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 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. 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

    • 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.

    Tuesday, December 22, 2015