Friday, September 28, 2012

Vince Mendoza Interview

On Wednesday I posted a video performance of the Metropole Orchestra performing Vince Mendoza's composition, "Esperaça".  This afternoon, while eating my lunch, I stumbled upon an interview from the same time, where he discusses this very piece and has the orchestra demonstrate some of its constituent parts.  What a find!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Keepin' It Real

This has been a much more productive week of music writing.  I attribute it to two things:
  1. better (rigid) time management, and 
  2. returning to the use of old fashioned manuscript paper.
Maybe I'm showing my age, but I love working with pencil and paper.

It has been insightful to blog about my process as I go about arranging music.  Every once in a while I have an "ah ha moment" where I make a major observation about myself and how I work best.  I had one of these realizations when I saw how much faster ideas came to me when I turned off my computer and worked at the piano, rather than in front of a computer screen. As nice as the music looked in a previous post when presented using Finale notation software, I think I was jumping the gun.  I don't normally use Finale until later, and by using it early on, I inadvertently slowed myself down.

In an effort to "keep things real" and to honestly present how I go about writing, I've decided to show more of my pencil sketchings (complete with many visible erasures),  rather than transferring my work to music notation software as I go. 

Here is a sample of what I wrote on Tuesday.  It is a shout chorus which will utilize surrounding drum fills/hits.  I wanted to keep the intensity up after the initial statement of the head (melody), and to feature the drums early in the piece, as the composer, Tyler Hornby is a drummer.  I also like the idea of "messing" with the form by presenting a shout chorus towards the beginning, rather than at the end as one sees in 90% of published big band music.

The audio clip is a recording of me at the piano, but the passage will be played by the entire horn section, with the exception of the fourth measure which will be played only by the rhythm section, to allow the music to breathe.  The lead lines presented here will be fully harmonized by the horns.

After this section there will be a quirky, paraphrased restatement of the head with plenty of space for drum solo fills to continue.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Metropole Jazz Orchestra

"Wordless Wednesday" is here again.  I know you will enjoy this video of the Metropole Jazz Orchestra, based in the Netherlands.  I own and regularly listen to the CD recording of this piece, but this video helped to answer some of my orchestration questions.  Let's hear it for Vince Mendoza!

Monday, September 24, 2012


I made some progress on Tyler Hornby's tune this afternoon by sketching a harmonized version of the bridge.  Here is a "sneak peek":

The trumpets will play the melody in octaves.  I think I will put 3 trumpets in the higher octave and one down.  This is a trick I learned from Michael Abene in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.  According to Michael, Manny Albam emphatically discouraged octave writing with 2 trumpets up and 2 trumpets down.  1 up and 3 down or 3 up and 1 down are both preferable for intonation reasons.

To the trumpets I may add one saxophone to the lower octave to help emulsify the sound.

The trombones are harmonized, similar to how a pianist punctuates with his/her left hand.  I will add the bari sax to the bottom, playing roots along with a similar, but not identical string bass part.

I had to be careful about the lower octave trumpet crossing into the trombone range.  By choosing mid-register trombone voicings and leaving some space, I think I avoided any problems.  The melody is just a bit too high for lead alto saxophone... and there's nothing worse than sax parts in the highest minor 3rd of the instrument. 

I changed a couple of rhythms and notes but more or less kept this section true to Tyler's original lead sheet.

Drums are always in the forefront of my mind, but interestingly, they are the last thing I enter into a score.

Now I'm onto the "shout" section, with drums soloing around ensemble hits.  Where did I put that hand-held cassette recorder of mine?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

I didn't get much music written this week, and find myself feeling anxious, agitated and annoyed. Meetings, "pressing" e-mails and work deadlines ate huge chunks of my time.  Squeezing in writing between appointments just isn't working.  Somehow I need to block our more three or four-hour designated time slots in my week to do some focused arranging.

The problem is, when I ignore my e-mail inbox for just one day, there are usually at least 60 new messages waiting for me.  Of these, about 20 will require serious consideration/preparation before reponding.  15 or so will require "urgent responses".  More and more, I am finding it increasingly difficult to "unplug".

Following a day of musical productivity, I inevitably have to spend the following day catching up on what I have "neglected".  E-mail has become the bane of my existence.  

In addition to managing my inbox, I was so over-scheduled this week that I didn't even have time to put anything away.  I would teach a class, drop my books off on my desk (or piano), and then run across campus for a meeting.  My office looks like a refuse site.  This is clearly contributing to my stress levels.  Returning my work space to a productive environment will be my first step towards getting back onto the path of productivity.  Deep breaths.

Perhaps my biggest challenge at this time is not allowing myself to be a grumpy, old bastard.  My wife deserves better.

I generally pride myself in being good with time management, but this week I lost the battle.  Tomorrow represents the beginning of a new week and a fresh start.  I like fresh starts.

