Artist Blog

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

Mike Holober: The Shaping of “Hiding Out”

When I was invited to prepare a post for this blog, I started sketching out ideas; the result was several pages of random notes that could have filled a book if each was fully developed.  It became clear I needed to focus, so I decided to zero in on what has been occupying my thoughts most recently – my new CD release Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra:  Hiding Out.  Beyond the (admittedly) self-serving goal of promoting the record, this will provide a convenient framework for discussing some of the ideas that have shaped my approach to jazz orchestra writing over the years.

I first got hooked on writing for jazz orchestra in the 1980s, when I was teaching at Binghamton University, which had a very good big band.  The hook was further set at the Eastman Arrangers Festival during the summer of 1986, where I spent several priceless weeks with Manny Albam and Ray Wright (I remain friends with many of the people I met at the workshop that summer).  When I moved to New York City in the early 90’s I enrolled in the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop (with Manny Albam, Jim McNeely, and Roger Kellaway at the helm), and I realized that writing was going to be a big part of my musical life (though I had not anticipated that it would take over completely at times!).  I decided that I should form my own big band, and The Gotham Jazz Orchestra was born.  We had a good run:  we released our first CD in 2004 (Thought Trains) and a second in 2009 (Quake).  However, sustaining a 17-piece jazz orchestra takes a lot of focus, and other opportunities started to take precedence.

In 2007, I was invited to serve as artistic director of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, a position I held until 2013.  This was an exciting opportunity, and a valuable learning experience.  Under my tenure, we commissioned over 140 new arrangements for jazz orchestra (almost 50 of them mine), which we performed to sell-out crowds at our home theater in Irvington New York.  We also released a critically acclaimed recording titled Maiden Voyage Suite, featuring newly commissioned arrangements of the tunes from Herbie Hancock’s seminal recording, formatted as a seamless set-length work.  It remains one of my favorite projects with WJO.

Despite the organization’s success, WJO came to an end when it faced staffing difficulties (as not-for-profit organizations often do), but by this time I had already begun working with the German radio big bands (hr-Bigband in Frankfurt, and WDR Big Band in Cologne), which kept my pencil busy for many years.  I had also started working as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Jim McNeely, which gave me an opportunity to read through hundreds of charts by some very gifted writers, which was as much a learning experience for me as it was for them.

In his recent post, Jim McNeely wrote that the best way to learn big band writing is to write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – and I really got a chance to practice this method during this period! I like to tell my own students when they are about to dive into their first jazz orchestra piece that the learning curve is steep – they should really write two, because they will learn so much from the first one.  I remember that my first chart (written in a euphoric-rush-of-inexperienced-adolescent-writer-frenzy) ended up in the circular file; the second one, an arrangement of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” actually worked.  Write, listen, evaluate, and repeat – wise advice indeed.

The sheer volume of commissions I was working on during this period (often full-length concerts) forced me to hone my craft, while the challenge of working with such a diverse range of musical personalities and temperaments also taught me a great deal about the role of the arranger and conductor as artistic collaborator, diplomat, and psychologist, all rolled into one!

When arranging someone else’s music, it is necessary to maintain a balance between the voice of the composer, the arranger, and the performing artist.  But I also believe that for an arrangement to be really good, it should sound as if it was originally written for that exact instrumentation – and sometimes this means that the original composition must “grow” some new music (intro, interlude, tag anyone?).  Of course, this depends on the original material; when writing for Miguel Zenon, for example, some of his quartet lead sheets were very detailed in form (already approaching 300 measures), making me less inclined to add new music.  But for others (such as Al Foster, or Eli Degibri), their shorter forms invited a deeper collaboration, allowing the arranger’s voice to assert itself in a way that complimented the original intent, enhancing the message of the tune.  When an arrangement is completed, I strive to hear from the composer: “I love what you did with my music.”

Hiding Out
In spite of my busy schedule as an arranger, I did manage to continue working on my own compositions — and this is the work that is the focus of my new CD Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra:  Hiding Out (ZOHO, 2019).  The two featured works, Hiding Out and Flow, are in extended form, with multiple movements.  Perhaps my classical background was in my thoughts, or maybe I was just trying to get away from the idea of stand-alone medium length works — but I found myself thinking in large form multi-movement works, with no agenda about length, radio air-play, or jazz club suitability versus concert setting.

I was also very fortunate to have what I refer to as a “perfect storm” of compositional opportunity to write these pieces.  This means a commission for an excellent ensemble, an artist colony residency where I could focus on the creation of the work, and a suitable premiere setting. 

Hiding Out was commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation), and was first performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It was composed during a residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming (my cabin was called “Jesse’s Hide Out”), and was inspired by the beauty of its setting.  Flow was commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (with funding from a NYSCA Grant), and was premiered by WJO in an Americana-themed concert at Irvington Town Hall.  It was composed at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I stayed in the cabin that Aaron Copland worked on Appalachian Spring, and Leonard Bernstein worked on his Mass.  The ghosts of these two great American composers no doubt influenced the resulting composition.

To demonstrate some of the ideas that have shaped my writing process, I have selected the opening passage of “Tear of the Clouds,” from the first movement of Flow, as an example.   I will focus my comments on two basic elements:  motivic development, and orchestration.  Igor Stravinsky said “Good composers borrow, great ones steal,” and I hope this analysis will give readers something worth stealing.

When I first started to compose I was familiar with the concept of motivic development, but I didn’t take it seriously enough.  Now I can’t get enough of it.  There are so many compositional devices that can be used to develop a motif (transposition, re-harmonization, augmentation, inversion, retrograde), that the possibilities are endless.  This not only provides a constant source of material, but also gives a composition structural logic.

Orchestration plays vital role in motivic development.  Ravel refers to orchestration as a device for revealing form (nowhere is this more obvious than in his Bolero).  The way a composer assigns notes to an instrument is integral to the development of the work.  I often think about orchestration as being like a painter’s palette – mixing colors, blending edges. This applies especially to a woodwind and mutes passage (as in the sample I analyze below):  As you add instruments and colors on the top of the harmony (the melody?), it doesn’t double in volume, but instead becomes slightly more colored and pronounced.  If there is a Bb (a 7th above middle C), and it is orchestrated for a unison of flute, cup-muted trumpet, and clarinet, it is easily balanced by single voices underneath; add guitar, and it becomes a little warmer; add flugelhorn and it smooths it out — or 1 harmon-muted trumpet to put a little buzz on it, or piano 8va to light it up or pop it out; or even add all of these at once – it’s barely getting louder – you are just using your palette to color the top and influence the expression of the music.

