. You know, Ray Brown told me, (I can’t tell you how many times – maybe hundreds) – he would say to me, “Here’s what you got to do.” And then he would tell me whatever that was and I’d do it! I trusted him. And if I questioned his advice, I’d kind of put those questions aside for the time being. Often, it would take me a certain amount of time – sometimes years – to look back and say, “Oh, that’s why he had me do that!”

ISJAC: Ha! [Both laugh]

JC:  So Ray Brown, and like I said, the guys in the Basie band would give me that kind of advice. Even Basie. At one time, I was really writing a lot and the band was playing more and more of my stuff, and I said to him, “Chief,”  – we used to call him Chief, “ – would you ever consider allowing me to write an album for the band? It would be an honour for me and I would love to do it.” And he kind of looked at the ceiling and looked around and you know, like he wasn’t quite hearing me. So I sort of slithered out of the room and never brought it up again. Well, years later – because I know he heard me – I’d already left the band and I was living in Holland and I found some cassette tapes of some rehearsals and some things I’d done with band, and I’m listening to them and the light bulb went on. And I thought, oh my god, I wasn’t ready. He knew that I wasn’t ready and he allowed me to discover, at some point in life, that I wasn’t ready. He didn’t say ‘no’ to me and he didn’t say ‘yes’ either. He left it alone and that is one example of those lessons that Basie allowed me to learn.

ISJAC: What a wonderful lesson.  I wanted to mention that I had occasion to play some of your charts many years ago while playing piano in a big band, I think in Vancouver, and there were several guest artists – one of them being Diana Krall. I expected her to play piano for her part of the concert and I started to get up and she said, “No, you play,” so I was in the, what I think was the unusual position of playing piano behind her.  I think some of the charts might have been on the From this Moment On recording that you arranged for her. I can’t remember exactly. But one of the things I noticed while I was playing your music was the economy, that’s the word that comes to mind…there wasn’t a note out of place, and there wasn’t too much of anything. It was just right. Everything was clear and beautiful. And I haven’t forgotten that experience. It was a great lesson for me about writing music to accompany a singer, or any other writing for that matter.

JC: Wow, thank you!

ISJAC: It’s so easy to overwrite (I do it all the time!).

JC: Yes, it truly is. [Laughs]. You’re absolutely right and we learn that by…overwriting! There are no shortcuts, you know. Again, I’ve been so lucky that I’ve been around people that have encouraged me and been patient with me as I developed my writing skills. They saw how eager I was and how much I wanted to do it. Nobody said, “You’re going to have to figure this out on your own.” Or, “I don’t have time for you.” It was never that. And that helped me understand the familial relationship that we musicians have with each other, with this community that we are a part of. But the ‘economy’ thing… the older I get, the simpler I want to write. And the reason I want to write simpler is because I am striving for clarity. Even if I’m writing a piece that has a lot of information in it, and has a lot going on, I want there to be a lot of clarity in the textures and the complexities I’m involving myself in.

Here’s an example: I might have a two-fisted chord with 10 or 11 notes in it…oh I guess there would have to be 10, wouldn’t it? [Laughs] Or I guess it could have 11, but anyway, what I’ll do is play a crunchy, thick, dark chord, and I’ll just start lifting fingers and play the chord again with those fingers lifted and if I still get the effect that I’m going for, then I’ll lift another finger and I’ll think, can I eliminate that? And sometimes I think, no, I need that one, and I’ll put my finger back down.

When you write for a vocalist – and Bill Holman said this – it’s almost like taking candy from a baby. A lot of ‘givens’ are already in place. You already know the length of the piece, you already know the key, and you already know the tempo. You already know the time signature. You already know the melody. You know, there are so many givens and you remember the basic rules: enhance the mood and probably before that, don’t step on the singer. Then continue to do what you can to draw the ear toward the vocalist. So with all those parameters known, it makes it pretty easy to work with them and adapt them to your taste. Versus, if someone says,  “I’d like you to write a composition for me – write whatever you want”. Now I have to come up with virtually everything. And even though we love doing that, it’s definitely going to take more time and thought and effort than doing an arrangement for a vocalist.

ISJAC: You encourage those who you are around because that is what others did for you. And with respect to that, I have a question related to your son, Gerald.  I love his playing and everything he does.

JC: Thanks.

ISJAC: I have a daughter and when she was young I decided not to teach her. It was a difficult decision, but I thought it best to separate the dad part from the teacher part. As I was thinking about interviewing you, I thought I’d ask how you approached that with him as he was growing up. Did you teach him, or just encourage him, or…?

JC: Yeah, I think that it was more of the latter. My wife and I supported and encouraged, but we never pushed. And his older sisters, they are a year older than he is, and they both were taken to concerts and there was always music around. Actually, I didn’t have a stereo in the house but they heard a lot of music and knew what was going on. Once that I saw that Gerald was interested in going the music route, I just did my best, like most parents, to supply him with things that hopefully would help him move forward. So it was not only taking him to concerts, but also showing him a melody or showing him a chord that he was trying to figure out or, maybe just chiming in, but then stepping back and leaving him alone. I just didn’t want him to feel pressured. But then, often I’d be in the kitchen cooking dinner and Gerald would be in the other room practicing and he’d be playing a tune that I knew and I’d call out, “No, that’s an A-flat!” [Laughter]. So there’d be moments like that, but for the most part I was, as you say, more encouraging.

ISJAC: Thank you for sharing that. I suppose it was a bit of a departure, but I thought I’d ask you about that.

JC: How old is your daughter?

ISJAC: She turned 41 on New Year’s Eve.  She was into music and played piano and flute, but ultimately she became a graphic designer and art director, which, interestingly enough, is what her grandmother did.

JC: Yeah it’s funny. My daughter hasn’t followed in my wife’s footsteps but is aligned more to her way of thinking…and it’s a combination for sure, but I feel a lot more of my wife’s influence in my daughter in direction than I do in Gerald in a lot of ways. We’re a close-knit family.

ISJAC: I’ve always been fascinated by the great musician families. You mentioned the La Barberas: Pat, John and Joe, and the Jones family, Thad, Hank and Elvin, the Heath brothers, and…the Clayton family too.

JC: You never know!

ISJAC: Before I let you go, are there any current projects, performances or recordings you might like to mention?

JC: Before I do that, I’d like to say I thoroughly enjoyed our chat! Thanks for all of the time you’re putting into this.

I guess you could mention to be on the lookout for a few projects this year. There is possibly/probably a duo release with the wonderful (deceased) pianist, Mulgrew Miller. I’m also discussing releasing or rerecording the Monterey Jazz Festival commission I did, “STORIES OF A GROOVE, Conception, Evolution, Celebration.” It’s one of the largest works I’ve done and I’d like to release it in some fashion. That’s all being discussed. So, everything is percolating! Fingers crossed that it all comes together.

ISJAC: Thanks. What a joy to talk to you!

JC: Likewise.

ISJAC: And, thanks for the lesson! I learned a lot.

JC: Yeah, well I was just passing along what was passed along to me.

ISJAC: Thanks, John.


 

APPENDIX A

Shout chorus from “Splanky” composed for the Count Basie Band and is recorded on “The Atomic Mr. Basie”. Demonstrates ‘triple lead’ orchestration. Lead trumpet, alto saxophone and trombone are doubled at the octave.