~ Earl

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Monday Night: Live Jazz at UConn

UConn Jazz Showcase. Monday, Sept. 24

All of the UConn jazz groups will perform a sampling of the music they are preparing this semester.  Expect plenty of variety; from bebop to big band swing!  Gregg August, Earl MacDonald, & John Mastroianni, directors.The concert begins at 7:30p.m. and will be held at the von der Mehden Recital Hall, which is located at 875 Coventry Road, across from Mirror Lake on the UConn campus in Storrs. General Admission is $10, free for UConn students and for children. There will be plenty of free, well-lit parking across the street. For more information please call 860-486-2969 or visit us on the web at

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wordless Wednesdays

Every Wednesday I plan to post a video that has caught my attention or inspired me in some way.

I listened to the Brussels Jazz Orchestra this morning while doing a training run.  I have heard this ensemble live twice, and think they are one of the most polished big bands around.  I really wonder if they are on the radar of musicians from this side of the pond.  Composer/Arranger Bert Joris is an incredible talent.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Making Headway

Slowly but surely I am making progress in arranging Tyler Hornby's piece "Dig In Buddy", for big band.  Below I have posted a MIDI audio file and the first five pages of the score.

To be honest, usually at this stage in the arranging process I haven't added as much detail within the score as I am presenting today.  Rather, I try to sketch lead lines for a bigger portion of the piece, and fill in the missing elements later.  Because I am presenting my ideas publicly through this blog, I decided to leave less to the imagination.

As you listen to this preview/excerpt, here are the basic elements to listen for:
  • the underpinning vamp played by the trombones and rhythm section
  • the bluesy riff lines played by 2 altos, flute (optional), harmon trumpet and guitar
  • full ensemble "punctuations" at the end of phrases
On the repeat back to rehearsal letter A, I will add additional horns to reinforce the melody and provide some contrasting interest.  The trombones will then join the piano in playing the vamp, after having had their horns off their faces during the first repeat.  I will mark this with the instruction "second time only".

Feel free to ask me any questions about what I have presented here today.  I still view all of the above as a draft, and am trying not to become too attached to my ideas just yet, so as to remain open and subjective.  More will be on the way soon.

You can hear Tyler Hornby's orginal version of "Dig In Buddy" (and follow along with his lead sheet) by clicking on this link to one of my earlier posts.

By the way, I'm looking for some more followers of this blog.  Please consider signing up on the right hand column.  Thanks!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Leap

Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012

7:47 PM:
The kids are in bed and settled.  The evening dishes are washed and put away.  I've got my electronic keyboard set up on the kitchen table and the coffee pot is on.  Tonight I have a three hour window of time to get some music written for the big band project I am doing for Tyler HornbyLet's go!

My electronic keyboard set up on the kitchen table, ready for an evening's work.
tonight's work station
Tonight's goals:
  • Start up a Finale file for this project, using my big band template.  Enter title, credits, etc.
  • Enter notes for the intro and "in head", following the formal plan I created at the end of last week.
I don't want to get caught up with too many details.  My focus will be on lead lines, the vamp I wrote on Thursday, and the piano part.
8:22 PM:
Completed the customization of my template file for this project.  Now, onto entering notes.

9:09 PM:
It feels GREAT to have finally made the leap from lists and scraps of paper to entering notes into a score.  It now looks and feels like I'm writing a big band chart, rather than just dealing with a collection of vague, abstract ideas.  Psychologically this is HUGE!

10:32 PM:
Cracked open a Sam Adams Octoberfest (my first of the season).  If I have any more caffeine at this hour it'll be a sleepless night.  Since ending my fast a week ago, I have been extra sensitive to caffeine.  One evening I had two cups of tea and didn't sleep a wink.  I ended up catching a nasty cold which has slowed me down considerably and set me back in my running training.

About a 1/2 hour ago I found a nice contrary motion line for the recurring "measure 16 lick".  I like it!

11:57 PM:
I'm calling it quits for the night.  My kids will be up at 6 AM, and I'm on my own this weekend.  My wife is off in Boston running the Boston Half Marathon. This was a full and busy day.  In the morning I mowed the lawn and did some painting outside, and then I spent the afternoon with my kids at Old Sturbridge Village.  I'm wiped.

I'm happy with the work I did this evening.  So far I haven't deviated at all from my formal plan, and it appears to be working.   I like how it sounds with Finale's playback function.  Maybe I'll post an audio MIDI file and a score excerpt on Monday.  I have about a minute and a half of music done so far.  Not all the details are filled in, but I can see where its going and what needs to be done.  I'm feeling good and optimistic.  This will be a great chart, if I say so myself.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jazz Arranging

This is my second day of blogging about my current big band arranging project; it's a piece entitled "Dig In Buddy" by Calgary-based drummer, Tyler Hornby.  After completing yesterday's list of observations and ideas, I sat down at the piano to do some experimenting and exploring.