In my arranging classes, I often tell students to exercise their minds by making an “orchestration structures” list, designed to help them think about the range of their timbral palette.  Saxes unison with brass hits — that’s the idea!  Now make a quick list of 30 different combinations!  Keep in mind that only some of them should have everyone playing.  Would the voices be balanced if they all play the same dynamic — in other words is there a registration balance?  What is the natural or organic “power” of each voice in the range it is written?

Now let’s look at the excerpts!

 

 

Click to View PDF

 

#1 M 37 – M 44
This is the entire main theme.  Here, in its first presentation it is 8 bars.  The first two bars are so strongly suggestive of the theme that this fragment alone is all that is needed to be obvious about the source material.  Once this is “programmed” into the listener’s ear, even just a strong rhythm such as that of bar 38 is enough to suggest the main theme.  This is the essence of motivic development.

The piccolo is very evocative — of isolation, peace, youth, simplicity, innocence — and its unique sonic imprint in the low register is easily recognizable.  When it returns much later in the work, the timbral recognition gives clarity to a very long and formally sinuous movement.  The listener knows where they have ended up after being taken on a long journey.

The harmony here is in shifting minor modes – natural, harmonic, and melodic – with the 6th and 7th becoming variable.  The success of this shifting modality is perhaps related to the “classical” difference in the ascending and descending melodic minor.  M 37 is in B minor; view the F natural in the piano as a “blue” note with little harmonic meaning, especially since the root is not present.

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# 2 M 18 – M 29
Yes, the excerpts are out of order (I thought it best to show the main theme at M 37 first).  One of my favorite techniques is to take a theme and cut it up like a jigsaw puzzle, scatter the pieces over a score, and then assemble them.  These theme fragments can also provide material for general use anywhere else in the piece. This is a technique I commonly use to create intros for arrangements of other composers’ music (especially if the music is fairly modern) – a kind of “deconstruction” or “cubist” look at the subject.  An example of this is the arrangement I wrote for the hr-Bigband with Kurt Rosenwinkel playing his tune “Star of Jupiter,” in which I use fragments of the bridge to form an intro:

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# 3 M 51 – M 52
Here we have the first 2 bars of the theme — the rhythm is the same, but the melody is a slight variation.  The soli voicing is in clusters; the melodic palette is in 3 octaves (flute, trumpet in cup, with trumpet in bucket 8vb, and piano 8va).  The 8va piano makes it “pop,” and there is enough melodic weight to hear the melody clearly through the density of the cluster.

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# 4 M 57 – M 63
Here we have the first 6 bars of the theme, which is then interrupted by “new” material at M 63.  The line is in 4-part harmony, in large dissonant intervals, but generated from the same modality.  Notice how the instrumentation of this 4-part harmony crosses every section (a note of thanks to Duke Ellington for opening up these possibilities!).   The piccolo part could be viewed as a 5th harmony, but I see it as overtone reinforcement of the melody (a technique directly stolen from Ravel!).  The melodic palette is flute, and piano, and the trombones comp a little.

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# 5 M 63 – M 69
Here there is a drastic shift in modality to Gb harmonic major.  Note that in M 65 and M 68 the re-use of the motif immediately ties the new harmonic zone to the main theme.  The soloist makes its first entrance as well, laying the sonic/character groundwork for future formal development.

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# 6 M 69 – M 76
This time, alto and tenor play the main theme in unison octaves — a more “throaty” and “heroic” statement.  This is essentially two saxes in unison, with trombones comping.  Here I use one of my pet techniques:  instead of the trombones all hitting together, or bass trombone offset against 3 tenor trombones, they do a modified or “linear pyramid,” making the attack harp-like, or like finger-style guitar.  Notice that in these “linear pyramids” players rarely attack alone, and all entrances are rhythmically easy.  You can see other uses of this technique at M 81 – M 86, and at M 102.

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# 7 M 77 – M 81
In this section, the winds and mutes are gone, replaced by saxes and open brass.  The power increases, as the orchestration evolves to the saxes and trumpets in soli with the trombones comping. The range here (as everywhere) is integral to the dramatic evolution of the piece.

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# 8 M 102 – M 109
Here we have soprano and alto in 3rds (more consonant and tonal), with trombones comping.  A huge shift in mood happens, as functional chord changes add to the momentum.  The music is no longer modal at this point.

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# 9 M 112 – M 119
Tutti!  We made it!  Real rhythmic unison in M 113 and M 115 – power it up!

[Side note:  The common fear that writing full-ensemble soli is challenging and time consuming is a subject for an endless discussion unto itself.  However, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that from M 37 – M 151 there is only a total of 12 measures where everyone is playing:   M 77 – M 81 and M 112 – M 119.]

After this tutti, it is time to subtly release the tension of the big orchestration and let the solo emerge.  Often after a loud passage like this (or a send-off), I’ll reduce the orchestration gradually to let the next section develop organically, rather than have a sudden shift.  I think of this as “taping the seams” (as in putting up drywall); then spackle with some rhythmically smooth mid-register writing, and sand with a diminuendo!

Here at M 136 it is finally time to hand the compositional process over to Jason Rigby (the tenor soloist for whom “Tear of the Clouds” was written).  Bob Brookmeyer suggests only getting to the solo by composing your way there – developing your information so that the solo occurs as a natural evolution of the composition.  In this case it took me 4 and a half minutes to arrive at the solo – about a third of the way into the work.

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# 10 M 37 – M 151
For the context of how these nine fragments develop, here is the entire first section of the work in one continuous excerpt, starting from the first appearance of the main theme, and ending a little way into the tenor solo.

If you want to hear more excerpts from Hiding Out (or buy the CD) please visit:  https://www.mikeholober.com/hiding-out-cd-page

Happy listening and stealing!


About the Author:

Mike Holober served as Artistic Director/Conductor of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) from 2007-2013, and Associate Guest Conductor of the hr-Bigband (Hessischer Rundfunk – Frankfurt, Germany) from 2011-2015.  With WJO he has written and conducted for Joe Lovano, Kate McGarry, John Scofield, John Patitucci, Randy Brecker, and Paquito D’Rivera.   Projects with the hr-Bigband include writing and conducting for Kurt Rosenwinkel, Billy Cobham, Jane Monheit, Terje Rypdal, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Miguel Zenon, and a concert of the works of Frank Zappa.  With the WDR Big Band (WestDeutsche Rundfunk – Cologne, Germany) he has written and conducted projects for Avishai Cohen/Eli Degibri and for legendary drummer Al Foster.  He has also recently written a project for Eli Degibri with jazz orchestra and strings that was produced at the Israel National Opera House in Tel Aviv, as well as arrangements for WDR with Joshua Redman, a recent Stockholm Jazz Orchestra recording, and OJM (Portugal) with pianist Fred Hersch.