About John Clayton:

John Clayton is a natural born multitasker. The multiple roles in which he excels — composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and yes, extraordinary bassist — garner him a number of challenging assignments and commissions. With a Grammy on his shelf and eight additional nominations, artists such as Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gladys Knight, Queen Latifah, and Charles Aznavour vie for a spot on his crowded calendar.

He began his bass career in elementary school playing in strings class, junior orchestra, high school jazz band, orchestra, and soul/R&B groups. In 1969, at the age of 16, he enrolled in bassist Ray Brown’s jazz class at UCLA, beginning a close relationship that lasted more than three decades. After graduating from Indiana University’s School of Music with a degree in bass performance in 1975, he toured with the Monty Alexander Trio (1975-77), the Count Basie Orchestra (1977-79), and settled in as principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Amsterdam, Netherlands (1980-85). He was also a bass instructor at The Royal Conservatory, The Hague, Holland from 1980-83.

In 1985 he returned to California, co-founded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra in 1986, rekindled the The Clayton Brothers quintet, and taught part-time bass at Cal State Long Beach, UCLA and USC. In 1988 he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, where he taught until 2009. Now, in addition to individual clinics, workshops, and private students as schedule permits, John also directs the educational components associated with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Centrum Festival, and Vail Jazz Party.

Career highlights include arranging the ‘Star Spangled Banner” for Whitney Houston’s performance at Super Bowl 1990 (the recording went platinum), playing bass on Paul McCartney’s CD “Kisses On The Bottom,” arranging and playing bass with Yo-Yo Ma and Friends on “Songs of Joy and Peace,” and arranging playing and conducting the 2009 CD “Charles Aznavour With the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra,” and numerous recordings with Diana Krall, the Clayton Brothers, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz, Orchestra, Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander and many others.

Website: http://www.johnclaytonjazz.com

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The Amsterdam Philharmonic.
2. Recorded on The Atomic Mr. Basie. (YouTube video posted by Warner Bros.) “Which is “the 6th most critically acclaimed album of 1958, the 25th most acclaimed of the 1950s, and the 837th most acclaimed of all time, based on an aggregation of hundreds of critics’ lists from around the world”. Wikipedia.
3. See the Appendix at the end of the article for an score excerpt showing the ‘triple lead’ approach.
4. “50 Years at the Village Vanguard (Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Village Vanguard) ” by Dave Lisik and Eric Allen available at www.skydeckmusic.com.
Artist Blog

Michael Phillip Mossman: On Arranging

When I teach arranging at Queens College I like to use lots of analogies, mostly having to do with cooking or architecture. As musicians it’s very easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the music and lose our connection with the human experience. Everyone eats and everyone needs a place to live so cooking and building make for good points of reference. Particularly, I think of arranging as preparing a meal for friends. If I knew I had a group of vegans coming over for dinner I could buy the choicest cut of meat available and grill it to perfection yet my dinner would be a failure. Similarly, if I had a group of cattle ranchers over, tofu as the main course might disappoint. So before I start a project I like to take some time to think about who will be involved and what would fulfill or exceed our needs. What can I prepare that will bring out the best in all the participants? These include the performers, sometimes a featured guest artist, the audience, the promoters, perhaps a publisher and certainly myself.

In some cases thought alone will get me there but in other cases I need to do significant homework to get to know the participants better. In this way I can create something original yet take into account the particular talents and abilities of the people involved. This is similar to the architect who designs an house based on its setting, the surrounding environment, the needs of the owner and those of the town while still staying true to his/her own standards of design and style.

The homework process isn’t always easy.

My first experiences as a professional arranger came writing for Mario Bauza and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. I was the jazz soloist in the trumpet section and was probably one of the least savvy when it came to understanding how to arrange music for a band with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. I had studied composition with Wendell Logan at Oberlin Conservatory and had taken arranging lessons with Don Sebesky in New York so I had some idea how to write but was way out of my depth when it came to these styles at this level of collective expertise. In addition to the technical issues there were cultural and personal skills to learn as well. We used to rehearse in the basement of Boy’s Harbor, an institution in East Harlem. Everything about these rehearsals was inconvenient. Getting there from Brooklyn was inconvenient. Waiting for everyone to show up was inconvenient. Arguing over the figures and whether they were in clave was inconvenient. Some of the band members were real characters with musical talent but had odd personal traits. There were many egos as well to navigate amongst the musicians, whose approval of the music meant a chart’s adoption or rejection. Inconvenient!

Its much easier to just work everything out in your head and enter the music into a notation or sequencing program and just hope the musicians play their parts right.

But the magic in music is when all these inconvenient individuals bring all their voices and opinions together and we work through difficulties and possibilities together. The wisdom and experience of each musician in that band, along with the opportunity Mario gave to me as a young arranger were among the greatest gifts one can receive. The extended family that was Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra taught me how to arrange for that band by sharing their knowledge. Bobby Sanabria showed me numerous bell patterns to learn and recordings to listen to. Victor Paz shared his unique philosophy of what makes for good section writing in that context. Patato Valdez reminded me how much deeper the tradition was than could be captured in any chart. Still, when I arranged a melody given me by Mario in a style that was a bit off center from the band’s repertoire, they trusted me.

Example track “Lourdes’ Lullaby” from album 944 Columbus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLxocqgVJY8

The sharing process is not always pain-free! Once I transcribed a vocorder recording Joe Zawinul gave me to orchestrate for the album “My People.” I didn’t understand the groove under it but was too timid to ask for an explanation. I wrote it out mistaking where the downbeats in the bars were! Yikes! But the experience reminded me never to be either too fearful or pompous to ask questions and seek help from performers. Making and correcting errors, however frustrating and sometime embarrassing is essential for growth and is sometime necessary do arrive at the best work possible for the people involved. I regularly consult with performers about bass lines, piano figures, percussion breaks, section orchestration, etc. In the process I have learn new techniques and also history, language and a greater cultural awareness through these personal interactions. Personality is the essence of style! An orchestra is made up of people, not just instruments.

As I teach my students: “The audience does not hear your chart. They hear people playing your chart.” If the music fits the performers and brings out their best, that’s what the audience hears. (Perhaps the best example I have experienced as a performer is when I have played with Jimmy Heath’s band! Love is in every part in every chart.)

Another part of the homework process is transcription, including transcribing grooves (including bass lines, cymbal patterns and drum, piano voicing styles, particular harmonic languages) and melodic construction. A recent album I did with the WDR bigband with Mohktar Samba and friends as guest artists required a great deal of transcription. The Senegalese and Morrocan grooves we were using were new to me and to learn them meant a massive immersion into listening and transcribing as much as I needed to get the grooves right. As I teach my students: Get ahold of any material you can to learn what you need to get the groove right so what you do with the winds doesn’t crush the groove! In this case Mohktar had a book with examples of the grooves, recordings and video to check out. And I asked him questions, directly, which is by far the best way to learn. A ten-minute conversation with a real artist is worth hours of “Googling” stuff!

Still we had to resolve issues in rehearsals, which involved listening to one another and negotiating solutions. More human stuff! Inconvenient! But the growth offered by such work is enormous and mirrors the very process we need in all forms of human engagement.

