When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Northern Iowa, I was pretty impressed with my jazz director Bob Washut’s prowess at arranging original tunes by guest artists for our jazz band to play with them. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to do that myself, including tunes by/for Danilo Perez, Matt Wilson, Dominque Eade, and even Luciana Souza (a chart that has yet to be premiered due to the pandemic but will finally be heard in April 2022). Most recently, I arranged a tune by the great Steve Wilson to be performed by one of my jazz bands at St. Olaf College with Steve as our remote guest artist. I thought it might be useful to share a few of the techniques I use when I’m creating a new arrangement of this type, since hopefully this coming year and beyond we will be having many more guests join us all!
Generally speaking, I see charts like this as a transcription project as much as an arrangement. The reasons for this are twofold:
- I think it’s important in most cases to emulate the original recording of the tune as best as possible. This can make it much smoother when the guest joins your group for minimal rehearsal time right before your performance and they’re not trying to figure out complicated reworkings of the form and such.
- You can discover a lot of material throughout the original version that you can use as part of your arrangement.
Of course, you can make some of this process easier for yourself if you’re able to choose a particular tune that lends itself to big band writing. Luckily in this case, I had options. As many of you know, Steve Wilson is a well-known versatile saxophonist/flautist, but he’s also a stellar composer, and his tune “Eye of the Beholder” is no exception. It seemed like a big band chart waiting to happen with a fully-voiced, contrapuntal introduction that contrasted the rest of the chart with both material and tempo, specific pre-composed piano and bass lines at times, a complex form with several different sections throughout, and a D.S. al Coda that is slightly varied from previous material, so there was a lot more to work with than if I had to start with a simple head-solos-head situation. I’m going to discuss three major areas of consideration I tend to use in this process that I used in arranging “Eye of the Beholder” (EOTB) for big band.
Where are places for obvious orchestration?
This is the most logical place to start. If you’ve transcribed any accompanying parts (or, in this case, have many of them already spelled out for you), you can just decide what horns or rhythm section instruments you’d like to use to orchestrate those existing pitches. In the lead sheet to EOTB, Steve already has a lot of these voicings written out, so it definitely saved me some time.
This gives you an opportunity to explore timbre quite a bit (sectional writing, cross-section mixing, mutes, woodwind doubles, etc.). In EOTB, Steve already employs a very interesting timbre by having Adam Cruz playing some steel pan on the recording, but I was lucky to have a vibraphonist in my group, so it seemed logical to emulate that sound with that instrument at times throughout the chart.
In one section of EOTB, Steve employs a pretty active bass counterline – a really great texture underneath the moving colorful chords above it. So I gave that to the bass in its first iteration, fortified by bari sax, giving it more presence without making it too heavy.
The upon its return later in the tune, I passed it off to the saxes moved the bass back to the original role of bass notes to fortify the harmonic structure there. Then I immediately followed that with a statement by vibes and piano, still keeping it present but less forceful so that it didn’t draw attention from the now-soloing Steve Wilson.
During a section of the tune, Steve implies moments of quasi-bitonality where his sustained melody slips in and out of conflict with the moving chords beneath it. I wasn’t sure how to handle this with so many additional players, but I decided to embrace and enhance the harmonic nebulousness of that section by creating more structural non-functional clusters.
Are there elements of the original that can be used in other places or in other contexts?
Frankly, this and the following topic are techniques I wish I had used more in this chart, though they’ve been larger elements of previous arrangements of this type of mine. Of course, as I said, a lot of material was sort of laid out for me in Steve’s original tune, so I suppose it wasn’t as necessary in this instance.
One thing that I tried to get a little more mileage out of was the captivating introduction that didn’t seem to make any obvious reappearances in the body of EOTB. So the first thing I did was to have the band play it twice, the first with rhythm section and Steve, similar to the original recording, and once more fully orchestrated with the rest of the horns.
Then I brought back fragments of the bass line of the intro in a couple different contexts through the trombones.
Are there aspects of solo improvisations that can be employed?
This is one I really wish I had done more of, especially given Steve’s incredibly developmental approach to his soloing on this. In the past, I’ve made entire soli sections out of the solo transcription (not a new concept at all, of course). One place I was able to apply a little bit of his improvisation was coming out of his final solo section where I put one of his solo lines into the band parts, gradually increasing the density of the line by adding instruments as it went, helping it to grow into the final climax of the chart.
These are just a few ideas of how to approach arranging a guest artist’s tune for your band. Again, I don’t feel this particular scenario is an opportunity to let my most inventive voice shine by constructing some massive re-composition based on themes of the original tune. There can be plenty of other situations where that would be more warranted. I just hope to write something that is smooth to put together with the guest, is familiar to them and any listener who was familiar with the original, with just some additional colors and material to enhance what already existed, which more times than not, is already hip enough and doesn’t need me messing with it!