Mike has recently returned to the helm of his own stellar big band with the release of Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out (ZOHO, 2019).  This double CD features two extended form compositions:  Hiding Out, commissioned for The Gotham Jazz Orchestra by The Philadelphia Museum of Art (funded by the Pew Foundation) and Flow, commissioned by The Westchester Jazz Orchestra (funded by a NYSCA Individual Artist’s Grant).  The recording also includes an arrangement of Jobim’s “Caminhos Cruzados,” a WJO commission that was written as a feature for trumpet master Marvin Stamm.  Other featured artists on Hiding Out include Billy Drewes, Jason Rigby, Scott Wendholt, Adam Kolker, Jon Gordon, Steve Cardenas, and Jesse Lewis.

Mike was a 2017-18 recipient of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant for Don’t Let Go, which was premiered at Symphony Space (the Leonard Nimoy Thalia) in June 2018.  Structured as a song-cycle in the tradition of Robert Schumann, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughn-Williams, Don’t Let Go was written for  Mike’s octet Balancing Act, whose eponymous premiere recording was released in 2015 (Palmetto).  The recording features Mike’s original compositions and lyrics, with Kate McGarry, Dick Oatts, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, Mark Patterson, John Hebert, and Brian Blade.

In 2017 Mike was named the inaugural Stuart Z. Katz Professor in the Humanities and the Arts at The City College of New York for This Rock We’re On:  Imaginary Letters, an extended work in the form of an oratorio for jazz orchestra, voice, cello, and percussion.  The work celebrates explorers, conservationists, writers, and photographers whose lives have been inspired by the natural world.

In addition to his 6 records as a leader, Mike can be heard as a sideman on over 70 recordings.  He has performed with or had his works performed and recorded by numerous ensembles, including  The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Zagreb JazzOrkestar, The Gotham Wind Symphony (where he is Composer-In-Residence), UMO, RTV Big Band Slovenia, The Airmen of Note, The Army Blues, The Tim Ries Rolling Stones Project, John Patitucci, Jason Rigby, Marvin Stamm, The Prism, American, and NY Saxophone Quartets, and many others.

Mike is a Full Professor at The City College of New York, and is a five-time MacDowell Fellow, Ucross Foundation Fellow and Yaddo Guest.  He also teaches composing and arranging at The Manhattan School of Music.  From 2007 – 2015 he served as Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop, (founded by legendary jazz composers Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam), where he taught with Musical Director Jim McNeely.

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

Ellen Rowe: Composing and Arranging for Young Jazz Ensembles

Most of us spend our time studying the art of composition and arranging with the ultimate goal of writing for professional bands, either our own groups, top level university groups, military jazz ensembles and the like.  Writing for groups likes these allows us to write challenging music, replete with woodwind doubles, all kinds of mutes, odd meters, no seriously limiting range constraints or technical considerations and the possibility of highly complex changes to improvise over.  While these pieces can be published and sold off of our own websites or possibly through existing publishers, if they are willing to take on pro level material, there is also a world out there of elementary, junior high and high school jazz bands who also desperately need to be exposed to good literature. There are certainly many age-appropriate well-written pieces out there already, but I’m writing this in the hopes of encouraging more professional composers, especially younger ones, to think about taking on the challenge of writing unique and compelling music for developing players that may provide them inspiration to continue on in this music.

I have been fortunate to get opportunities to write for younger groups and can attest to the fact that it is extremely difficult to do well.  I can write a bad arrangement of a video game tune  with the best of them but to expose students to jazz standards or interesting original compositions that they will enjoy playing and that are written in an appropriate manner for them is a whole ‘nother ball game.  When I speak at education conferences on the subject of the selection of good primary or secondary school jazz ensemble material I cite these following considerations: 

  • Appropriate Ranges (see sheet below)
  • Well-written for technical aptitudes of players’ ages (avoidance of large leaps in brass, fast legato trombone passages, etc.)
  • Appropriate dynamic and phrase markings
  • Does each section of the band get interesting material to play?
  • Is the composer aware of idiosyncracies of individual instruments? (Held c#s on sax or trumpets apt to be out of tune, going from first position to seventh position on trombone quickly is very difficult, younger students needing shorter phrases so they don’t run out of air, etc.)
  • Are rhythm section parts notated well and age appropriate (voicings and bass lines written out but chord symbols included for educational purposes)
  • Do sections sound good unto themselves?
  • Is the piece charismatic and/or memorable? Is it well-structured with regards to form?
  • Are improvised sections well-thought out with information provided about chord/scale relationships or idiomatic rhythmic ideas?

While many of these categories also apply to professional level writing, the consequences of not adhering to these limitations for younger players will render the chart unplayable, not merely unsatisfying or disappointing.

So the trick then becomes to maintain as high a level of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication possible  while still keeping it playable. I firmly believe that you can still add alterations to your voicings or have an interesting progression; you just have to create individual lines for the players that are technically manageable, range-appropriate and that voice lead well.

One of the composers that I most admire for his ability to write interesting and fun music that never sounds “dumbed down” is the late, great Fred Sturm. I have used two of his pieces in presentations to show how the goals mentioned above can be achieved:“Song of The Rainforest” and   “Another Step Towards The Blues”.

I’m including the front page of the Rainforest score here as it includes background on the derivation of the piece as well as important information to help beginning students start improvising on the piece, with relevant scales and rhythmic ideas. The use of pentatonic scales here is brilliant as it is appropriate for the genre and gives the beginning improvisers less notes to contend with:

I am also including a score page that shows the instrumental writing as well as a concert reduction of the section – the parts are simple to play but when put together sound beautiful. Figures repeat so that the students can lock into the basic rhythmic patterns but he doesn’t shy away from having an occasional second between voices in order to have interesting voicings, especially when it provides some good tension and release.

He also has included auxiliary percussion parts which allows directors to involve more students.

This piece is playable by an advanced elementary group or middle school band but could be played by a developing high school group without sounding inappropriate, which is a mark of a really well-crafted composition and arrangement.

Looking at a slightly more difficult piece, and taking a page from “Car Talk’s” Shameless Commerce Division, I’ll include one of my own pieces here, “Point, Counterpoint” (commissioned by the Minnesota Band Director’s Association) and published by Doug Beach Music:

My goal was to write a swinging chart that had good lines for each section that were often contrapuntal in nature, in an effort to engage the students’ ears in a slightly different way than the vertical orchestrations that typically get used for younger players. The sax line is established over the swing ride pattern (the implied progression is a minor blues but no bass to start) and then repeats itself with a few trumpets added as the trombone counterpoint comes in. In the third chorus the top trumpets come in playing a paraphrase of the sax melody with the saxes and trombones answering in the spaces. The rhythm section is in at this point and I wrote out all the bass lines taking care to have half notes mixed in for younger hands that tire more easily and chord symbols above so that the pianists, bassists and guitarists understand how what they are playing reflects the progression and so that at some point when they are confronted with just chord symbols and slashes they may be able to recall some of the types of chords and voicings they played before.

