Washington Post March for Big Band
Today is Independence Day in the United States. For the past few years the Asheville Jazz Orchestra has performed an annual celebration around July 4th. Yesterday we played this year’s concert and premiered a brand new big band arrangement I just completed of Washington Post March, by John Philip Sousa. Here’s a midi realization.
As always when you use a computer to realize a piece of music intended for acoustic instruments, you’ll have to use your imagination. I could spend a lot more time cleaning up the playback and making it sound better, but that’s more work than I feel is worth for something intended to be played by real musicians. But you will get the general idea and it makes a decent demo.
When I compose my big band music I generally start with some hand written sketches first and map out the whole arrangement. Once I have the overall form and sections planned out I’ll get my score set up in Finale. Rhythm section parts and soloists I usually use Band-in-a-Box to create, export them as a midi file, and then import it into Finale. I can then copy and paste what I need into my big band file. I find it particularly helpful to have a bass part going while hearing back my horn voicings. Sometimes little quirks or errors in the importing process end up sounding pretty cool to me and make their way into the actual chart.
Creativity is a Mountain Lion
Do you know about The Oatmeal? It’s enormously popular. Its creator, Matthew Inman, has been publishing his quirky web comics since 2009. His comics touch on a variety of subjects, including science, history, grammar, technology, and animals. He also has wonderful comic series on creativity that has a lot of great advice for anyone who is working in a creative field or who wants to be more creative in their hobbies.
But as you’ll see, creativity is not a horse. It cannot be trained or ridden. You cannot tell creativity “I would like ten of those, please.” Because creativity is not a horse. It is a mountain lion.Eight marvelous and melancholy things I’ve learned about creativity, Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal
Inman’s eight chapters are:
- Erasers are wonderful
- Your ears are plugged
- Creativity is like breathing
- There are only bad ideas in brainstorming
- This is not a petting zoo
- The wondrous utility of self-loathing
- Killing your darlings
- The business of art
I can’t do justice to Inman’s style trying to summarize his thoughts, and it would also deprive you of the humor and insights he brings to the topic of creativity. Go check it out and see if it helps you be more creative too.
Tips Writing for Wind Ensemble By Alan Theisen
A friend of mine, composer and saxophonist Alan Theisen, has an essay on his web site worth checking out. It’s called Ten Tips for Composing For Band. The title is self explanatory but the additional information and recommendations for score study are great. Here are a few items from his list and some of my additional thoughts about it.
- Make space for resonance!
With this tip Alan compares scoring for the orchestra compared to the wind band and recommends that the bass instruments be scored lower in their register and bring the inner voices up on the higher side to leave a gap between the lowest instruments and the next instruments up. He lists this as his primary piece of advice for writing for wind ensemble.
I think this is also good advice for scoring for big band as well. Frequently with my trombone voicings, for example, I’ll have the 4th trombone (bass trombone) at least a Perfect 5th lower than the 3rd trombone, sometimes even more. I will often do the same thing for the baritone sax and 2nd tenor sax. Here’s an example from my most recent big band chart, an arrangement of the 16th century Finnish Christmas carol.
You can see in this concert pitch excerpt from my arrangement the large gaps between the bari sax and 2nd tenor. I’m a major 9th away on the first chord. On the downbeat of the 2nd measure the distance between those two instruments is 2 octaves and a 2nd! The rhythm section is playing at that moment, but there’s no other horns playing at this moment to fill in notes between those ranges.
4. Think in terms of “flat” keys.
Again, when scoring for a big band I will also tend to favor flat keys. This is, of course, opposite from what you might do when scoring for strings. Yes, good musicians practice and can sound good in all keys, so this certainly isn’t a “rule,” per se. However, wind instruments tend to sound better in the flat keys by nature and flat keys just sound more natural to those instruments.
6. Keep an eye on rests.
Particularly with brass instruments you need to give the musicians a chance to take the metal off the mouth and rest the chops. What’s nice about following this advice is that it also can provide some built in variety to the sonic landscape you’re writing. By passing around the phrases/sections/etc. between different instruments and not having everyone play all the time together you have lots of opportunities to play with timbre and colors.
10. Study scores by Alfred Reed.
Reed was amazing at scoring music for many types of ensembles, but his wind band writing is golden.
