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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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
|↑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.|
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
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 Quartet, Longing) , 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 MCG, Old 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.
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.
- 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 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.
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.
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!
Toronto, Ontario CANADA
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
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.
“…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.|
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:
Here’s a video of the score & recording. This example starts in the middle of page 4.
Next time, the real deal: concrete arranging guidance for all styles of music.
About the Author:
John La Barbera is a Grammy® nominated composer/arranger whose work spans many styles and genres. His studies at the S.U.N.Y at Potsdam, Berklee College, Eastman School of Music contributed to his love of writing and strengthened his skills for a career in composition and arranging. He went on to play with and write for many renowned jazz artists and is now one of the most respected composer/arrangers in jazz. His works have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme’, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods just to name a few. Though his major output has been in jazz, he has had works performed and recorded for symphony orchestra, string chamber orchestra, brass quintet, and other diverse ensembles. Most recently, Mr. La Barbera was chosen from among dozens of applicants to participate in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute at UCLA. As a result, John was one of sixteen composers commissioned by the JCOI to compose new works that incorporate jazz and symphonic music. “Morro da Babilonia” was the resulting work and was recently presented by the American Composers Orchestra in New York City at Columbia University’s Miller Hall.
John’s Grammy® nominated big band CD “On The Wild Side” along with “Fantazm” and his latest “Caravan” on the Jazz Compass® label, have been met with tremendous artistic and commercial success and are on the way to becoming a jazz big band standards. Mr. La Barbera is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Louisville. Among his numerous organizational affiliations are Jazz Education Network, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, NARAS, NMPA, American Composers Forum, and a writer/publisher member of ASCAP since 1971.
He is a two-time recipient of The National Endowment for The Arts award for Jazz Composition and has served as a panelist for the NEA in the music category. His career has recently been profiled in “Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience” and in dozens of publications and encyclopedias. John’s published works are considered standards in the field of jazz. education.
Article Copyright © 2016 John P. La Barbera
All Rights Reserved
|↑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.|