There is a short ensemble shout that acts as  a send-off to the solos and scales are included on the parts in addition to written out solos that the publisher asked to have.  To show an example of 8 bars where the individual parts are very playable but the complete sound involves quartal harmony, altered dominant chords and poly chords I have included a score page from part of the ensemble choruses about ¾ of the way through the chart as well as a concert reduction. Each section sounds good unto itself (a lesson I learned from my teacher and mentor Rayburn Wright, among many others!) and the whole ensemble sounds pretty hip (if I do say so myself) once the players have mastered the individual notes.

While pieces for younger bands generally need to be shorter than the magnus opi we generally write when given the license to do so (think 4 or 5 minutes max for junior high, maybe 6 for high school) that is part of the challenge. I frequently find that I have to edit myself, chopping out that 2nd or 3rd chorus of shout, for example, or that extended intro with all the cool extra bars in the phrases, but that the piece is always stronger in so doing. (Note to self – perhaps I should be doing that more in my other writing as well…). I think we are all guilty of being self-indulgent with our composing and arranging from time to time and writing for younger groups is a great cure for that!

You never know how a piece you write may light a fire under a budding jazz player OR budding jazz composer. Holding ourselves to the highest standards possible when writing for younger groups can help their ears develop, provide them with a better understanding of jazz harmony, improve their improvisation skills and hopefully even inspire them to start writing themselves.

I encourage everyone to take a crack at this if you haven’t already – reach out to a local school and ask if you can write something for them. This can even develop into a commissioning situation, which, as we all know, is all to the good! I am certainly grateful to the Illinois Music Educators, Minnesota Band Directors and the various schools that have asked me for charts and have learned more every time I have taken one on.

Sensible Ranges:



About the Author:

Ellen Rowe, jazz pianist and composer, is currently Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where she studied with Rayburn Wright and Bill Dobbins.  Prior to her appointment in Michigan, she served as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Ms. Rowe has performed at jazz clubs and on concert series throughout the U.S., as well as touring in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Ireland, Poland, South Africa and Australia. CDs out under her own name include “Sylvan Way”, “Wishing Well”, “Denali Pass” and “Courage Music.”  Her latest project, “Momentum – Portraits of Women In Motion”, featuring Ingrid Jensen, Tia Fuller, Marion Hayden and Allison Miller will be released in the winter of 2018. Also active as a clinician, she has given workshops and master classes at the Melbourne Conservatory, Hochshule fur Musik in Cologne, Grieg Academy in Bergen and the Royal Academy of Music in London, in addition to many appearances as a guest artist at festivals and Universities around the country.

When not leading her own trio, quartet or quintet, she is in demand as a sideman, having performed with a wide variety of jazz artists including Kenny Wheeler, Tim Ries, Tom Harrell, John Clayton, Ingrid Jensen and Steve Turre.  She was also a guest on two installments of Marian McPartland’s  “Piano Jazz” on National Public Radio.

Ms. Rowe’s compositions and arrangements have been performed and recorded by jazz ensembles and orchestras around the world, including the Village Vanguard Orchestra, BBC Jazz Orchestra, U.S. Navy Commodores, Berlin and NDR Radio Jazz Orchestras, London Symphony, DIVA and the Perth Jazz Orchestra.  Many of these works can be heard on recordings including “Leave It To DIVA”, “The Perth Jazz Orchestra”, “Bingo” (The Bird of Paradise Orchestra) and “I Believe In You” (DIVA). She has recently been a composer-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  A recipient of jazz ensemble commissions from the Minnesota Band Directors Association, Belleville (MI) High School,  Illinois Music Educators and Lawrence University’s Fred Sturm Jazz Festival, her big band compositions are currently published by Sierra Music Publications, Doug Beach Music and Kendor Music.

Having been selected to conduct the NAfME All-Eastern and All-Northwest Jazz Ensembles as well as All-State jazz ensembles throughout the country, she has also been an invited clinician at the National Association for Music Education Eastern Division Convention, International Society for Jazz Composition and Arranging Symposium and Jazz Education Network conferences.  She is on the Board of the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers and also serves as the Coordinator for the JEN Sisters In Jazz Collegiate Combo Competition. Her quintet has performed at the San Jose Jazz Festival, Jazz Education Network Conference, Michigan Jazz Festival, Detroit International Jazz Festival and in jazz clubs around the country. Other activities include serving as an adjudicator and mentor for the JEN Young Composers Showcase, adjudicating the 2019 Kimmel Center Jazz Residencies and Lincoln Center Ertegun Hall of Fame. She also serves on the faculty of the NJPAC All-Female Jazz Residency in Newark, NJ. In 2017 she was named a UCROSS Composer Fellow and awarded a residency at the Leighton Artist Colony at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

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

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

Bob Mintzer: The Ever Evolving Writing Process

My first experiences as a composer/arranger probably began when I was somewhere in the vicinity of 8 years old. I would sit at a piano for countless hours on end, experimenting with combinations of notes, chords, sounds, rhythms, and things resembling songs I might have heard on the radio, television, or an LP. Through trial and error I would stumble onto a chord progression and perhaps a corresponding melody that fit with that chord progression, playing it for a long time in wonderment. These early explorations were quite naive and not particularly well informed. Yet that spark of interest and drive to find nice combinations of notes was the catalyst that has pushed me to listen/learn/compose with great enthusiasm to this very day.

Our influences as composers/arrangers are, to my way of thinking, environmental. The music we grew up listening to, the bands we played in, the tunes that coincide with profound life experiences all help to shape our individual sound in our writing. This is somewhat like a recipe we’ve made many times, ever evolving as we alter the ingredients a little at a time.

I’ve always spent a good deal of time trying to recreate music that moves me on the piano, sometimes on the guitar, and ultimately on the saxophone. I would try for emulating as much detail as possible. Being that I was very curious as to how the “whole picture” worked, I would inevitably pay careful attention to what each individual instrument was doing; piano voicings, piano comping, bass lines, drum patterns, and some understanding of how the whole band fit their individual parts together. To me it seemed like an incredible puzzle that beckoned one to take apart and re-assemble.

Playing through the great american songbook on the piano was another integral part of developing a compositional vocabulary for me. This inevitably led to expanding upon traditional versions of these great tunes through expansion of form, some reharmonization, and integrating various rhythmical side trips within the form. Becoming comfortable with playing tunes on the piano ultimately led to an ability to conceptualize the instrument without actually having to physically access the piano during the writing process.