For big band scoring and arranging I recommend the book Inside the Score by Rayburn Wright. This book takes 2-3 charts by Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones, and Bob Brookmeyer and analyzes them in detail, going through everything from voicing techniques to how the peaks and valleys of intensity figure through each chart. It’s an excellent book for big band composers and arrangers to see how three masters scored their music for jazz ensemble.
Check out the rest of what Alan wrote over on his web site.
Hallelujah Chorus for Trombone Quartet
Back almost 20 years ago I wrote an arrangement of the Hallelujah Chorus, from G.F. Handel’s Messiah. I happened across it a couple of weeks ago and as I had just gotten a new microphone I decided to record myself playing all four parts, figuring I could post it as a holiday greeting. Here’s the recording.
And here’s the sheet music for it.
You might want to listen to it before you bother downloading it. I’m not sure why I wrote the 1st trombone part so high, maybe I was hoping to show off? I got it to sound passable in the recording by isolating that phrase and playing it a few times until I got it to sound OK, but I wouldn’t want to try that in a live performance. You can probably fix that by just playing trombone 1 down an octave there, but that puts it in unison with another part and I guess I wanted it to be in octaves like Handel’s original. Try it out and let me know how it goes.
The bass trombone part is a little rough in the recording, partly because I’m playing it on a tenor trombone and partly because I hadn’t played that horn for months (I’d mostly been playing my King 2B and staying out of the trigger range, but this was a positive kick in the seat to brush the dust off that horn and start working on my low register again).
A Visit From St. Nick
Every December the Asheville Jazz Orchestra performs an annual Stan Kenton Christmas Concert, where we perform music from the Stan Kenton Merry Christmas album, as well as other big band arrangements of holiday music. With the 2020 pandemic still raging, we were unable to perform the concert this weekend.
Instead, I asked everyone in the band to record their part to a composition I wrote in 2009 for that year’s concert, A Visit From St. Nick. It’s all original music set to the poem, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” by Clement Clark Moore. Everyone recorded their parts to a series of click tracks I put together and sent them back to me. I assembled them together and put together this recording.
Thanks to all the musicians who participated!
David Wilken – Composer, Director, Wendy Jones – Narrator, David Wortman – Alto Saxophone, Joel Helfand – Alto Saxophone, Walt Kross – Tenor Saxophone, Bruce Austin – Tenor Saxophone, Frank Southecorvo – Bari Saxophone, John Entzi – Trumpet, Woody Dotson, – Trumpet Tim Morgan – Trumpet, Steve Martinez – Trumpet, David Wilken – Trombone, Walton Davis – Trombone, Jamey Waren – Trombone, Jason Slaughter – Bass Trombone, Chris Morgan – Guitar, Richard Shulman, – Piano Harry Jacobson – Bass, Rick Dilling – Drums
Planxty George Brabazon for Trombone Quartet
Planxty George Brabazon is a composition by Turlough O’Carolan. My wife has gotten interested in folk harp and has been learning to play this piece. For fun, I wrote a trombone quartet on this piece.
If you want to hear a more traditional setting, here is a performance on YouTube.
Here’s a PDF copy of my arrangement, free to download.
If you do end up reading it or performing it, please let me know if you liked it.
On Memorizing Music
A while back I blogged about memorizing tunes you will improvise over. The consensus (which I agree with) is that it’s better to have the tunes memorized, because it helps free up your improvisations. I also pointed out that sight reading (or rather, “sight improvising”) skills are also important and so it’s worth being able to look at changes for the first time and improvise over them.
Organist Jonathan Dimmock discusses a similar topic in his article, The Folly of Memorization. In addition to discussing his thoughts on memorizing music he also brings in some historical context. Did you know that Clara Schumann was largely responsible for the trend for pianists to memorize their music? As a woman musician in the 1850s she struggled to be noticed, so she decided to do something that was unprecedented at the time – perform by memory.
The critics were outraged! That she, a woman!, would have the audacity to do something as bold as that was surely to be condemned. But the male pianists of the day saw it differently. They knew that their prowess, even their male virility, was at stake; they could not allow a female to show them up! And so the cult of piano memorization was born. In short order, this would also penetrate the world of concerto performances on every instrument.