Watch the complete new arrangement:
Video Courtesy St. Olaf College. Used by Permission.
About the Author:
Trombonist/composer/conductor JC Sanford is a musician of rare breadth, deeply rooted in the traditions of Jazz and Classical music, yet constantly pushing at their boundaries. Equally at home in many roles, Sanford works regularly as a composer, performer, arranger and conductor.
A protégé of legendary composer and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, he has performed with the likes of Danilo Pérez, Matt Wilson, Donny McCaslin, and George Schuller. He has been a member of several diverse NYC-based ensembles including the Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble, Nathan Parker Smith’s prog-rock big band, Andrew Green’s film noir tribute Narrow Margin, British singer-songwriter Joy Askew’s New York Brass, and Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.’s jazz/new music hybrid Numinous.
JC’s original works often defy labels such as ‘Jazz’ or ‘Classical’. While he originally built a reputation through big band writing, JC has forayed into many other areas – composing for solo piano, wind and brass formations and various mixed chamber ensembles. A founding member of the composers’ federation Pulse (with Darcy James Argue & Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.), JC was a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop led by Jim McNeely and Mike Abene for 3 years and continued on as the contractor of the BMI/New York Orchestra for 13 more. His works have been performed by John Abercrombie, Lew Soloff, Dave Liebman, Danilo Perez, and a number of universities and high schools across the United States.
JC has appeared on over 30 recordings as a trombonist, conductor, composer, and producer. His 2014 debut CD with the JC Sanford Orchestra entitled Views from the Inside yielded international acclaim and was awarded a 2014 Aaron Copland Fund Recording Grant alongside organizations and ensembles such as the Seattle Symphony, Nonesuch Records, and American Composers Forum. He is also the leader of two small groups, the jazz quartet JC4 (who has two records out on Red Piano Records and Shifting Paradigm Records), and the chamber jazz trio Triocracy (also Shifting Paradigm Records). His new recording, Imminent Standards Trio, Vol. I, will be released on July 23, 2021.
JC is in high demand as a conductor of new original music. He conducts the thrice-Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Joel Harrison’s Infinite Possibility, the Alan Ferber Nonet with Strings, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, and the Alice Coltrane Orchestra featuring Ravi Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, and Charlie Haden. He was the curator the “Size Matters” large ensemble series Brooklyn for 4 1/2 years, a unique weekly series that featured large ensembles that performed all original music.
Since returning to MN with his family in 2016, JC has performed as a trombonist in the Twin Cities area with JT and Chris Bates, Davu Seru, Anthony Cox, Babatunde Lea, Zacc Harris, Dave Hagedorn, Mike Lewis, and Laura Caviani. In 2017 co-founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop alongside his wife and composer Asuka Kakitani. He is currently Visiting Professor of Jazz at St. Olaf College and Instructor of Low Brass at Carleton College. He received a 2018 McKnight Composer Fellowship and a 2019 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to record his quartet. In 2019, he was named Musical/Artistic Director of the JazzMN Orchestra. He is also the blog curator for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers. Learn more at jcsanford.com
About the Guest Artist:
Saxophonist Steve Wilson has brought his distinctive sound to more than 150 recordings and ensembles led by such celebrated artists as Chick Corea, Ron Carter, George Duke, Dave Holland, Michael Brecker, Dianne Reeves, Bill Bruford, Gerald Wilson, Joe Henderson, Charlie Byrd, Karrin Allyson, and Don Byron among many others.
Since his arrival in New York in 1987 Wilson emerged as first-call choice for veteran and emerging artists alike, prompting a New York Times profile “A Sideman’s Life”. Since 1997 he has been regularly cited in the Downbeat Magazine Critics and Readers Polls in the soprano and alto saxophone, and flute categories. He is currently a regular touring member of Grammy-winning ensembles led by Christian McBride, Maria Schneider, Billy Childs, and Buster Williams. His work in film includes being artistic consultant to Harvey Keitel for “Lulu On The Bridge” as well as being featured on the soundtrack.
With nine recordings under his name Wilson leads two acclaimed quartets – Wilsonian’s Grain as heard on “Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions” on the Random Act label, and The Analog Band as heard “Sit Back, Relax” on the JMI label. He is one-half of two dynamic duos – with drummer Lewis Nash as heard on their recording “Duologue” on the MCG label, and also with pianist Bruce Barth that can be heard on their recording “Home” on the We Always Swing label.
A highly respected educator Wilson is professor of music and Director of Jazz Studies at City College of New York. He frequently conducts master classes and has been a visiting artist at Eastman School of Music, Michigan State University, University of Manitoba, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, University of Maryland-College Park, and the University of Oregon among many other institutions.
Steve Wilson endorses Yamaha Saxophones, and Vandoren Reeds and Mouthpieces
Learn more at https://www.stevewilsonmusic.com/
JC’s Featured Photo Credit: Asuka Kakitani