Link to example, WDR rehearsal with Mohktar Samba, directed by Michael Philip Mossman:

As terrifying and painful transcribing unfamiliar material can be, the practice leads rewarding artistic growth. The truly terrifying thought for me is churning out the same kind of stuff the rest of my life!

While composing and arranging can be a solitary pursuit, learning to share ideas and collaborate can also lead to larger opportunities such as ballet, Broadway and film scoring. It can be inconvenient sometimes, to bend your ideas to include the needs and opinions of others. But with practice their knowledge and experience can become yours in the process. Here is a clip I scored for the animated film “Chico and Rita,” nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. The director, Fernando Trueba is a walking encyclopedia of Afro-Cuban jazz and its historical context. Working with him was as much a learning experience as a creative one. Music is essential to most movies. Yet the role of the composer/arranger/orchestrator is subject to the needs of the action on screen and succeds or fails on that basis.

Clip from Chico and Rita:

Perhaps not as flashy as film scoring and recording albums is the kind of collaboration I do with my publisher, Hal Leonard (which is really the people who work at Hal Leonard… corporations are made of people!) I have gained an enormous amount of respect for the work publishers do to keep music strong in our schools. To produce work for a school market means listening to the needs of directors and state boards of educators. This can be the most difficult of all for creative artists! Arranging under technical and range restrictions is very challenging. Writing for Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band was easy in comparison… they could play anything! But answering the needs of a director in rural school district who may or may not have a strong lead trumpeter or who might have a freshman bassist means preparing music that can teach as well as sound good. If there is anything I am proud of its seeing videos of bands across the US playing charts I arranged and learning how to play a Mambo or Partido Alto. Without music in schools we have no public to enjoy hearing jazz in the first place! No question, it is inconvenient to get a score back with 50 questions about articulations, range decisions and rhythmic quantization. But the expertise and experience of editors I have shared has raised my work considerably and has helped me become a better professor of arranging!

So, in summation, we all celebrate creativity and innovation. Individual achievement in the arts is what we strive for. But my long-winded rant has been one of listening and learning from others in the pursuit of a collective result. It’s the Yin and Yang of jazz arranging: We strive for individuality but we depend upon the work of others to realize what we have created. Gaining the full value of the performers and the satisfaction of our audience depends on our level of understanding and respect for their work and needs as well.

About the Author:

 

Michael Philip Mossman has been active on the international scene since the age of 17. And has recorded with his own groups and with a virtual “who’s who” of the music industry.

Michael was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” for his “Afro-Latin Ellington Suite.” Michael has composed and arranged music for the films “Bossa Nova” and “Chico and Rita,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. His ballet “Beneath the Mask” was performed by Jon Faddis and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra with the Deeply Rooted Dance Company. His ballet, La Cova do Rey Cintolo was premiered in 2010 in Mondoñedo, Spain.

Mr. Mossman has conducted the Bilbao Symphonic Orchestra in Spain, and has composed and arranged scores for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Tri-Cities Symphony, Joe Henderson’s Grammy winning Big Band album, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, The Charles Mingus Orchestra, Tito Puente, Mario Bauza, Slide Hampton and the Jazz Masters Orchestra, Paquito D’Rivera, the UMO Orchestra of Finland, the NDR Big Band of Hamburg, WDR of Cologne, HR Bigband of Frankfurt, HGM Bigband of Zagreb, Danish Radio Big Band, the Andalucia Latin Jazz Big Band, Heineken Jazz Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico, Granada Bigband, Sedajazz Latin Jazz Ensemble, and Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit.

Following stints as lead trumpet with the Machito Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Michael became the musical director of Blue Note Record’s “young lion” group, Out of the Blue. He recorded four albums for Blue Note with this group before joining the Horace Silver Quintet. Michael has toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, McKoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Zawinul, Slide Hampton, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jon Faddis, George Gruntz, Bob Mintzer, Steve Turre, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Tom Pierson, The Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, the Charles Mingus Orchestra, Benny Carter, the Gil Evans Orchestra, and the Count Basie Orchestra. Michael has played lead trumpet with the Michel Camilo Bigband, the Jon Faddis Orchestra, the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra and the Jimmy Heath Bigband among many others.

Michael has also been a key performer in Latin Jazz since his days with Machito. Mr. Mossman has performed and recorded with Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Daniel Ponce, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Paquito D’Rivera, Bebo Valdez and Michel Camilo (including a screen appearance in the motion picture “Two Much”). Michael is featured in director Fernando Trueba’s highly acclaimed documentary on contemporary Latin Jazz, “Calle 54” as both performer and commentator. He also served as arranger and trumpet soloist for the legendary innovator of Latin Jazz, Mario Bauza and his Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra.

Michael is featured as lead trumpet and arranger on the Grammy winning album, “Song for Chico,” by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra as well as on “Un Noche Inolvidable” and “40 Acres and a Burro.” Solo releases by Michael Philip Mossman include “Springdance,” “Mama Soho,” “The Orisha Suite,” “Missa Afro-Cubana,” “Soul con Timba Live at Bohemian Cavern.”

Michael, a Yamaha Artist, is currently Professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York City. Michael’s music is published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.

 

 

Artist Blog

Ryan Keberle: Eight Things I’ve Learned About Jazz Composition and Arranging as a Freelance Trombonist

This was a difficult writing assignment for me. As I tried to decide what to write, I kept thinking about the wealth of resources that aspiring jazz arrangers have at their disposal, including the brilliant pedagogical methods books from people like Ray Wright, Don Sebesky, Bill Dobbins, David Berger, etc.  And, as the ISJAC Blog has made readily apparent, there is also a wealth of knowledge possessed by a new generation of jazz composers like Darcy James Argue and Adam Benjamin who are eager to share their knowledge in eloquent and insightful ways. So I asked myself, what do I bring to the world of composition and arranging that perhaps others may not? Although I’ve had many wonderful teachers over the years and have read many insightful books on the subject, the lessons I most frequently refer to in my own compositional and arranging pursuits come from the enormous amount of time I’ve spent playing trombone in a big band, large ensemble, or even in small groups. This brings up an important yet slightly off-topic discussion on why performance experience is even more valuable than most people recognize in the training of educators. But, we’ll have to save that discussion for another time. For now, I’ll focus on lessons learned that may or may not be included in your typical jazz arranging textbook, or concepts that, when experienced playing in an ensemble, might present themselves differently thus allowing for an alternative point of view.

1. Your Music Should be Fun to Play!! (Learned from every great composer and arranger whose music I’ve had the pleasure to play, including Duke, Sy Oliver, Mingus, JJ, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, David Berger, Maria Schneider, Pedro Giraudo, Darcy James Argue, Miguel Zenon, Sufjan Stevens, et al.)