My first large ensemble writing experience happened on the Buddy Rich band. I had the incredible opportunity to write my first 6 big band pieces for this great band, to record them and play them every night. On Buddy’s band I had the good and bad aspects in each pieces staring me in the face on a nightly basis, and was able to adjust my approach with each subsequent venture. What a crazy great situation! I hadn’t had the time to study arranging up to that point, being that arranging for big band was not yet on my radar. Little did I know which way the road would turn.

In hindsight I realize that if an aspiring arranger spent time playing piano, learning the jazz language, going on from there to explore various voicings, combinations of notes, rhythm possibilities, and melodic development, and then sat in a big band for an extended period of time, they would have much of the machinery in place to fashion a decent big band arrangement. Without knowing it, I constructed a piece that had development, variety, and shape, qualities that I had been exposed to via playing the great arrangements in the Buddy Rich book. Being confronted with the opportunity to write that first big band piece forced me to consider the various musical qualities associated with any compelling piece of music: a story line, form, motion, variety, and texture. While my orchestrational abilities were in the beginning stages, I never the less could access the sound of the big band that was in my head, melding

this sound with ideas that I had found on the piano earlier. Also inherent in this initial experience was the thinking of what Buddy would like to hear, and how I might create an environment in which I would enjoy playing with him. These first few big band attempts were just that: attempts. But they definitely framed what lied ahead in terms of developing a sound and process.

I went on to write some for Mel Lewis, the Sam Jones Tom Harrell small big band, did some orchestrating for television (not really for me) and in 1983 put my first big band together. Hard to believe that in the last 34 years we’ve recorded 20 big band projects. Between these projects and various european radio band experiences, I’ve written close to 500 arrangements. I still feel like there is plenty to learn and plenty of avenues to explore. What all this writing has afforded me is a certain level of fluidity and confidence.

One of the most critical components of fashioning a big band or other large ensemble arrangement is having a set of parameters already in place. I generally think about who I am writing for, what kind of groove may be appropriate, what key best fits the intent of the piece, and sometimes a particular scenario that the music might underscore. Also to be considered is what kind of form may be utilized. What then follows is a sketch of the piece where I establish much of the above mentioned. I usually start with framing the form by inputting primary themes and perhaps some harmonic information. If various orchestrational devices occur to me I may write a description in words of what that orchestration might look like, and keep moving. (unison trumpets-tutti saxophones) If I can sketch out most of the piece it gives me a good head start on the writing. Often times I will program a drum loop in Sibelius and then add a bass part and then piano/guitar parts. This creates a nice bed to set horn parts on top of. With each subsequent pass through the piece, I add a little more detail, usually leaving the major voicings and detailed orchestrational devices for last.

Since I am generally writing for a recording project or some sort of production that involves 8-12 tunes I wind up working simultaneously on all the pieces. It makes things go more smoothly when I toggle between pieces, and things are less likely to stall in this scenario. The mantra is “keep moving”. The other plus with working on multiple pieces simultaneously is that you get a sense of how the full program of tunes will work together.

Frequently I have heard a piece of music that inspires me, and manages to spark a sound in my head that borrows from the groove or some aspect of the harmony or melody of the piece. If you take one of the three as a foundation (rhythm, harmony, melody) and then build on top of that, more ofter than not you wind up with something that sounds nothing like the original inspiration. I think the primary effect in these cases is that the excitement of hearing a moving piece of music gets the creative juices flowing, and makes you want to write something.

A great way to get a new piece started (on top of listening to all kinds of music) is to sit quietly and imagine what the piece you are going to write sounds like. You might hear general shapes of sound that translate nicely into a sketch, one that can be developed later in terms of detail. I frequently hear a sound, a rhythm or bass line or melody when I am walking. Something about that form of rhythmical bodily movement inspires musical ideas to emerge. If the initial idea comes from something other than you playing an instrument, as in your imagination, you are far more free to hear something well beyond what you might play.

Another approach for me is to improvise freely on either piano or saxophone, and wait for something compelling to emerge. Once I detect something of interest, I play the idea repeatedly, elaborating on the initial idea a little at a time. Once it seems like a fairly complete sentence I move on the perhaps a complimentary section with a new melody or progression. Little by little a composition emerges. Some of the better compositions come quickly and are not terribly complicated. Simple is allowed! With simplicity there winds up being room for complexity used in a strategic manor to create tension/release and a general sense of variety.

Aside from grabbing ideas from pre existing pieces of music, there is a lot you can do in terms of moving things around at the piano. Take a 1-4-5 three note voicing and move it around in a variety of ways, whole steps or minor thirds apart, for example. Try different bass notes against this voicing. Have the top note of the voicing form a melodic shape while simultaneously having the bass line create a melodic shape of it’s own. Utilize contrary motion between bass line and chord voicing. Take a 1-4-5 voicing and move it diatonically through a variety of scale qualities (1/2-w diminished, altered dominant for example). There are an infinite number of devices of this kind that can spin off into a potential composition. And seemingly if you start to operate this way the ideas manage to come more quickly, where one shape leads to an offshoot of that shape, and onward from there. Patterns are a great device for planting a seed for a new composition.

There is far more to discuss as far as process. Being a self taught arranger much of my process involves “making it up as you go”. There is definitely an improvisatory thing at play when writing and arranging, where one idea leads you to the next. I generally have no shortage of ideas. Being fairly active in the music scene usually primes the pump as far as generating ideas go. Once the idea emerges, then the real hard work begins. Fashioning a well constructed, compelling piece of music involves much editing, re arranging, and refining. This part of the process never seems to end. I can always find ways to improve, or at least update anything I have written. Small tweaking of articulation, voicings, and melodic lines are all part of the journey to arriving at a good piece of music. That journey is why I get up in the morning.

The final piece of the puzzle of composition/arranging is getting you music performed, hopefully by a group of great musicians of your choosing. This is the wild card that inevitably takes the music to places you never thought existed. Hence it is critical to leave lots of room for the personal input of each player, where every member of the ensemble contributes to the musical conversation in their own particular way. This is the basic premise of jazz music. As a composer/arranger it is my roll to stay out of the way of the conversation by way of leaving room in the writing for interplay and conversation.

So much more to learn, so much more to write. So many gems in the classical repertoire to draw upon. Many interesting rhythms and textures in indigenous music from all corners of the globe. Keep searching, keep putting the puzzle together. Stay current as far as what young players/writers are up to. Write yourself into the picture as a player, an instigator, an orator. Keep moving!

Mintzer Big Band examples

Get Up!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5UwWXVH0Lg

Truth Spoken Here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ioc2voPbkM8&index=6&list=PLZkh-aQshNIPQBNEKW9PwoTGmEaZ1NWYU

Civil War https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UemgTly–U&list=PLZkh-aQshNIPQBNEKW9PwoTGmEaZ1NWYU&index=15

These three tunes from the MCG Jazz cd “Get Up”

Please visit bobmintzer.com for more examples.


