Artist Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to See the Full Example

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

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

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

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

Click to See the Full Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to See the Full Example

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

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

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

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


About the Author:

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

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

Artist Blog

Asuka Kakitani: My personal perspective on composing

Although I don’t talk much about the process of composing with my fellow composer friends or anybody, I enjoy reading about other composers’ processes when I get a chance, so I will share mine here hoping someone would enjoy reading it. This is not technical but more of my personal perspective.

I started studying jazz composition at Berklee College of Music when I was twenty-six years old. I would imagine many people would start much earlier studying something like that, but I actually wasn’t really interested in composing before I attended Berklee. Soon after I started classes there, I had to compose for some school projects and I quickly fell in love with the freedom of composing. At that time, I was trying to play piano like Bud Powell, and it was struggle for me being constrained by my own idea of how I should sound. On the other hand, composing, it was a discovery of a new playground. I loved to tell my stories through my composition, which I even didn’t know I would enjoy so much. I just felt so free.

Telling stories is an important part of composing for me. Sometimes composing is my tool to tell a story. I almost always have a story in my head before I start writing. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic one; it could be an ordinary day of summer in the garden. Nature is usually a great inspiration for me. I think composing is like taking my camera and going outside to look under a leaf or inside flowers with a macro lens. There are lives and dramas that we cannot see with our naked eye. There are so many details, which are delicate, colorful, and vibrant. That is how I want my music to be, too.

One of my teachers at Berklee, Ted Pease once told me that melody is the most important thing. That stayed with me for a long time, and most of the time, my piece starts taking shape and firming its character with some melodies. I sing (terribly) in the street, on the subway, in the shower, waiting in line, in the woods, or in front of piano to find the magical melodies somewhere in the air. Sometimes I would succeed to catch them and write them down on manuscript paper, but I fail a lot of the time, too. Singing works best for me so far because then I can be free from my hand habits on the piano, I do not play any other instruments, and I do not want to write something that I cannot sing. When I luckily find a succession of notes I’m happy with, I quickly and carefully write them down on paper without key signature or time signature to not have any constraints to shape a melody I found. I would sing and play it on the piano many times until it feels right, and then I figure out the best time signature for the melody. Often times I won’t have enough rehearsal time with a band, so it is crucial to have the clearest and easiest way possible to read. I stopped using key signatures at some point, so I even don’t bother to think about it.

It takes a lot of time. Every time I almost cannot believe when I complete a piece.

Since I had my daughter in 2014, it has been even harder to find time to sit and work. Although parenting is a wonderful and incomparable experience, it is a 24-hour commitment. I suffer from lack of time and sleep and being unfocused. Finding five minutes to sit in front of the piano here and there, staying up late or getting up early, or staying up late AND getting up early depends on her sleeping schedule – scavenging for time to write and stay focused has been a real challenge for me.

Sometimes I cannot write anything for a few weeks. And one day I think I hear something, and write it down, and the next day I think it does not sound as good as I thought yesterday, and after two weeks, I would come back to that melody and feel it is pretty nice. Three days later, I would say, “This is awful!” I would be stressed out, feel miserable for a few days. Then a “good day” comes and I am able to catch a few magical notes in the air. That makes me so happy until I become miserable again, which would be the next day. A “good day” does not come so often. But despite my agony, “bad days” are necessary to endure in order to have a “good day” from time to time. After feeling gloomy from not being able to write any notes for many days, I suddenly find myself lost in the music that I am writing. It starts to grow its own personality and follows me around all the time, and I feel as if I am with someone who is very close to me. I feel a connection with the piece, and we are attached to each other until it changes its mind and starts acting as a stranger again.

Although I love the freedom of composing, and composing makes me feel that I am free to create what I want to, it is very easy to settle in with an idea or phrase that I feel should work. Once I get trapped in the “this is going to be a masterpiece” syndrome, I start circling, and I notice that I stop trying to hear those magical melodies in the air anymore. There are many obstacles to overcome: feeling the need to utilize certain “cool” techniques, not being able to let go of an idea that does not work in context, and the pressure to finish a piece by a deadline. It is a perpetual struggle to escape from all the things that tie me down, and to keep pushing myself to step out from my comfort zone. For me, composing is an endless journey for finding something real. In order to keep pressing on, I would continually tell myself that music does not need to be impressive, but should be completely honest. It might not end up being so great of a piece of music after all, but the experience of writing absolutely honest music is the most precious thing to me. And more times than not, but utilizing this process, the end result is something I’m truly satisfied with, and sometimes even love.