This seems like such an easy thing to do and, really, if it’s foremost on your mind throughout the creative process, it can be! However, with so much to think about and to consider while composing and arranging, I find that this lesson, (which in my mind is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING when it comes to creating quality music), is oftentimes the first to get overlooked. It’s important to define what I mean by “fun”. I DON’T mean the music has to be tongue-in-cheek or sound like cartoon soundtracks. Sometimes, by just simply providing eight measures of solo improvisation you can make your music fun and satisfying to one of your performers. Fun music means music that is rewarding to play. And, when writing for a highly trained jazz musician, this means music that challenges yet still allows for a performance of swinging, grooving, beautiful music that sounds easy and natural. I’ve played plenty of music that is extremely challenging yet, even when you and your bandmates nail it, the music that results still doesn’t feel good, and probably doesn’t sound all that good either. This brings up an interesting challenge because the ideal solution I’m suggesting is not to simplify what you’ve written or eliminate the more challenging passages. Instead, this challenge is best addressed by singing or, even better, playing through the passage in question while listening for those moments of uncertainty. Once you’ve identified the problem spot it’s usually pretty easy to find a more natural alternative, and that allows for the preservation of the larger musical idea. Other ways I’ve found to make music more “fun” is to incorporate improvisation in non-soloistic ways (see #3 below); write for each instrument using prototypical techniques and phrases; avoid extended periods of rest for the same person; write music with rhythmic nuance (see #2 below); or write music to be performed at a Halloween party for pet owners and their pets (that is my horrible attempt at a joke and also an actual gig I played once…!)

2. Rhythm is Everything (Also learned from every master jazz composer and arranger.)

Whether its swing, straight 8ths, 80’s pop ballads, or Venezuelan 5/8 merengues, this lesson still holds true. Rhythm should always be first and foremost on your mind. And what about rhythm should one think about? That’s easy. One simple question can be your guide throughout the creative process: Does the rhythm FEEL good? It’s important to note that this question and process relies on the composer possessing a certain baseline level of fluency in the musical language and genre within they’re working. Assuming this is the case, the ability to FEEL a rhythm’s personality is of the utmost importance when performing and composing good music. A few specific compositional techniques that I have found to help in creating a rhythm of quality that feels good are a balance of syncopated and downbeat-oriented rhythms; rhythms that contain unexpected moments of movement or elements of surprise; rhythms that contain patterns, both simple and complex; and rhythms that reflect the rhythmic language of the genre.

Something else I often think about is striving for rhythms that sound like they were improvised or rhythms that have a unique personality. Imagine the way Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane would play the melody of a jazz standard. Almost every phrase will have personalized changes – primarily rhythmic variations – making the final product sound a whole lot different from the way it’s notated in a Real Book. (Oh, Real Books. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!)

3. Strive for Balance Between the Composed and Improvised (Learned from David Berger)

My definition of a jazz composer is someone who writes music that balances the pre-composed with improvisation in their music. This is something very much on my mind these days given that the more improvisation one organically incorporates into their arrangement the more fun the musicians will have playing it (full circle back to Lesson #1 above!). Here’s something I wrote in 2015 that demonstrates how improvisation can be incorporated into a jazz arrangement in unorthodox and creative ways. I’ll let you figure out how much of this is improvised, but as a hint, I’ll tell you that with the exception of the intro from 0:00 to 1:35 most of what the band plays is improvised (and even this section we now improvise during live gigs). Yet, you’ll notice that there is very little “solo improvisation.”

“I Thought I Knew” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

And now, here is the trumpet part to give you an idea of what was pre-composed and what the brilliant Mike Rodriguez added. (Which is always way more hip than anything I could have come up with!)

  

4. Transitions, Transitions, Transitions (Learned from Maria Schneider)

So much of what we’re taught in jazz education deals with details. How to properly notate a chord, the best scale to use over a certain chord (a chord that lasts for all of one measure!), how to feel a 4 over 3 polyrhythm, etc. As a result of this attention to detail, many jazz musicians are challenged when it comes to really hearing and appreciating those big picture aspects of music. One of those aspects is how a composer/arranger travels in real time from one unique musical moment to the next. A great example of the importance of transitions can be heard in Maria Schneider’s Hang Gliding, perhaps her best-known work. So much time is spent studying Maria’s orchestrational techniques, maybe because these are things that are more easily written and discussed. However, I can tell you first-hand that Maria’s primary focus when work-shopping a new piece are the transitions in her arrangement. And there are many different types of transitions – harmonic, rhythmic, metric, timbral, etc. Below, I’ve highlighted just a few of the magnificent transitional moments from Maria’s Hang Gliding.

“Hang Gliding” – Maria Schneider

Transitions occur at 1:05-1:12; 2:38-2:50; 3:36-3:42; 4:10-4:20; 5:48-5:52 and 6:48-7:03 (and that’s just the first half of the piece!). I hope students will spend some time studying how and why these moments are so important in addition to the other brilliant but more quantifiable aspects of Maria’s musical language.

Below is a piece  I recently composed that came to me in one of those magical moments of clarity as an almost fully formed song. The entire piece was written in just one afternoon of improvisation at the piano. However, I found the arranging process to be quite difficult as I struggled with how to turn one chorus of a song into a fully formed arrangement for my band, Catharsis, to perform. It took finding the proper transitional material that allowed for this piece to finally come to life.

“Become the Water” – music by Ryan Keberle, lyrics by Mantsa Miro

5. It’s All About Counterpoint (Learned from Sufjan Stevens and Pedro Giraudo)

This can mean many different things since counterpoint exists in at least three different general forms: melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic. This lesson really made an impact on me, so much so that I formed a band called Catharsis to focus almost exclusively on counterpoint, or on the interaction between individual musicians all playing single-note instruments. While melodic counterpoint is the type most familiar to musicians (thanks to years of academic coursework!), I find that rhythmic counterpoint is equally important when it comes to composing or arranging in a jazz context. The beauty of counterpoint is that it inherently creates a sense of layered complexity which allows the composer to streamline each single idea thus making for music that is more natural and fun to play (see Lesson #1 above). In fact, with counterpoint, sometimes the simplest of ideas can provide enough interest.

Here’s a great example of the power of counterpoint even when using simple musical ideas over a simple chord progression.

“All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” – Sufjan Stevens

And, here’s another great example of a more traditional Bachian contrapuntal approach in a Latin jazz setting from the brilliant musical mind of Pedro Giraudo.

“Contrapuntren”

6. Create Your Own Language (Learned from Gil Evans)

I think it goes without saying that every definitive composer AND performer, from all genres, possesses a unique voice. This is something for all aspiring composers and performers to be aware of, but it’s also something that can present a clear and present danger when one consciously tries to force the issue, typically leading to unnatural or dishonest music. I hear quite a bit of this nowadays with young musicians thinking they’ve created a unique sound by combining different influences, genres, instruments, etc… I think Mark Twain said it best: “There’s no such thing as a new idea.” But more importantly, quick fixes are rarely, if ever, meaningful and enduring. The most beautiful and astonishingly unique voices in jazz are those who find their language by drawing from the tradition without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel. In my opinion, there is absolutely no arranger with a more definitive voice than that of Gil Evans and yet there is very little he did that hadn’t been done before! Nevertheless, the way in which he takes the tradition and puts his own beautiful magical spin on it all still leaves me breathless. The level of detail; melodic, harmonic, AND rhythmic sophistication; and sheer musical beauty sets Gil’s arrangements apart from all others I’ve played. And as you might expect, the capacity for this music to inspire and impart wisdom seems almost infinite and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. After playing his music a great deal over the past 10 years, it seems to me that it is, in fact, those details that give Gil’s music so much color, so much beauty, integrity, and in the end, such a unique personality.