About the Author:

Bob Mintzer, born January 27, 1953 and a native of New Rochelle, New York is what’s known as a triple threat musician. He is equally active in the areas of performance, composing/arranging, and music education. While touring with the Yellowjackets or his own quartet, or big band, Bob is busy writing music for big band, various small bands, saxophone quartets, orchestral and concert band music.

Bob is also on the faculty of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles along with long-time cohorts Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, Vince Mendoza, and fellow Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante. where he teaches jazz composition,, saxophone, directs the Thornton Jazz Orchestra, and conducts a jazz workshop class for incoming freshmen and sophomore jazz students. He also does workshops all over the globe, writes books on a variety of musical subjects, plays on countless recordings every year, and is summoned to be guest conductor and soloist with large and small bands all over the world.

Bob has played/recorded with a wide variety of artists ranging from Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, James Taylor, The New York Philharmonic,National Symphony, American Saxophone Quartet, Art Blakey, Donald Fagan, Bobby McFerrin, Nancy Wilson, Kurt Elling, to Jaco Pastorius, Mike Manieri, and Randy Brecker.

“Music chose me at a very early age” says Bob. “I was completely taken by the 12 tones, whether hearing music played on the radio, television, recordings, or live concerts around the New York City area. I was not only struck by the emotional outpouring of great musical performance, but also found myself completely consumed with how the music fit together in all its glorious detail. I could spend hours sitting at a piano, trying to replicate the songs I would hear others play.

“Jazzmobile, an organization that sponsored jazz performances around the greater New York metropolitan area, sent a quintet consisting of Dr. Billy Taylor, Grady Tate, Ron Carter, Harold Land, and Blue Mitchell to the New Rochelle High School in 1967. I was a sophomore at the time. I think it was then and there that I decided that music would be my calling. Later that year I was taken to the Village Gate to hear the double bill of the Miles Davis quintet and the Thelonious Monk Quartet. From that point on I went to as many live performances as I could on the budget of a 16-18 year old. During my formative years I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to hear Sonny Rollins, Miles, Monk, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and many of the jazz greats play around New York.

“In 1969 my folks had the foresight to encourage me to audition for the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. I received a scholarship to attend this great school for my senior year of high school. My classmates were Peter Erskine, Danny Brubeck, Elaine Duvas (principal oboist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and Tom Hulce (who played Mozart in the film Amadeus). This year provided the inspiration and information that was to establish my practice and training regimen for years to come. I was studying classical clarinet, playing guitar and piano, learning how to play the saxophone and flute,learning songs and writing tunes for the little combos we would put together.”

In 1970 Bob attended the Hartt College of Music in Hartford Connecticut on a classical clarinet scholarship. Jackie McLean had just started a jazz program at Hart, and Bob spent time with Jackie while working on a multitude of skills.

“I was very interested in all kinds of music and was attempting to learn how to play flutes, clarinets, saxophones, piano, work on composition, and get my school work done, Bob explains. “I played clarinet in the orchestra and various chamber music groups. I also played early music in a small group for a while. There were some crazy rhythms in much of early music that paralleled what jazz improvisers were doing as far as playing over the bar line. It was all fantastic! After school I would listen to jazz recordings and go and sit in with local jazz musicians. There was a pretty vibrant scene at that time around Hartford, where one core group of musicians were working 6 nights a week in different joints.”

Jackie eventually pushed Bob to consider moving down to New York City and jump into the jazz community down there. He took the suggestion and transferred to Manhattan School of Music in 1973. At that time there was a lot of playing going on in the lofts, which were commercial spaces newly converted to living quarters, and very affordable.

Bob’s contemporaries during the period were Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman, Richie Bierach, John Abercrombie, and countless other musicians. “The musicians I encountered in NYC in the early 70’s were all about the music,” Bob remembers. “Rents were affordable, and guys would get together in the lofts to play and compare ideas. Everyone’s aspiration was to land a gig with a working jazz group. In the interim I paid the rent doing whatever would come along, from subbing in broadway shows, to doing odd recording sessions or club dates.

In 1974 Bob was recommended to Eumir Deodato by a Manhattan School of Music classmate. Bob toured with Deodato for one year, playing large venues all over the world. “Eumir had a hit record with his rendition of the Strauss Zarathustra melody. He was a teriffic arranger! Check out the arrangements he did for Sinatra and Jobim on their duo recording in the 60’s. I met several musicians on that band that took the time to show me things about all kinds of music. Rubens Bassini, former percussionist with Brazil 66 took me under his wing and showed me many things about the rhythms of Brazil.”

During that same year Bob started playing with the Tito Puente Orchestra. This was a steady gig around the New York area. This music had a lasting impact on Bob’s writing and playing for years to come. He later played with Eddie Palmieri and Mongo Santamaria.

In 1975 Bob joined the Buddy Rich Big Band and spent two and a half years playing every night with Buddy, except for a week off at Christmas time. “On Buddy’s band,” Bob explains, “we played in every small town in the U.S. as well as in other countries. I was so thrilled to be playing every night and seeing new places all the time. We would go out after the concerts and find a place to sit in with a local band. If there was no jazz club we would play with whatever band there was. I remember playing with a cowboy band in El PasoTexas one night. I also learned how to write big band arrangements on Buddy’s band. He was very gracious about letting me write for his band.”

While on Buddy’s band Bob also wrote music for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and did a brief stint with the band at the Village Gate in NYC. He also did a tour with Hubert Laws playing a utility reed chair.

Bob left Buddy in 1977 and settled down in New York to work on his writing and playing. He played with Joe Chambers, Ray Mantilla, Tom Harrell, Teramasa Hino, Sam Jones, and began to do some freelance work in the studios, with symphony orchestras, and in Broadway pit orchestras. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. He also became a member of the band Stone Alliance (Don Alias, Kenny Kirkland, Gene Perla) that year.

In 1981 Bob joined Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Band with Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Don Alias, and Othello Molineaux. He played tenor sax and bass clarinet in that band as well as doing some arranging for the large ensemble version. Three recordings and a video document this music and show Bob to have quite a unique voice on the bass clarinetist. Around this time Bob was also playing with Mike Manieri and Randy Brecker. He also did his first two solo recordings for the Pony Canyon Label in Japan. (Hornmanand The Source)

In 1983 Bob put a big band together to play at the club owned by Mike and Randy Brecker called Seventh Avenue South. In NYC. It was a one-off project initially to showcase the various musicians that had been playing in the club with their own bands. Dave Sanborn, Mike and Randy Brecker, Don Grolnick, Peter Erskine, Lew Soloff, Will Lee, Barry Rogers were all on board. The band became an instant success and did a recording for CBS Sony in Japan called Papa Lips.