According to Dimmock, the changing relationship of musicians to audience that occurred during the Industrial Revolution also made this trend go “viral.” It was during this time that the idea of a “genius artist” became mainstream. This concept is so pervasive today that it’s hard to imagine how musicians were perceived differently today. Prior to the Classical Period in music history musicians were seen more as skilled labor rather than artists. After Schumann’s influence, musicians strove to impress and communicate artistic goals, in part through performing demanding music by memory.
It’s after Dimmock’s description of the historical influences where I feel he goes off the rails. He appears to believe that either you’re going to be skilled at memorization or skilled at improvisation, but not both (or, for that matter, neither).
We now know that the brain is organized in a manner that performers are either adept at memorization or improvisation. Yes, these two things are hard-wired into brain functioning and almost mutually exclusive. Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music. One is not better than the other; they are different and of equal merit.
Without going through and picking apart his evidence and logic, I feel Dimmock is missing some important information regarding how we learn and retain skills, including memorization and improvisation. Contrary to Dimmock’s opinion, I think it’s clear that with practice musicians can learn to excel at both. In fact, as my blog post from earlier discusses, I think skills like reading, memorization, and improvisation are all part of the overall big picture in what I’m interested in while performing music. Sure, some people will have more aptitude in one or another (or both or neither), but we’re not really “hard wired” to only be good in one and never become successful in another.
Why memorize your concert music? Personally, when I’ve gotten ready for a solo performance (particularly as a featured soloist on a concert with only one piece to perform) I tend to have the music mostly memorized merely out of the repetition from practicing the piece a lot. Taking the extra step to prepare to perform it by memory isn’t usually a lot of work beyond. Many soloists feel that not having to watch the music helps them to play more expressively.
The strongest argument I can think of for memorizing music is the it simply looks better on stage. We know that even highly experienced musicians will rate the exact same performance differently depending on the attire that the performer wears. It may not be “fair,” but it’s something that musicians use to their advantage (dress up for your gig and your audience will like your performance better). Performing on stage from memory is just one more thing that can push a good performance into a great on in the minds of your audience.
While your musical goals may not align with mine, when I perform I’m trying to make a connection with my audience. Getting rid of the sheet music while soloing may only be a subtle difference, but it’s the aggregate of the small details that make for the overall musical effect.
That said, I think Dimmock has some valid points.
I believe that the cult of memorization is now coming into its sunset, led on by the sunrise of the Technological Age. It’s computers that memorize! Humans give something else to art, we give soul. It’s time to stop insisting humans need to act like computers. Let’s let computers do the memorizing, and allow people to do the soulful communication. It is only through the latter that transformation of the listener is possible.
What do you think? Is memorizing music bad, good, or neither? Do you feel that you have the ability to improvise, memorize, but not do both well? What experiences have you had that are different from mine and Dimmock’s? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Why You Shouldn’t Be a Fake Book Player – And a Couple of Reasons Why You Should
Eric (no last name that I can find) published an article on jazzadvice.com that makes a very compelling argument that jazz musicians should not read tunes out of a fake book. For the non-jazz musicians out there, a “fake book” is a collection of lead sheets (melody and chord progressions) of standard jazz compositions. Often you will find players using them on gigs or in rehearsals. Eric argues that using them is a crutch. He describes three pitfalls of using a fake book.
I) Ignoring your Ears
The main problem with fake books is that they allow you to play tunes and create solos without using your ears.
One of Eric’s points here is that by using your eyes to read the music you’re going to turn off your ears. Fair enough, but my classical music colleagues typically read music on their performances and they are always advocating using your ears and listening to what you are playing and what’s around you at the same time. Granted, they are not improvising, but there’s probably a happy medium in there that we can use.
II) You don’t really ‘Know’ the tune
When you rely on a fake book, you never get to the point where you “know” the tunes that you’re playing.
Back in the day I worked as a trombonist on cruise ships. On one ship I worked on we had two cruises a week, two shows each night. I ended up playing the same show four times a week, and some of the dance sets we played used the same book even more often. It got to the point where I had much of the music memorized, even without consciously trying to.
Maybe I’m different from some folks, but I naturally get to know tunes just by playing them over and over again.
III) Limiting the music
When you can only play the tunes in that fake book on your music stand, you’re not only putting yourself in a box musically, you’re limiting the music itself. But, what exactly does that mean?