7. Focus on making your MUSIC good before arranging and orchestrating (from Miguel Zenon)

No matter how great your arranging and orchestration chops, the MUSIC has to stand on its own in order for the final product to delight and satisfy. This might sound obvious when you hear it but it’s such an easy thing to overlook when one begins with the details rather than with the big picture. Before jumping into things like orchestration, instrumentation, mutes, and countermelodies, be sure to remember to focus on how the music makes YOU feel. As the composer, you should feel a deep emotional connection to the music you’ve written. I learned this first-hand when the musical genius,  Miguel Zenon, created a big band a few years ago. Miguel took music that he had composed for his quartet and then arranged those same tunes for big band. Starting with music that he had already perfected –  both on paper and for performance –  allowed for an easy adaptation to big band. He didn’t have to change much of anything when it came to arranging, and simply reorchestrated the music in efficient and smart ways. You can hear one of these songs, Same Flight, first in its original quartet form followed by his big band orchestration below.

Miguel Zenon Quartet, “Same Flight”

Miguel Zenon ‘Identities’ Big Band

8. All Good Music Tells a Story (Learned from Maria Schneider and so many others)

Music can be as simple as a brief moment of tension and release or as complex as a 20-minute Stravinsky masterpiece, but all good music does the same thing that a good poem, novel, movie, dance performance, play, or visual art piece does: It engages the audience in dramatic ways on an emotional level. When you think about common themes between genres or between artistic disciplines you start to notice similar techniques in how quality (versus non-quality) art tells its story. These include memorable beginnings and endings, subtle yet complex characters, thorough yet not over-indulgent character development, moments of surprise, moments of tension and moments of stability. This list could go on and on and I encourage those young aspiring composers and arrangers to focus on learning from other artistic disciplines, including dance, photography, written word, etc.

To exemplify both Lessons #7 and #8, I’ll finish with a music video that my band, Catharsis, recently released. This is our cover of the Bob Dylan protest song, The Times They Are A-Changin. The song has stood the test of time, primarily on it’s lyrical merit, but the melody is infectious and the harmony is simple yet poignant. It is this good music that allowed me, as the arranger, and Catharsis, as the performer, to get creative in our interpretation. It also tells a story not just on a lyrical level but also throughout the development of our arrangement, which mirrors the story that the video director, Claudia Bitran, tells in the moving image.

On a final note, please remember to support recorded and live music in any and all ways you can. There are live music venues, jazz clubs, and performing arts centers around the country, and world, which need support! Not everyone studying jazz in school is going to become a professional musician, and that’s even better because music education is beneficial no matter your path (a topic for another blog post), and creates educated ears and supportive audiences who can decipher between good and great art.   And we need that support now more than ever. Streaming music is not a sustainable model for musicians, and by subscribing to Spotify or Apple Music (and YouTube is even worse) you are hastening the end of musicians’ ability to earn a living by creating music. I hesitated to even offer the above examples on YouTube, given that much of this music is available for purchase in recorded format – so after you get a free taste, go out and buy it! Musicians, artists, and creative individuals play a critical role in fighting the ignorance and greed being spewed from many of our government leaders, most especially from the current administration. The times really are a-changin and we need to do all we can to ensure they change for the better.

“The Times They Are A-Changin” – music by Bob Dylan, arranged by Ryan Keberle

About the Author:

Few musicians have managed to navigate the richly varied avenues of New York City’s abundant music scene with the same passion and adaptability as trombonist and composer Ryan Keberle. Since his arrival in 1999, Keberle’s diverse talents have earned him a place alongside a staggering array of legends, superstars, and up-and-coming innovators.

Leading his pianoless quartet Catharsis or arranging for the little big band setting of his Double Quartet, Keberle draws upon lessons learned playing alongside masters of a multitude of forms, from jazz legends to indie rock ground-breakers, R&B superstars to classical virtuosos. He has toured with the acclaimed indie rock songwriter Sufjan Stevens and with the ground-breaking big bands of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue; he has accompanied soul hitmakers Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake as well as jazz legends Rufus Reid and Wynton Marsalis; he’s been heard on movie soundtracks for filmmakers like Woody Allen and in the pit for the Tony-winning Broadway musical “In the Heights.” Keberle’s own music integrates those wide-ranging experiences into a highly personal jazz language that pays heed to tradition while searching out fresh and original pathways. Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Keberle was surrounded by music from an early age.

Both of his parents were music educators, his father a jazz trumpeter and professor at Spokane’s Whitworth University, his mother a piano teacher and longtime church music director. Keberle started out by studying classical violin and piano before adopting the trombone as his primary instrument; classical music remains one of the many components of his arsenal, as he continues to perform with brass chamber ensembles. He also followed in his mother’s footsteps, serving as music director at a Manhattan Catholic church for several years.

Keberle moved east to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where he came under the tutelage of renowned trombonist Steve Turre, as well as composers Mike Abene and Manny Album. He was the sole member of his graduating class chosen to receive the William H. Borden Aware for musical excellence in jazz. In May 2003 Keberle became a member of Jazz at Juilliard’s first graduating class, having studied with Wycliffe Gordon and David Berger, whose big band he has worked with over the ensuing years.

In 2007 Keberle released the self-titled debut of his Double Quartet, a malleable, brass-heavy octet that showcased his deft composing and arranging skills, The band’s second disc, Heavy Dreaming, was released in 2010 and garnered rave reviews and slots on year-end lists from magazines like JazzTimes and Stereophile.

Early 2012 marked the debut of Keberle’s latest group, the pianoless quartet Catharsis, comprising some of the music’s most compelling young voices: Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Eric Daub (drums). Keberle’s writing for the band reveals his more melodic and emotional side on pieces driven by groove, the blues, and Latin jazz, with which all four members have extensive experience. Keberle has worked with the Pedro Giraudo jazz Orchestra and with Brazilian superstar Ivan Lins, and was named Latin jazz trombonist of the year by the Latin Jazz Corner website in 2008 and 2009.

Both his own compositions and his arrangements of works by other composers evidence Keberle’s expansive tastes, which encompass Duke Ellington, The Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, and Ravel, among countless others. His work in the indie rock world, including a world tour with Stevens, has provided the newest fork in what has been an unpredictable career. It has also afforded him the chance to return to the piano, as he has with the singer/songwriter Nedelle Torrisi of the band Cryptacize. But he has also performed with the Saturday Night Live House band and with “Family Guy’ creator Seth MacFarlane. His music has taken him to venues across the globe, throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.

The sum of these eclectic travels is the distinctive, original voice of Ryan Keberle, Whether performing in any one of these vastly different contexts or leading his own band, Keberle continues to evolve into one of the most intriguing and vital musicians of his generation.

Artist Blog

Adam Benjamin: Some Thoughts on Listening

Hello again! Since I wrote one of the first blog posts for ISJAC about a year ago, all sorts of people that are way smarter and more experienced than I am have told you all the real stuff about life and chords and concerti and stuff. So I’m going to steer clear of those areas so as to not embarrass myself. Let’s talk about Listening.

So, there’s this tendency that has is present throughout approximately 100% of human history. This tendency is that as Young people become Middle-Aged people, they tell the new Young people that they’re doing things wrong. This helps Middle-Aged people feel like they are Smart and helps them feel better about not being Young anymore. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong, but most of the time it’s worth considering what they are saying. Young people, use your own set of values and ethics to determine if they are right or wrong. If they’re wrong, be nice about it, they have enough to worry about already. Someday you, too, will be Middle-Aged person! So be kind.