About the Author:

Asuka Kakitani is a composer, arranger, and conductor. She is the founder of the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra (AKJO). Their 2013 debut album ”Bloom” was selected as one of the best albums on the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, All About Jazz, Lucid Culture, and DownBeat Magazine. Her awards include the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, the Manny Albam Commission, and artist grants from the American Music Center, Brooklyn Arts Fund, and the Jerome Fund for New Music from the American Composers Forum.

Artist Blog

John La Barbera On Arranging – Part 2

Part 1: https://isjac.org/artist-blog/john-la-barbera-on-arranging-part-1

Part 2.

“Since many of our contemporary songwriters can’t find middle C with radar, the first function, I think, of the arranger is to make order out of chaos. Once that order is achieved the real work starts. The arranger must build a structure that supports the song. The song is the thing, and the arranger’s function is to make it memorable regardless of one’s personal feelings.”

© Henry Mancini 1982 (Letter to John La Barbera)

Yes, the “song is the thing” and one must recognize what exactly comprises the song.  Obviously it’s the original melody and chord changes, rhythm, and this is VERY important: the audience.  No matter how sophisticated or amateur an audience, they need a reference, and that’s the song.   The next step is to “make order out of chaos ” as Hank has mentioned.  This can be taking a tune that has minimal chord changes or rhythmic value and cleaning it up.  Nothing too drastic, but just enough for it to be allowed in public without disguising its original style, or intent.  Now state this cleaned up original first.  This is extremely important, state the original in a state that is as close to the original as possible.  After that, you can manipulate it as much as you want and they, the audience, will get it.  One of the advantages of age and experience is having observed listeners’ reaction to a given arrangement and understanding why it worked or failed.  And, if one looks at the breadth of an arrangement, the thread of what is the  audiences’ focus is the song or what substitutes for that song.  For introducing students to the art of arranging, I tend to use the melody as an equivalent of the song to get them going because to quote an old Broadway adage, “people don’t leave a show whistling the chord changes!”

Think of the original song/melody as the “before” picture and after you’ve remodeled it (made it memorable) we have the “after” picture.  Without the original the improvement has little impact.  A good example of this is an arrangement I originally wrote for Buddy Rich on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”  This was in the very early 70’s and I was still finding my way in this arranging game with plenty of technique and ideas but lacking in the finesse department.  Buddy turned it down and I was confused as to why he would do that to such a great chart (I thought).  As I matured I finally realized why the arrangement really didn’t work with a typical audience…it’s the customized car/hot rod without a picture of the original.  Had I started it out with even just a piano solo of the original melody and chord changes, what follows would have really worked for a general audience.   I recorded it on my first big band CD “On the Wild Side” just the way I originally wrote it and it should give you an idea of what I mean.  While we’re on the subject, once you’ve done a chart and have it played, fix any obvious mechanical mistakes and then leave it alone.  Know what you would do differently and then write two new charts.  I’ve known students who are still working on the same chart they did years ago and musically, haven’t grown an inch.

So let’s get down to the “real work” and break down the components of a typical arrangement and identify the song/melody.  We’ll “build the structure” using a big band jazz chart as our first example.

I like to think that there is a consistent thread that flows from the beginning to the end of a chart that represents the melody, implied melody, or the principal focus of the chart that is easily followed by the listener. For instance, in a short, traditional AABA form (“I Got Rhythm” changes for instance) big band swing chart of a standard tune, we start with the intro.

The lead trumpet plays the melody of the intro as the top line of a full ensemble scored in block voicings (spell-check hates that word).  This is original material the arranger creates as a piece of “support structure” Hank talks about.  Then we present the actual melody of the song using the original chord changes with unison saxophones for the first A, then soli saxes for the second A.  Unison bones pick up the melody on the B section and the last A section melody is scored for full ensemble once again with the lead trumpet presenting the melody.  So far a consistent thread that gives our audience a reference with which to compare what follows.   It’s been my experience that an audience actually absorbs what is originally stated no matter how unsophisticated idiomatically they may be.  They may not understand melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic concepts but the song does become embedded somewhere in their being.  I’ve also observed the reaction of intonation and dynamics on an audience.  As a body they can’t say “the clarinets are out of tune in the upper register,” but they sense something is wrong and either fiddle in their seats or lose interest in what’s going on at the moment.  The same is true for dynamics or lack thereof.

Getting back to our chart, we copy and paste that introduction as an interlude being careful to change it slightly (see “Nuts & Bolts” below).  Let’s say this time it’s lead alto playing the melody down an octave from the way it was first presented in our intro scored in block voicings with the bones.  Though somewhat customized, that melody is immediately recognized and becomes reinforced in the minds of the audience and in a sense, becomes part of the song.