Around that same time Tom Jung started an audiophile jazz label called DMP Records. After hearing the band play at Seventh Avenue South. Bob and Tom Jung embarked on a recording relationship that lasted for 22 years and produced 13 cd’s with 3 Grammy Nominations(One Music, Departure,Only in New York) and a Grammy win for the Homage to Count Basie CD.

For the rest of the 80’s Bob worked with his big band; playing the Berlin Jazz Festival, playing the Village Vanguard in place of Mel Lewis’ big band when the band was on the road. Kendor Music (the publisher that published the Thad Jones and Gil Evans series) stared the Bob Mintzer series. School and pro bands around the world started playing his music, which had a fresh signature sound and blended the jazz tradition with a variety of other influences. Bob also joined the faculty of the jazz department at Manhattan School of Music, where he resided for the next 25 years.

During the later part of the eighties Bob was doing a fair amount of studio work, playing recordings by Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Queen, James Taylor, and Steve Winwood. He also became a member of the American Saxophone Quartet and performed regularly with the New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theatre, and American Composers Orchestra. As a composer/arranger Bob wrote for the St Lukes Orchestra, ABC, NBC and the academy Awards show.

Bob recorded several small bad projects in the later 80’s-early 90’s including 2 CDs for Owl records in France (N.Y Jazz QuartetLonging) , two CDs for BMG (I Remember Jaco and Twin Tenors w/ Michael Brecker) , and a cd for the TVT label (Quality Time). His quartet CD, One Music for the DMP label was nominated for a Grammy.

1990 was a pivotal year for Bob He was asked to record with the Yellowjackets on the GRP CD Greenhouse, which was the start of a twenty plus year stint with one of the premier bands in jazz music. The band has received 13 Grammy nominations, has been voted best contemporary jazz group almost every year in the jazz magazine readers polls, and continues to play major jazz venues all over the world.

Yellowjackets is a leaderless band where each member is called upon to write, arrange, play, and make decisions as an equal partner. The band has consistently demonstrated that four people from diverse backgrounds can work together and create an art form where the whole is far greater than the separate parts.

In 2005 Bob began a relationship with the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG Jazz)resulting in the recording of 3 big band recordings: Live at MCGOld School New Lessons, and Swing Out. Kurt Elling sings on all three of these cd’s. Bob also recorded a quartet CD, In the Moment for Art of Life Records with Phil Markowitz, Jay Anderson, and John Riley.

In 2008 Bob and his family moved to Los Angeles, where Bob joined the faculty of the University of Southern California. He put together a big band in Los Angeles and plays regularly at Vibrato Grill in Bel Air. Bob maintains a busy touring schedule, playing with the Yellowjackets, his quartet, big band, and as a guest conductor/ soloist with college and pro bands.

Bob’s latest small band recording is called Canyon Cove, and is a swingin organ cd with Larry Goldings and Peter Erskine.

bobmintzer.com

Artist Blog

Terry Promane: Give Me 5

At the time of this writing, I had just attended an arranging clinic by John La Barbera who was the spring visitor at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto where I teach.  He outlined 5 cornerstones of arranging for our students that were his guide and the basic fundamentals of his pedagogy.  Coincidentally, a week or so before, I was approached by Paul Read who suggested I write an article for the ISJAC Blog discussing my favorite arranging tactics.

Most of these ideas have been compiled over 25 years of teaching at U of T and playing on countless recording sessions and concerts, mostly with Toronto based jazz artists. 

To be specific, I’ll present ideas here that have helped me develop a good sound as well as saving time and aggravation in the studio or preparing music with few rehearsals.  With the ever-changing sensibility of the current music business (meaning, not many players are free to rehearse all day as in days gone by) things need to be correct and clear. 

  1. Give Me More

I’ve had the pleasure of playing with and writing for some serious players. When  the chance presents itself, I will check out other writers’ scores and parts and check the level of detail in not only my part (the trombone part) but also the rhythm parts.  I’ve seen charts with everything possible included and others with virtually nothing.  The most economical example of drum part writing (as VJO drummer John Riley points out) is the 3 bars of crayon from Thad Jones on the original “Little Pixie ll” drum part.  Legend has it that Mel Lewis had a photographic ear and only need a once-through, rarely opening the book.  Others writers like Maria Schneider fill up all the parts with detail. 

For me, too many parts with slashes are a problem.  Over the years I have developed into a control freak needing to dictate as much of the texture as possible.  From years of not getting what I wanted, and then learning how to get exactly what I want, this seems to be the approach best suited to my needs. 

Bass

Bass gets the most slashes, but considerable suggestions are included on the page.  Many of my ideas these days are based around ostinatos and straight 8th grooves in various time signatures, so dictating that information is important.  Straight ahead swing material gets the standard 4 slashes and chord symbols with the occasional push here and there. 

Guitar

In my charts, the guitar rarely sees slashes except for open blowing sections.  Most of the melodic content is backed up by guitar voiced in unison or octaves with other sections.  I’ve heard players comment that they know it’s a chart of mine because of the wall-to-wall guitar cues.

I realize this sounds counter-intuitive considering the clichéd reputation of guitar players as not being able to read well – so I email them copy days ahead of the session.  They are always appreciative.  Thankfully, Toronto is loaded with very talented guitarists who are exceptional readers.

Piano/keys

Years ago, while handing out parts in a rehearsal I put down a typical (swing with slashes) piano part in front of Don Thompson (who loves to play…everything!)  He looked at me and said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Since then, moving forward, I now include as much material as possible in all of my piano parts.  They are more like 2 stave conductor’s scores including all melodic cues and harmonic rhythms. 

The resulting piano parts are enormous, but the piano player is directly connected to the entire scope of the piece.  In Don Thompson’s mind slashes meant nothing in that situation.  Considering the guitar is often busy with melodic content, the sole role of the keyboardist becomes to intelligently comp in and around the rest of the band.  A detailed piano part helps the keyboard player do this effectively.

A different approach is to give the pianist a master rhythm part. In this situation all the rhythm section players play from the same detailed part.

2.  Caught in the Middle

Middle C was the first note I learned as a 5 year old during my first piano lesson.   Conservatory piano lessons were what the kids in my family did, although I know that this is clearly not everyone’s experience.  Today, with the proliferation of guitarist, bassist, drums and vocalists in most post secondary music institutions, middle C or the grand staff for that matter, may be mysterious concepts for non-keyboard players.

The age old question of why are so many trombonists have become great arrangers and composers remains.  One reason is that trombonists have a firm understanding of that note and how middle C feels and sounds!  (I’ll put piano players on that list as well).

The concept remains quite simple.  Above middle C is where the majority of melody rings and below middle C is where arrangers need to be careful voicing.  I toured extensively with Rob McConnell in the Boss Brass and then, much more frequently, with the Rob McConnell Tentet.  On the rare occasion that Rob would actually talk about writing, he did divulge one secret.  We were on a plane and for whatever reason he was describing his favorite Ab 13 voicing of Duke Ellington – and then out of the blue he says “ you know TP, I rarely voice a tri-tone above middle C, then went on to another topic.  Most likely ordering another bloody Mary!

