Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Honest Day's Work

My weekly schedule is structured so that Fridays are dedicated solely to "creative activity." I have no Friday classes, and do my best not to accept other appointments. I lock myself up in my office or home studio, roll up my sleeves, and work without distractions.

This Friday I wrote (scribbled!) lead lines for the remainder of the big band chart I'm preparing. I will harmonize these passages over the weekend.  I am not wedding myself to any of the following, but I think it's a decent start. First, I wrote this trumpet section soli line:



Writing a trombone soli was next on my agenda.  I led into it (following trumpet solos) with a subtle quote from the introduction to "Bye Bye Blackbird," as recorded by Miles Davis.



Finally, I wrote two choruses that will be played by the full ensemble before "recapping" with the melody. The first chorus will start off bluesy and rather quietly, and will then develop into a full out "shout chorus."  [My gut feeling is that the second chorus will need to be tweaked, to make it BIGGER and more dramatic... but we'll see.]


I ended the day by entering these lead lines into Finale, along with rehearsal letters, thereby making a visible framework for the entire chart. Going forward, it will be an exercise in "filling in the blanks" --- harmonizing, writing rhythm section parts, etc.  I'm in the home stretch!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Harmonized Sax Soli

I spent a good chunk of yesterday harmonizing the sax soli for Cow Tippin', the piece I was commissioned to write for Marshall University's Jazz One ensemble. Here's an audio clip, as rendered by Finale's playback function:



You can follow along by reading my chicken scrawl, below.


I like to keep worksheets such as this, as they help me see what I was thinking, should I decide to do any revisions later.  (I hate having to analyze my own work, after-the-fact.)

Next I'll be writing a soli passage for the trumpets.  I have a feeling it will be a late night.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Saxophone Soli Line

Life gets messy sometimes. Extenuating circumstances kept me from writing much lately, but I'm now back in the swing of things, with a deadline looming over my head.  I WILL complete this big band chart by January 31st!

I wrote out the following saxophone section soli line yesterday, between classes:



As I wrote it, I was aware of the lead alto saxophone's register. Knowing that I will be harmonizing below this melody, I refrained from going too low, so the end result won't sound muddy.  I intentional left some breathing space here and there.

Before going to bed, I scribbled chord symbols above each note, indicating some options for harmonizing this passage across the sax section.  Today I will make some finalized decisions as I enter the soli into the computer.

Ever up and onwards!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Wrestling With Self Doubt

Clearly I was delusional in thinking I'd get music written while my kids were home on Christmas vacation. Every time I was on the verge of making progress, someone would interrupt me with an emergency (untying a knotted shoe, finding the glue bottle, witnessing someone's latest trick, hearing about the latest modification to a Tech Deck skateboard, etc.) or I was breaking up WrestleMania upstairs. I then tried writing at night after getting the kids in bed, but found myself mentally and emotionally exhausted. After a couple of days of frustration, I put the music away. Not only wasn't I writing anything worthwhile, but I was becoming Señor Grumpy Pants with my wife and kids... which isn't exactly conducive to creating pleasant holiday memories.

The kids are now back in school and I still have a couple of weeks before the spring semester at university starts up, so I should still be on track to get this piece written before the end of the month. Yesterday (between 9:30 am and noon) I more or less finished the "in head," adding brass responses to the saxophone section's melodic statements on the repeat. Here's a Finale MIDI playback sample of the opening melody:



A saxophone soli is next on my writing agenda.

Hearing a MIDI file might lead folks to believe that I write directly into Finale; I don't.  I've been using pencil and eraser on big sheets of pre-formatted (reduced) score paper.  When I get a section completed, I'll enter it into the Finale music notation program to check my work, to make sure it sounds like what I had imagined. Only on rare occasions I will play an idea directly into Finale.

The following scans of my score paper include chord symbols, scratches, and notes to myself. It should give some insight into how I work and think. [The images should expand by clicking on them.]