The first item on my list was reinforcing the Art Blakey-esque quality of the piece, if possible.  The question soon became "How?"  I experimented with 3-horn "crunch" voicings (for a lack of a better label), that I have seen in many of the Jazz Messenger charts I have transcribed over the years.  These voicings typically have a major third and a minor second below the melody. Often they are used over a pedal point.  I applied these to Tyler's progression and came up with a little vamp that could be used within the intro, to underpin the melody, and as a background figure behind soloists.

Next, I experimented with the expansion of the hip rhythmic idea in the final measure of the piece.  I reharmonized it a few ways to create an expanded sound-off which will lead into a solo break of sorts.

Both of these ideas are demonstrated in the video above.

Today my main goal was to map out a formal plan.  This may change, but here is what I sketched:
  •  Introduction:  8 measures.  Vamp.  Trombones + rhythm. Maybe unison sax lines over top.  End w/ lick from m.16, either in its original form or w/ rhythmic expansion, played by full brass.
  •  Melody (1st 8): vamp continues underneath.  Melody presented by trpt and tenor, like original.  M. 8, entire brass section plays punctuation figure.  Spill off on Cmi.
  • return of 8 measure vamp.  [I'm not ready to move on yet.]
  • Melody (1st 8) again.  Full brass punctuations at measures 4 and 8, using his melodies.
  • 2nd 8: swing release (walking).  Big.  Maybe change orchestration on beat 3 of measure 12.
  • Full ensemble shout/rhythmic hits encasing a drum solo [it's his tune after all!].  This will serve to extend the intensity generated in m. 16.  I'll keep it big and exciting.  16 measures, ending w/ lick from m. 16.
  • Restatement of head, in a different way.  Voice it.  Alter it rhythmically slightly (either melody or phrase ending punctuations)
  • "Extended sound-off" (from video): Gb13, Eb13, D7, Db7, G7, break.  Sax section "fills" over extended harmonies.  Sax section takes 4 measure solo break.
  • Saxophone soli.  2 choruses.  During the 2nd chorus the brass backgrounds gain prominence, build and gradually take over.  Incorporate last 2 measures of melody.
  •  Full ensemble continues well into the first chorus of a trumpet solo, keeping the intensity up initially.  3 chorues.  2nd chorus, minimal backgrounds.  3rd chorus, intro vamp by tbns, on first half.
  • Lead into a fire-y tenor sax solo, propelled by quirky low register 5ths, alternating w/ 4ths structures.  Looped vamp?  Perhaps a modulation here would "give it a lift".
  • Rhythmically expand the tune's melody, leaving large spaces for drum fills.  Keep it quirky.  Fairly big at points.  Some lines in contrary motion.  End the piece with a different vibe from where it began.  Arrive somewhere new, rather than return home.

Ok... so there we have it.  It will be interesting to see to what degree I end up deviating from this plan.  For now, I am simply pleased to have a plan in place.  Now... to roll up my sleeves, sharpen my pencils and get to work!!!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Digging In

"Dig In Buddy" is one of two tunes by Tyler Hornby, which I will be arranging for 17-piece big band over the next couple of weeks.  The music and a recording from his "Shadows of A Brighter Day" compact disc appear below.  Listen along as you scroll down to read my commentary.

Dig In Buddy is a composition by Calgary based drummer, Tyler Hornby.

In the early stages of planning an arrangement, I often find it helpful to list ideas which could be further developed.  Here are my thoughts and observations when listening to the quintet version of this piece:

  • It has a real Art Blakey "vibe", in the hard bop vein (explosive at times, dynamic contrasts, blues-y yet sophisticated)
    • Maybe I will expand upon this, making it even more Blakey-esque, using idiomatic 3 horn voicings.  Perhaps I could go so far as to add a "Blues March" section.
  • Strong features:  
      • the rhythmic element in the last 3 bars.  This could be expanded (intro, "sound-offs", etc.).  I like how the last measure functions as a "sound off" into the solos.
      • The quiet first half of the head builds anticipation.  It foreshadows something big about to happen in the 2nd half.
  • The second half of the tune could easily be orchestrated to bounce around between sections or groups of instruments, like a group conversation (1 or 2 measure fragments).  If I go that route, this conversational idea could be continued and expanded.
  • Measures 4 and 8, when played up the octave (as written), act as a strong punctuation.  To further enhance this effect, these measures could be orchestrated for full big band.  I also like these measures played down the octave, as the horn players elected to do on the first repeat of the "in head".  In some ways I actually prefer everything played down.
  • The tempo would lend itself well to an Afro-Cuban 12/8 feel.  Tyler almost goes there a few times.
  • There are lots of chords.  When developing the piece, some form of modal release might be welcome.
  • C blues scale ideas are an easy, yet effective way to skate over the expanded C minor progression in the first 8 measures.  Knowing this might come in handy when writing a soulful sounding soli.
  • The piano player, Chip Stephens, plays some hip, lower register 5ths, alternating with chords at about 5:15 on the recording.  Something like this could be expanded into a solo vamp, to create an alternate improvisational environment for one of the horn soloists.
  • The last measure of the tune is incredibly strong, going into the solos.  Coming out of this, I found myself wishing that the intensity would continue at the top of the form, into the solos.  As the arranger, maybe I can play a hand in dictating how the soloists and rhythm section respond, so that the formal lines are blurred, thereby creating a more cohesive overall shape.  Perhaps I will have the ensemble continue playing (well) into the solo form, extending the intensity created by the figure in measure 16.
Musicians, if you see/hear elements within this tune which I didn't list, but that really captured your interest and sparked your imagination, please let me know.  It would be nice to have some interactive input from folks --- as opposed to just working alone in the black holed vacuum of my studio.