That was a serious light bulb moment for me and gave me a firm understanding why Rob’s sound was indeed Rob’s sound.  Tri-tone at or below middle C with the melody above middle C supported by a triadic formation that rarely included the 3rd or flat 7!  That is a general statement to say the least, considering all of the ?/V7 variants available, but I’m sure you get my drift!

I show my students a demonstration using 2 hands – in the left, tri-tone and in the right, melody tension, tension (and in many cases, another tension).  With both thumbs on middle C, the arranger can feel where all the action is going to happen – between the hash lines – to use a football example.  In my experience, the close voicing is rare and if used is mostly in cluster voicings or to depict a classic “Supersax” sound.

Understanding middle C will help young writers avoid the pitfalls of writing melody that is too low or too high, and voicing below safe low limits.

Without meaning to linger too long on voicings, I feel that a modicum of “arrangers piano” is required to advance to the next level.  I was certainly guilty of dead voicings until Frank Mantooth gave me a copy of his jazz piano method book, “Voicings”.  This book hammered home principals I still teach today including balanced right/left configurations and what Frank called symmetrical 6/9 Miracle Voicings.

3.  Don’t Forget Your Pencil

As a freelance musician I sadly break the cardinal rule:  Always bring a pencil to rehearsal.  I never have a pencil, but as a writer, I always use a pencil.

I just turned 55 so I started writing in the early 80’s.  We used pencil and score paper and copied parts by hand.  I began writing (as many of you have) analog style, well before digital.  The organic process of putting pencil to paper has become vital to my process – it’s free from, right click, left click, shift/command/M/4….command Z…command S…..

John La Barbara and I both agreed that there was something special about the writing process with a piano.  There is a tactile connection to the sound that stimulates ideas that does not exist while composing at the computer.  Check out a book “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon.  It’s a fun read by a young writer who supports the idea of stealing from the masters (in a good way – you have to read the book), but also having some separation between the use of the pencil and the computer to stimulate your creative juices.  Most of my ideas are hatched on a lead sheet with melodic variants and chord substitutions.  It’s very remedial looking, but it keeps me on track when I get the computer going.  A double stave rough sheet for elaborate orchestrations is best for me.

Maria Schneider was a distinguished visitor at the University of Toronto a few years ago.  She set up shop in my office for the week complete with a 32 stave score pad on the piano, no bar lines (you’ll know the one if you’re old enough) and sketched ideas with no restrictions to the melody, harmony or meter.  It’s a great format (although I’ve never had enough solid ideas to fill up 2 staves)!

4.  The Long and the Short of it!

From the biggest most elaborate film sessions to the tiniest demo – the one thing that can kill the clock is a lack of attention to detail – specifically articulation.  This also applies to rehearsing new material with professionals who have little time to waste.  Eating up recording or rehearsal time putting in articulations in a killer!  You won’t realize your potential regarding feel and accuracy if you fail to go the extra mile.  My students pay for this as a minus 10% but in professional circumstances you’ll feel it in your pocket book. 

I’ve sat down in studios with charts with no indication of long/short/loud/soft and it’s a signal that things are going to go badly…and it goes real bad, I’ve seen it countless times.

Attention to detail shows the professional player that you know what you’re doing.  From articulations, to formatting parts, correct rehearsal numbers and dynamics is a subconscious signifier that you are on the case.  Without these vital ingredients, there is a good chance the orchestra will give you right back what you deserve.

5.  Make it hip, not hard!

Over the years, I’ve written some pretty unmusical material.  Over time, I’ve realized that there was something to be said for writing music that feels good, sounds good and is easy to play.  Good music that great musicians want to play – it’s a no-brainer.  The tipping point was when I decided to emulate my elders in Toronto.  Here is a quote from the liner notes I composed for the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet Volume 1.

This CD embodies what many have called “The Toronto Sound.” This is not a conscious effort, although Toronto jazz composers, arrangers and performers have been a part of an unconscious musical movement akin to the Group of Seven painters.  This goes back further than my memory, but Dave Young was on the ground floor with Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Rick Wilkins and Ron Collier, all pillars of the local and our national jazz consciousness.   

The Toronto sound is complicated, but generally relies on a few crucial ingredients; exciting, well crafted and uniquely voiced arrangements, a distinctly Canadian musical sensibility, impeccable tuning, flawless execution and world-class solos.

What I didn’t mention is that Rob McConnell et al really knew how to write great sounding stuff that was easy to play!  Sure there’s going to be some high notes, and some blistering sax work, but it’s not the main event!  It’s all part of the story, the big curve of the piece.  When I started in the McConnell band I couldn’t believe how easy it was…I mean, it was soft, no high notes, great intonation and it swung like hell.

In the end, it’s all in the details.  Pay attention to inventive melodic composition, and harmony and stay away from gimmicks.  Write what you hear and make it accessible to a wide range of abilities and your music will sound great! 

Terry Promane,

Toronto, Ontario CANADA

March, 2017

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Editor’s note: Please check out one of Terry’s composition, this time for jazz 12tet, “The Icemaker’s Mistress”. This is a track from the CD, “Trillium Falls” which can be found at https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/trillium-falls/id1210913574

Both full audio and pdf score are included here:

The Icemaker’s Mistress

Click here for the full score

More info about the highly acclaimed University of Toronto Jazz Program along with lists of other recordings, please go to www. uoftjazz.ca


About the Author:

TERRY PROMANE is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto specializing in jazz trombone, composition, and orchestration. He is a member of many of Toronto’s most prestigious jazz groups including the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet, the Rob McConnell Tentet, The Boss Brass, the Mike Murley Septet, the John MacLeod Big Band, the Dave Neill Quintet, the Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra, and the Carn/Davidson 9. He was twice named ‘Jazz Trombonist of the Year’ by ‘Jazz Report’ Magazine, and nominated for three consecutive years as the National Jazz Awards’ ‘Trombonist of the Year’ and ‘Arranger of the Year’. As a freelance musician, Promane is a first-call session player who can be heard in countless feature films, documentaries, jingles, and in pit-bands for dozens of hit musical productions.  He has performed with Holly Cole, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Holman, Tito Puente, Dave Valentine, Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, Gonzalo Rubacalba, and Hilario Duran.

Artist Blog

John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 1

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

© 2005 Jeffrey Magee, used by permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Arranging Is Telling A Story”

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

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

I break it down to

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

 

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

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

 

Blog Illustration Revised 7-14-16

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



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

 

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

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


About the Author:

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

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

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


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

Footnotes   [ + ]

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