This passage was tricky on a few fronts. I didn't want the brass responses to be too symmetrical and predictable. I wanted some overlap with the saxes, but at the same time, didn't want to get in their way. Over time, I debated keeping the brass in unison, or harmonizing them, or doing a combination of unison and harmony. As you can see, harmonizing ultimately won.  This was challenging against the already harmonized saxes.

I've been really conscious about keeping the ranges within the publishable limits of "edu-jazz," which has occasionally led to creative problem solving with trumpet section voicings, to avoid muddiness in the low register. Overall I'm pleased with what I've got so far. I think it's working.

Before ending this week's post I'll briefly touch on one more topic --- self doubt! I've written a lot of music over the years, most of which has been well received. I have ample musical training, experience and have attained a position teaching music. However... even at this stage in my career, I still wrestle with dubious thoughts while writing. A couple of times, I found myself questioning, "Can I not even write a simple blues... what's wrong with me?" I now realize and accept this as merely being a natural part of the creative process. I eventually get over myself.

I mention this because I believe there probably aren't enough composers/artists openly sharing how they wrestle with their art and with themselves as they create. I think it happens to many, if not most of us. The key, at least for me, is not giving excessive heed to potentially crippling thoughts, and knowing they will come AND GO.

Until next week... EM

January 10th addendum:

Ray DiCapua, a two-time McDowell Colony resident and studio art professor at UConn, wrote the following comment on Facebook in response to this post. I add it for the benefit of those who weren't privy to that discussion thread.
"Over the years, I've leaned to include the presence of doubt as a necessary part of the creative impulse. For me, the unknowing, insecure tone of our heart/mind is the very environment that is necessary (for me anyway) in which I might find something new, as yet unseen or recognized. Turning into the doubt, welcoming it, can be a powerful practice. It's a process that I discuss with students all semester." 
[Ray makes remarkably detailed, large-scale charcoal drawings. If you're curious, take can take a look at the following example of his work: http://portraitcompetition.si.edu/content/ray-dicapua

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Tale of A Burgeoning Big Band Chart

It's "getting real" in this third post chronicling the tale of a burgeoning big band chart. Remember when I said it wouldn't always be pretty, and that I have a tendency to try breaking out of any premeditated roadmap? It's all going down.

Last night I harmonized the opening melody statement using standard 4-part closed block techniques. I started with the obvious ("fencepost") chords that landed on downbeats, and then mostly worked backwards using tonicization/secondary dominants. I did it on paper first and then plugged it into Finale so I could hear it back and determine if I was on the right track.

I created the following "staff set" to show just the saxophone section and string bass. With my keyboard I played chords into the lead alto part, from which I will use Finale's "explode" function to distribute the notes across the sax section. For the bari sax part (the 5th saxophone), I will just double the melody down the octave.


Here's what it will sound like (sort of). I'm not sure why the bass sounds so percussive, but c'est la vie.
 

Ironically, writing a bass part that felt right took just about as long as harmonizing the melody for the sax section. These twelve measures represent about 3 hours of work.

As for deviating from my formal plan, I'll be doing so on two fronts ...so far. The initial unison melody statement will be presented by alto saxes, bari sax (down the octave) and 2 muted trumpets rather than just the sax section with the bari plus two tenors down the octave, which I imagine being too "heavy."

After two choruses of stating the melody, I think the momentum would be stalled if the rhythm section then dropped out for the sax solo. Instead, I think I will write a full chorus of sax soli with the rhythm section, before extracting them.

...to be continued.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Planning the Arrangement's Form

Years ago, I had the opportunity to ask John La Barbera for some big band arranging advice over a beer in Louisville, KY. John's arrangements, as many of you will know, have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, the Count Basie Orchestra, and many others.  His advice to me was:
"Always start by planning your arrangement's road map in detail --- then you won't waste time being stuck later." 
To be candid, there are times when I follow John's advice, and other times when I deliberately do not. Sometimes, I think more organic results are achieved when one allows a piece to unfold naturally, and remains open to the surprise of where the music might lead itself. To my ears, some big band pieces sound like premeditated cookie cutter projects. That being said, I do see validity in John's advice to plan ahead. We all know there are many ways to get home, but it would be foolish to embark on a journey without a route and destination in mind.