Then we may have an improvised trumpet solo for the full AABA form…that is the melody now.  The backgrounds behind the solo (usually non-like instruments, saxes & bones) are subservient to the improvisation and should stay out of the way…they are not the melody.  We’re not selling the backgrounds, we’re selling the melody. (We’ll address this further later on)

O.K.  Let’s reuse that intro/interlude as a send-off or buildup to the shout chorus.  But let’s make sure to change it so it isn’t predictable.  How about starting with unison bones with the original intro melody and then have it pyramid by adding the saxes and then trumpets.

Now a fully scored shout chorus using a slightly augmented version of the melody.  The audience already knows this melody and immediately recognizes that the full ensemble is “playing around” with it.

Now let’s bring the volume way down by having the piano play the melody of the B section with the rest of the rhythm section.  Then let’s give the last A to the bones playing the melody in thirds.

And finally let’s “bookend” the whole thing with that intro/interlude/sendoff melody re-harmonized  to imply a modulation to a last full chord.

Though rather formulaic, this gives us a good representation of how a melody progresses throughout the arrangement.  Also, this is a very good schematic to get students stared on building their first big band chart.  Stay away from blues and 16 bar tunes at first, the shorter forms demand more skills.  Now for some nuts and bolts.

Nuts & Bolts

Make sure you know all of the basics.

Watson, describing Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet.”  (Trust me, this is going somewhere)

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge… That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled ’round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.  A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.  Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.  He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.  It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.  Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.  It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

WHAT you say?

Well, one should have all of the information committed to memory that is needed on a regular basis to keep the music flowing.  If you have to look up the transposition or range of an alto or tenor sax, you’ll never get the flow necessary to produce a seamless piece of work.  Know all of the mute possibilities and as many performance nuances (false fingerings, bends, slurs, etc.) as you can.  Score layout for all plausible ensembles is a must, as is part layout.   And don’t trust those “out of range” flags from your notation program, they aren’t always correct.  However, you probably don’t need to commit to memory the range and transposition of an oboe d’amore so why let that clutter up your brain.  When you’re standing in front of 6 or 60 musicians asking questions, you better be sure you have all of the basics committed to memory.

Trust your ears and inclination.

“The computer playback of an arrangement, no matter how sophisticated the samples, should not be totally trusted. It is not an acoustic instrument!”  

If you fail to heed this warning you might discard some wonderful voicing or orchestration choices and have an end result that sounds less than vibrant.  The beauty of any combination of pitches of an orchestration lies in the overtones produced by same.  Without them, a true digital reproduction is impossible.  If you heard a playback of any of Gil Evans’, Thad Jones’, or Bobby Brookmeyer’s scoring with the best of computer generated sounds, you’d more than likely think them unacceptable.  You have to see it on the page, hear it in your head, and believe it.

“Copy & paste is your best friend & worse enemy”

Copy & paste is to computers as col  (come sopra) was to our hand written scores in the old days… “let the copyist do the work.”  All well and good, but it invites one of our enemies, predictability, into our work.  Even the slightest change to a block of copy & paste satisfies the requirement to “make it memorable.”  If you use your introduction as an ending or interlude/sendoff, change it slightly…add a few more measures, change a rhythm or harmony, change the meter and it will add continuity and avoid redundancy.

More on this later on.

“Never use your principal instrument to work out ideas.”   

Those who do tend to migrate to the same tonal centers, clichés, implied harmonies; it stifles new ideas.  Use your head for all of your initial work, your brain has no melodic limitations, no chop problems, nor anything else one might encounter on his or her principal instrument.  If you can, at first, stay away from the keyboard and just use your head.  This may seem impossible to some but with practice it’s something I think everyone can develop with varying degrees of success.  At the student level, non-wind players, especially pianists, have the most difficulty in becoming successful arrangers…they don’t have to breathe!  Quite often they tend to overwrite and their work sounds too busy.  Typically the left hand block chords become the trombone section and the right hand becomes the saxes or trumpets.  Space is the key here…let the players and material breath.

“Everything we do in arranging is dictated by tempo.”

Length of introductions, types of voicings, orchestrations, interludes, length of solos, all should be dictated by tempo. The number of measures needed for brass and strings to change to and from mutes and the saxes to change to and from doubles are all dependent on tempo.  So too for the note length of your backgrounds and also number of chord changes per measure.  It seems obvious but this isn’t always considered as a major tenet of arranging but it is.  In general, faster tempos demand longer note durations for your background notation and slower tempos the reverse.  If you think about it, the vertical voicings in a ballad are more strongly reviewed by an audience than those of a fast sax soli… tempo, this is key!  Again, we’re talking about audience perception and the more time they have to dwell on any individual event, the more unique and precise it must be.


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

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


About the Author:

Cropped-Square-300x300
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

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.