My plan for tomorrow is to come up with a formal outline/plan for the arrangement.  It may change as I "dig in" (pardon the pun), but it should serve as a good entry point.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Process

The impressive mural in the picture below mysteriously appeared on a wall in the University of Connecticut Art Department one morning.  Apparently a group of students erected it during the night, when no one was around.  I Googled the phrase, but nothing really came up.  It doesn't appear to be a famous quote, but yet it spoke to me on several levels.

the process of failure is greater than the product of success

So, what does it mean?  The following thoughts came to mind:
  • The process is what matters.  The process is where we grow, learn and develop as artists, people/spiritual beings.
  • We often learn far more from our failures than from our successes.
  • As uncomfortable as it may be, stepping out of our comfort zones, stretching ourselves, and trying new things/approaches is of paramount importance if we don't want to stagnate.
  • It is better to try and fail than not to try at all. (OK, now I'm starting to sound overtly cliché.)
I think a lot about my process when writing music.  I walk a fine line in trying to be as efficient as possible with my time, while often trying new methods and approaches.  However, I think there are some steps I take consistently at the various stages of composing and arranging pieces.

This mural got me thinking...  Maybe I should take a closer look at my approach to artistic creation. Here's what I plan to do:  I was recently hired to write two big band arrangements of compositions written by Canadian jazz drummer, Tyler Hornby.  I hope to complete them over the next couple of weeks.  On this blog I will share my methodology, as well as my observations from self examination during the process.  Hopefully I will learn something about myself and the systems I employ while providing you with some insight into what goes into writing a big band chart.

Ultimately, failure is not an option for me here, but I do anticipate that there will be a few along the way.  Something would probably be wrong if there weren't.  :)  I hope you will come along for the ride.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Jazz Night at Lu's Cafe

This Thursday, September 6th, marks the return of jazz to Lu’s Café in UConn’s Family Studies building. Each Thursday throughout the Fall 2012 semester, live music will be performed in the form of a jazz jam session. Music begins at 8:00pm; it ends at 11:00pm. Coffee, espresso and pastries will be available.

jazz night

I see this weekly jam session as crucial for the musical development of my students. It will give them the opportunity to apply to the bandstand what they have learned in the classroom. They can try out their skills, as well as challenge and push one another.

Students are required to memorize the standard jazz repertoire, as I am stipulating that reading of music in this setting is not allowed. To play a song, it must be memorized. For starters we will draw upon the list of 12 required tunes for the sophomore jazz jury:

· All The Things You Are
· Alone Together
· Anthropology
· Billie’s Bounce
· Body and Soul
· Maiden Voyage
· Out of Nowhere
· Recordamé 
· Solar
· Someday My Prince Will Come
· Stella By Starlight
· What Is This Thing Called Love

Each week I will be adding one new tune to the list which will be played regularly thereafter. Here’s the schedule:

Sept 6: Four
Sept. 13: Pent-Up House
Sept. 20: Broadway
Sept. 27: Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)
Oct. 4: 26-2 and Countdown
Oct. 11: Darn That Dream
Oct. 18: What’s New
Oct. 25: Chelsea Bridge
Nov. 1: Moment’s Notice
Nov. 8: Milestones (bebop head)
Nov. 15: Unit Seven
Nov. 29: UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)
Dec. 6: Windows

I will lead the sessions from either the piano or drum set. In addition to benefiting my students, this jam session will certainly assist me in keeping my chops sharp. There is a nice Yamaha upright piano and a drum set at the venue, so schlepping will be kept to a minimum. Plus, it will be nice to play on my home turf, rather than having to drive 40 minutes to Hartford.

Another favorable outcome to this weekly jam session is the social aspect. For students and faculty, it will be nice to have a place to hang out on Thursday evenings, where we can all interact on a more casual level. This should help in building a sense of community. I hope you will join us!