For this new Cow Tippin' blues chart, I have no intentions to reinvent the wheel. I imagine using a very clear-cut form that will feature every section of the big band in both solos and (unaccompanied) solis. Chuck Sayre did something along these lines in his Keepin' Track Of The Time chart, which I have previously programmed when conducting high school honor bands. Like his, I hope my end result will be a showy, fun piece, with ample space for soloists to flaunt their stuff.

Here's the plan (before writing a note of music):

[No Intro]

Chorus 1: head presentation
  • simple
  • unison sax section and rhythm section
Chorus 2: head repeated
  • bring in full ensemble
  • BIG & voiced
Chorus 3: sax soli
  • harmonized
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • Bari acts like walking bass. some funky bari lines "in the holes"
Chorus 4: tenor sax solo(s) 
  • solo break into it
  • short "send-off" (1 or 2 measures).  Punch into solo
  • 3 choruses?
  • last chorus:  last 2 measures = "brass send off".  m. 11: tbn, m. 12: full brass
Chorus 5: trumpet soli
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • could start with all 4 and then include duet, trio, etc.
  • maybe emulate walking bass for part
Chorus 6: trumpet solo(s)
  • short "send-off" (2 measures)
  • 3 choruses?
  • last 2 measures = send off into tbn soli, by 3 trumpets and saxes
Chorus 7: trombone soli
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • nothing before, so they can stand up
  • include some flashy walking bass in bass tbn.
Chorus 8:  trombone solo(s)
  • short "send-off"
  • 3 choruses?
    Chorus 9: Full ensemble
    • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
    • stop time on beat one of top
    • maybe start soft and not too high.
    • Crescendo into BIG full ensemble
    Chorus 10: Full ensemble, continued
    • continue, with added rhythm section
    D.S. or alternate head presentation

    CODA:
    • end fairly big

    Maybe it's the rebel/non-conformist in me, but even when I do premeditate an arrangement's formal plan, I find my brain trying to break out of it at every turn. If I can resist this temptation, this piece should be relatively easy to write.

    ...famous last words.




    Saturday, December 26, 2015

    Starting A New Big Band Chart

    I was commissioned to write a big band chart for Martin SaundersJazz 1  ensemble at Marshall University and said I'd have it to him by the beginning of the spring semester. Now that Christmas has come and gone, I figure it's time to roll up my sleeves and get this new piece of music written. There's nothing quite like a deadline to get the creative juices flowing. To add some extra pressure on myself, I programmed the piece with the Massachusetts All-State High School Jazz band, which I will conduct in March. They're already asking for the music, so I'd better get rolling.

    My plan is to document my process and progress on this blog over the next few weeks. I'm sure it won't always be pretty, but I will try to be both honest and consistent in my posts, sharing updates at least once per week.

    Even though the Jazz I ensemble at Marshall is a strong band, I've decided not to write them a Herculean tour de force. Instead, this will be an F blues written at about the grade 3 level (adhering to the range limitations specified by most publishers), so it can also be performed by both college bands and strong high school groups, without requiring Wayne Bergeron to sit-in on lead trumpet.

    Does the big band repertoire need another 12-bar blues chart? Maybe; maybe not... but I typically program a blues in the concerts I conduct, so why shouldn't it be mine? I imagine other directors might be on the lookout for a fresh blues chart to features their budding soloists... so maybe there will be be a market for this piece in the edu-jazz world.  We'll see, I suppose.

    A while back I did a 30-day blogging challenge where I wrote a blues every day for month and posted it. I recently went through these pieces and chose Cow Tippin' as one that I'd be interested in developing into a full-blown arrangement. Here it is:





    Cow Tippin' is a simple riff-type blues in C major with an AAB form. When transposed to F, the melody sits nicely within the mid-register of the trumpet and alto sax. The song's relaxed, loping "cowboy feel" gives it a distinctive, memorable flavor.

    In my next post, I will outline my formal plan (road map) for the arrangement.
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