This tendency is exaggerated in times of great change, like now. So we shouldn’t be surprised that, on the topic of Listening to Music, there is much Kvetching on the part of Middle-Aged people regarding the habits of Young people. I, myself, have Kvetched about this! But, I am one of those Middle-Aged people that still likes to imagine that somehow deep inside I am still Young, so I shall try to mitigate this tendency, and not get too preachy. Here is my attempt at an honest and impartial Listening Guide.

1) Do It

If you are not listening to music at all, that is bad. How much listening to music you should do is up to you. Everyone is different. I can’t listen as much as most people because when I listen to music I am emotionally, cognitively and spiritually overwhelmed approximately 100% of the time. It’s just how I am wired. But I still need to engage, even when it hurts.

2) Listen to Not Music

2a) Have you heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea Of North”? There’s a part where he makes connections between Bach counterpoint and the multiple simultaneous conversations occurring in a diner. That blew my mind when I was 10, and I still love the idea. Right now I’m in a coffeeshop beside a river and there are people talking, and the whooshing and grinding of coffee machines, and footfalls, and keyboards clicking, and on the stereo, “Summertime” is being played quietly on a soprano sax (well actually, being played loudly but turned far down in the mix) over some generic world percussion sounds. Most of the individual elements are pretty awful actually, but the way all the different sounds in the room blend together is somehow pleasant. Listen to this! 

2b) Think about the physical space you are in, the materials it’s constructed from, and how it changes the sound. Maybe there was an architect or acoustician who even did it on purpose! Really listen, actively listen. I find it useful to imagine a visual meter of the kind you see on mixing boards (back when those were a thing). Frequency is on the X-axis and Amplitude on the Y-axis. What frequencies are present, and missing, in your room / world right now? Which are loudest? How is it changing? If you really want to trip out, add a Z-axis for time and see if you can visualize the patterns (rhythms) in 3 dimensions. Whee!

2c) Also, listen to birds.

3) Feel It

Lost in many discussions about how we, as musicians and composers, should listen to music, is Feeling it. This makes sense because we have to Study music as well as Feel it. We have to take our beautiful lover and Dissect him on a clean and sterile surface, under a bright light. Yuck! But, not Yuck, because we find amazing things in there, and we learn so much, and we can put him back together afterwards. But all this Learning is useless if we become unable to Feel music. So in addition to all the Dissecting we must also be Immersing and Loving and Living. At some points in your life, this is so easy for you, that you don’t even realize it’s a thing. At other points, it must be gently or forcefully rekindled. How to get there is up to you. Listening to something you don’t Understand is a good method. Maybe listening to the things you loved when you were 16. Maybe listening on headphones on top of a mountain.  Maybe you need to be totally alone for like 3 days. Be careful, but do what it takes. If you’re not Feeling, things get out of whack.

4) Don’t Mistake the Information for the Music

This is related to #3. As trained musicians, we can hear what Notes are being played and what Time Signature a song is in and whether the bass player has bad intonation in thumb position. This is fine but it is not Music. Think of everything that has been written about Coltrane, how much that music has been studied. Do we really know its secrets? To be clear, studying music is crucial for performers and composers, and musicology is a beautiful thing. But don’t forget that we are only studying the structural attributes of a force that we deeply, fundamentally, do not understand. This is not a science. Don’t forget this. Our brains are so well-trained to decipher all the different levels of Information, that sometimes we must turn our attention away from the Information, and towards the Music.

5) Listening is Consumption

Remember that if you consume a recording without remunerating the creator(s) of the recording, you are saying that either (1) you will pay them later, (2) someone else will pay them, (3) they have enough money to keep making recordings, or (4) you don’t care if they can keep making recordings. I’m not going to lie — I sometimes use YouTube, and Spotify, and Apple Music, and Tidal, even if I know it’s bad for artists. I think the accessibility of music on the Internet is too wonderful to resist, and is an incredible tool, especially for students and others who simply cannot afford to remunerate the creators. But please, keep in mind that counting on people creating great content for you to consume without you paying them is a bad idea. Maybe we will move towards a patronage system, or greater institutional support, or better deals with the corporate gatekeepers, but none of that is in place now. Please don’t create a future in which only rich kids can make albums.

6) I Am A Middle-Aged Person

6a) From approximately 1951 to approximately 2006, the standard format of a piece of recorded musical art was an “LP”, which usually lasts somewhere between 35 and 72 minutes and is usually divided into somewhere between 4 and 20 parts, or “songs”. There is nothing objective about this format, and it was the direct result of the technological innovations and constraints of its time. But it was the format in which these pieces of recorded musical art were conceived, like chapters of a book, photographs in an exhibition, or movements of a symphony. Playlists are great and singles are great and shuffle is great and remixes are great and outtakes are great. But, please, spend at least some of your listening time experiencing these works in the format in which their creators conceived of them.

6b) Maybe you think you can’t tell the difference between 256k mp3s and 512k MP3s and AIFFs and WAVs and CDs and OGGs and FLACs, but you can! You totally can. Please consult #4. Just because no Information is missing, or the missing Information is deemed to be insignificant by Technology Corporation, does not mean that you don’t Feel the difference. Maybe the part of “A Case of You” that makes you cry is located at 28.5khz and when that gets flattened you don’t cry the same way. Every device sounds different, every format sounds different. Also, the way we experience music depends on our relationship with the device that plays it for us. Do you really want the thing that sends you annoying work emails and depressing eHarmony results also being your source of spiritual sustenance?

6c) Liner notes are so important. They made every album an interdisciplinary work. Don’t trade that in for an indistinct thumbnail image.

6d) Hey! You’re doing too much stuff all the time, too much stuff at once. You’re training your brain to not be at peace, to not be able to focus on something and fully engage it. Think about how often we “check” something — check the news, check our email, check our texts. You don’t need to “check” stuff so much, everything is going to be fine. The part of your brain that was designed to tell you if a bear is going to eat you is being hijacked by Technology Corporation and retrained to obsessively check your Instagram comments. Dude — Technology Corporation is making Hell Of Money! And now you can’t concentrate long enough to read a book. Use your music-listening time as an opportunity to focus 100% on one thing.

7) Context

I’ve noticed that for every little teensy bit I learn about Art, and Film, and Art Theory, and Philosophy, and Literary Theory, and History, and Linguistics, and Mathematics, my ability to understand, enjoy, and access various musics expands tenfold. Don’t shut out the rest of the world, it makes music richer and funner and more beautiful.

8) I Could Go On

There’s so much more to say. I’ve omitted basically everything. I was gonna talk about Paul Motian and Aphex Twin and trees. But I have to walk my dog, and a storm is rolling in. Just remember, the whole point of Art is that is makes people Feel things. That’s approximately 50% job of creator and 50% job of listener. So! Put all the time and love and focus and joy that you put into making music into listening to it, and we should be good. And, stop checking your phone — the bear is not going to eat you.

About the Author:

Adam Benjamin
Adam Benjamin is a Grammy-nominated and critically acclaimed pianist, keyboardist, composer and educator. He is a founding member of the band Kneebody and is the director of the Program for Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Nevada, Reno. Recognized as a “Rising Star in Jazz” in Downbeat magazine’s critic’s and reader’s polls for seven years running, his unmistakable sound crosses stylistic boundaries and challenges traditional notions of jazz. Adam maintains a humble and humorous approach that connects him with his audiences worldwide.

You can stay up to date with Kneebody at kneebody.com.

Artist Blog

Fred Hersch: A Composition Exercise to Try Today

In 2001, during my second composition residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH, I was completely stuck with my writing.  I had come to the Colony to work on what I had hoped would be a chamber-opera-type-thing – only to find right before I left that I would not be able to procure the rights to the novel I wanted to adapt. I felt rudderless, taking frequent naps and spending an inordinate amount of time reading novels by the resident fiction writers.

It was also extremely cold – February in New Hampshire is no joke – so I was in my cottage going a bit stir-crazy. Then I got an idea by looking at a baseball cap that I had with me in my studio.  I cut a piece of paper into 12 one-inch squares – each square representing a note of the chromatic scale.  I put the squares into the baseball cap, shook them up, and got a “pitch”.  Then I set a timer I happened to have with me to 45 minutes – this I determined as ideal since it is the length of a typical psychotherapy session.  For example, if the “pitch” was Bb it meant either: Bb major; Bb minor; or starting on the note Bb.  So I had a starting place and turned on the timer.  The challenge was to write a tune (in scribble as no one but me had to read it) and complete it within the 45-minute interval.  So I was composing as close as possible to the speed of improvising – and the deadline meant that I didn’t have forever to wait around for divine inspiration to descend from the heavens.  I just used whatever came first and worked it out from there.

This process over the years has led me to compose many of my best and most durable compositions.  Jazz compositions these days – with computer notation programs and the fluency of younger jazz players in odd time signatures and complex structures – often have too many elements in them. They don’t leave room for the player to interpret them or add their personality and point of view to the theme or the harmonic structure – and many of them are simply not memorable. I was 24 years old and a very experienced jazz pianist who knew hundreds of tunes before I dared to write one of my own.  I figured “what could I write that would be better than Wayne Shorter or Billy Strayhorn or Kenny Wheeler or Ornette or Monk?” – so why bother?  Then I realized that all of these tunes I loved had only a few simple elements – a great progression, a durable melody and a particular rhythm or vibe.  So I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel after all – just write a short-form tune that is memorable and distinctive. (Richard Rodgers did extremely well with just the notes of the diatonic major scale). And, most importantly, simple isn’t easy. Everything that Monk wrote fits on about 100 pages, but each tune has its own beautiful logic and specific world and they are fun and challenging musical problems to solve over and over.

I have a beloved and banged-up kitchen timer that is always by my piano.  When I am stuck, I write a “kitchen timer tune”. Best case, I come out with something I really like – and can tweak later. Worst case, I only wasted 45 minutes. My “batting average” has gotten pretty good over the years when I set my mind to it. Maybe you will give this a try?


About the Author:

Fred Hersch is a 10-time Grammy nominee as jazz pianist and composer; he was the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition and was named a 2016 Doris Duke Artist and 2016 Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. His memoir Good Things Happen Slowly will be published by Crown Books/Random House in September 2017. www.fredhersch.com

Artist Blog

Rick Lawn: Lessons I’ve Learned

I guess when you begin to see your runway getting a little shorter you think more about the things you’ve learned over many years of teaching and writing. These moments of reflection also prompt you to want to share this information with others and begin to document your findings, conclusions, and lessons learned. I was happy to accept the invitation to contribute to the ISJAC blog and have this opportunity to share just a few of these lessons I’ve learned. Notice that none of these observations and suggestions has much to do with the mechanics of writing e.g. chord voicings, form, orchestration, and so forth, but have more to do with my view of writing from 1000 feet.

Lesson I: Don’t be too eager to compose original music.

Reflecting back many years to my undergraduate years, I had great teachers. For example I had Joseph Schwantner for beginning orchestration class before he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and Rayburn Wright for jazz arranging courses and related jazz curriculum. Who could have asked for anything better? They were very open to whatever projects I chose to do, even though they sometimes fell outside the intended guidelines of the assignment. I often preferred to write original music rather than arrangements, though I did write several arrangements as I recall. Years later as a teacher myself I offered the same latitude to my students. But it was many, many years later that I realized how allowing this kind of freedom might have actually been a disservice to my development. For some reason much later in my career I began writing arrangements, carefully analyzing them first, deconstructing them, re-harmonizing, reconsidering style, tempo, key, meter and so forth. In creating a number of arrangements of both jazz classics for my 10-piece band Power of Ten such as “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” and “Bass Face” along with remakes of pop tunes I grew up with, I found that my writing was suddenly moving in new directions. I was learning more from myself and by myself. Perhaps this growth and further maturity in my writing was going to come about anyway as I grew older, wiser and more experienced. But I have to believe that my growth was in part due to working with other composer’s materials and discovering how I could make it my own. As a result, I found that my own compositional efforts were advancing. The lesson here is that arranging with an eye (and ear) towards transforming someone else’s material is a very valuable process in the path towards developing as a well-rounded writer. I learned, for example, that typically the meter dictates the rhythm of the melody.  On the other hand, reversing this relationship by letting the rhythm of the melody dictate the meter, can lead to some interesting outcomes.  Working on assignment from Danny Behr at Walrus Music I had a great deal of fun transforming tired old public domain pieces like “Yellow Rose of Texas” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I honestly feel that while I continue to compose original music, some of my best work recently has been in the form of arrangements.

Lesson II: Don’t rely too much on the computer to do your creative work.

Computer notation and sequencing software has revolutionized the way we can work. These applications have in some ways provided a new resource in our toolbox, removing some of the guesswork and tedious aspects of writing. But don’t let this tool become a monkey wrench that works against creativity. I learned this lesson the hard way.

I have always been a technology geek so embracing the technology was fun and enticing, especially when the young student writers came to their lessons with their scores on disk. In some ways they made me feel behind the times as I was not using computer sequencing and notation software to the full extent that they were. I decided I needed to catch up and started a new original score, working almost solely at the computer and MIDI keyboard. I brought the new score for reading by the UT Jazz Orchestra and it was the worst piece of music I had ever written. After spending some time with it in rehearsal I asked the band to pass it in and I threw it out. I had never done that before, always keeping things that I had written for possible use at some later date. After doing some soul searching I began to conduct an informal survey of much younger writers who I admired, for example Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider. I was interested in learning about their creative processes, and particularly how they used computers. Surprise, Surprise…..they didn’t! They still relied to a great extent on using pencil and paper, the piano, and their own instruments. They only introduced computers towards the end of the process or as a means to perhaps check something they had written and could not easily play at a keyboard. This age old approach to creativity hasn’t changed nor has it been improved.

There is something much more linear about having pages of manuscript in front of you, all visible at once that provides a better sense of flow, pacing, musical evolution, and the dramatic aspects of your score. I found that the computer didn’t provide the same essential insight during the initial creative process, and I had let the computer actually replace my own creative muse instead of helping it in the tedious, repetitive aspects of writing.

The computerized musicians inside that box never have to take a breath, never falter or tire, never complain about playing an impossible passage or something at the extreme ends of their ranges. Computers remove the essential need to create space in a score because they can play anything and do anything you ask them to do, but of course this is entirely artificial. I’ll pursue this a bit more in Lesson III that follows.

Computers also tend to diminish the composer/arranger’s need to internalize the sound, range, timbre, special characteristics and technical capabilities of the instruments. Without a personal awareness of these attributes arrangers can find it difficult to develop their own sound and may even create music that tires the listener. I believe it orchestration that defines a significant aspect of an arranger’s identity.

I have found that students can be mislead by computer software which tends to bypass the need to internalize things like instrument ranges, timbre in certain ranges, transpositions, the sound of mutes, instrumental combinations, saxophone sub-tone, and how difficult it might be for a real instrumentalist to execute a particular passage. I decided to help them by creating a software tool that provides a quick easy reference for nearly all the instruments that are typically found in an extended jazz ensemble. I call it The Orchestrators TooKit and it offers aural feedback on nearly every pitch possible by these instruments and it features REAL instruments not samples. It also provides useful information on transpositions, idiosyncrasies, special effects including the sounds of brass mutes, possible instrumental combinations, and so forth.  It is Mac and PC compatible and I’m offering it here exclusively at no charge. Click or copy the link below and paste it into your browser.

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/79etjk2bhr9kaca/AAA1XwSGFsxGL_jVry3ilRXya?dl=0

Download the compressed .zip file of your choice (Windows, Mac or Linux) which will keep the download file size down. Extract the program from the .zip file once you’ve downloaded it to your computer. All I ask in return is to let me know if you find it useful to you or your students and how it might be improved.

Of course the controlled recording studio circumstances make the samples somewhat unreal by comparison to more acoustic, live performance situations, but you still might find it to be a useful tool as some of my students at UT did.

Lesson III: Evaluate your work through the ears of the listener.

As I suggested previously, it is all too easy to over write. I think it was Sammy Nestico that suggested our best friend is the eraser.  While cutting and pasting is easy at the computer, be careful investing too much creative time sitting in front of one. I found that some of my students fell into this trap. I remember an occasion sitting at the piano with one of my graduate students who, some time later, won the Brussels Jazz Orchestra composition contest. We were reviewing a print out of a score he was working on. At one point I asked him if he had any idea how much time had elapsed during a section of the score. He looked at me puzzled and I could tell he had no idea. I then explained the simple formula to compute how much time elapses from one point to the next.  Understanding your music at this basic level helps to determine if you’ve dwelled too long on a section using the same orchestration, or at the same dynamic level, or before something significantly new is introduced. I then explained to him that by multiplying the number of measures times the number of beats per measure and dividing that total by the metronome marking, he could determine how much time had elapsed. For example, 80 bars of ¾ meter times 3 beats per measure equals 240 beats divided by the metronome marking of 100 equals 2.4 minutes or 2 minutes 24 seconds (.4 x 60 = 24). In that way it is easier to begin to disconnect as writer from the score and begin to get a better impression of what the listener hears, helping to avoid ear fatigue or boredom. This is a simple guideline but one that is very easy to overlook.

I found in analyzing some of my favorite ballads, for example, that a good arrangement often featured significant changes every four measures. In that short time something usually changed  orchestrationally, or perhaps in others ways. Four measures isn’t a long time, but it is when the tempo is only 60mm!

Lesson IV: Learn to recognize the appealing “hook” in your music and make the most of it.

While some of you might find it demeaning to use the pop music term “hook,” I find it a useful term to describe that kernel in a score that helps listeners to remember a piece, follow the composition, and want to hear it again. It’s important to remember that unlike other art forms, music is not visual and is quite ephemeral. The hooks become tangible objects that provide listeners with something concrete and reoccurring that guide them through a piece. The hook usually appears multiple times in the score, possibly reoccurring each time with a slightly different variation. If we aren’t careful during the creative process we can easily not see (or hear) a great hook that can be influential as we develop the score. The hook can actually be the initial creation that then spawns the rest of the composition. Hooks can appear in the form of a harmonic progression, a melodic line, and particular rhythmic figure that might have slightly different melodies or harmonizations each time it reappears. Hooks provide a form of gravitational pull or grounding for the listener. They are a target or a goal that helps to provide glue to all of the other aspects of your composition. As small as these kernels might be, they often provide the musical DNA that one associates with a particular writer. We can often successfully guess on first hearing who might have written an unidentified piece based on the hooks we hear.  They can range from relatively simple figures to more complex. Hooks can also provide valuable material when we search for the elusive way to end a piece, or begin it. Many of my favorite contemporary jazz composers use this device to great affect, and it is an ingredient I frequently make use of in my own writing.

You can hear a few examples of how I’ve used hooks in my music on YouTube:


Click here to listen to these tracks on YouTube

Particularly listen to “Hopscotch” for the 4-note melodic/rhythmic gesture that serves as the basis of the A section of this chart. You’ll also hear a hook appear in different ways and for different purposes in “Quiet Please!.” It first can be heard from 1:56-2:18 and it reappears throughout the chart in various ways. Multiple hooks can be heard in “Retrospect.” The first occurs at 00:40-00:42 as a 4 –note phrase that either ascends or descends and is used many times and in different ways throughout the chart. The second hook immediately follows it from 00:54-1:17, occurring several times throughout the chart. Lastly, I used a similar reoccurring device with variations in “Never Too Late.” The first occurrence is heard from 1:03 to 1:13.  I guess I should thank whoever illegally uploaded these tracks to YouTube without my permission as it’s made sharing these examples easy!

I hope these few lessons I’ve learned, having more to do with the process and art of writing than the mechanics, will make sense to you and offer something to consider passing on, or perhaps benefit your own work. The older I get the more I find I have to learn!

 


About the Author:

Richard (Rick) Lawn

Richard (Rick) Lawn has received several significant composition grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and, as a member of the Nova Saxophone Quartet, has recorded on the Musical Heritage Society, Crystal and Equilibrium labels. The Sea Breeze record label issued “Unknown Soldiers,” a CD recorded by the Third Coast Jazz Orchestra that features his compositions and arrangements including his arrangement of “Donna Lee” recorded by Bobby Sanabria’s New York Latin big band on his 2001 Grammy nominated CD. In fall 2011 his Philadelphia based little big band Power of Ten10 released Earth Tones that includes his original compositions and arrangements. The CD received coast-to-coast radio play and favorable reviews.

Kendor Music, CL Barnhouse, Walrus Music, Concept Music, Alfred Music, eJazzlines, Warwick Music, Dorn, LawnWorks Publications and UNC Press among others publish his music. Rick’s books entitled The Jazz Ensemble Directors Manual (in its 4th edition), Jazz Theory and Practice in its 2nd edition (that includes interactive ear training software) and Experiencing Jazz now in its 2nd edition have become staples among jazz educators and students.

Rick’s performing experiences outside his own ensembles include extended engagements with Lionel Hampton, Chuck Mangione, the Rochester Philharmonic, and the Austin Symphony others. He has performed in back-up orchestras for Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Natalie Cole, Marian McPartland, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Dianne Schuur, Rosemary Clooney, Aretha Franklin and a host of others.

Richard Lawn is the former Dean of the College of Performing Arts at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is now Professor Emeritus and part-time faculty member teaching jazz history online. He also teaches online for VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Recetly Rick has become involved with the International Society of Arrangers and Composers. Formerly, he was affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin serving as Founding Director of Jazz Studies, Chair of the Department of Music, and Associate Dean for academic affairs. Visit his Web site at: http://www.RickLawn.com.