Eric’s article was published in 2014, but even then I think I was beginning to see the use of tablets and phones as PDF readers become prolific on gigs. Many people (including myself) have what would be 1,000s of pages of sheet music stored on a tablet instantly available for when a tune is called that isn’t memorized. Sure, there are tunes that just aren’t in those books too, but we enjoy access to sheet music these days that just wasn’t possible in the days of fake book hard copies.
With the caveats that I’ve presented, let’s look at the benefits Eric mentions for learning tunes by ear.
I) Improving your ear
By getting away from the fake book, you’ll not only improve your ear, you’ll actually be using it.
Learning a tune by ear also has the added benefit of memorizing it faster (at least for me). Sure, it will take you longer (initially) to be able to play the entire melody, but that melody and the changes will get into your long term memory quicker and stick with you longer.
II) Knowing a tune intellectually and aurally fosters creativity
Creativity is dependent upon a certain level of proficiency and freedom.
I think most of us improvise more creatively when we know the tune really well.
III) Listening and interacting when you perform
One common theme that you see with players or groups that use books to perform is that everyone ends up staring at the book. Every player is in their own world and focusing on their own part. They’re all playing at the same time, yet no one is playing together. As a result there is little to no musical communication within the group.
Again, I would like to point out that in the classical world musicians strive to listen and interact with each other while reading their sheet music. Granted, there are different aesthetics going on in classical music compared to jazz. Instead, I think it’s a matter of attention.
We can typically only concentrate on a one or two things at a time, but performing music requires us to have control over multiple things at a time. Musicians will need to have technical mastery over their instrument, play together with other musicians, concentrate on time, harmony, melody, etc. Effective multitasking in and of itself isn’t about developing the ability to think about many things at once, it’s about having such command over the task that attention isn’t required, it’s automatic. That’s why having a tune committed to memory is so useful. By not needing to concentrate on the sight reading it frees up your mental energy to concentrate on listening and interacting with your fellow musicians.
And therein lies my best case (weak as it is) for learning to read lead sheets. Many of the “ear” players I gig with are not great sight readers. Don’t get me wrong, they can be some of the most creative musicians to work with, but when I get with them on a gig that requires reading they struggle. Jazz musicians who are solid sight readers don’t need to take up such mental energy trying to follow the lead sheet because their reading is to the point where it’s automatic. Those musicians can get on a gig with my big band and sight read one of my original compositions while listening, interacting, and improvising creatively. I don’t think it’s just the act of reading the music that is limiting a jazz musicians playing, it’s the mental focus of reading that’s pulling their attention away from listening and using their ear.
All that said, Eric’s article is a great read and the advice he offers is golden. Check out more of what he wrote and start (or continue) memorizing tunes. While you’re at it, take a tune you don’t know and haven’t heard before and force yourself to play over it by sight. Two sides of the same coin.
Improvisation Practice – Small Goals
A while ago I was working with some of my adult students new to jazz improvisation. We were practicing playing over the tune Take the A Train and I wanted to give the beginners in the group some ideas on how to select good note choices over the tune. We broke down the chord progression into vamps and practiced blowing over a single chord or one spot in the chord progression first, then applied what they learned in the context of the whole tune.
This concept, breaking up improvisation into working on 1 or 2 things at a time, works very well. By putting yourself into a box and forcing yourself to be as creative and musical as possible within those constraints you develop better technical and conceptual facility with your topics. What’s nice about this approach is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you need to in order to challenge yourself.
While the summary and practice tracks I’m posting here are related to note choices (e.g., “what” to play), you can easily take the same approach while practicing other topics. For example, I usually spend time with new students helping them practice improvising creatively while using lots of silence in their soloing (e.g., “when” to play). By forcing yourself to stop playing for a while you can take a moment to evaluate what you just played and think about what you’re about to play. Other topics could include “how” to play ideas (i.e., what register you play in, dynamics, etc.).
The tune Take the A Train is in C major, and most of the changes to the tune are diatonic to C major. This means that you can play C major scales for a large portion of the tune. If you’re new to improvisation, this takes some of the choices of what to play out of your hands and gives you a chance to work on other improvisation topics. Or, it will give you a chance to really listen to how the note choices fit over a particular chord. You’re not trying to just develop your technique, but also your ear.
Let’s take the first chord, C6 or Cmaj7. In the particular arrangement we’re playing the chord is notated as a C6 and to get students started with that chord I like to use the C major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are fun to play over and provide more melodic interest than a major scale because they have built in steps and built in leaps already in the scale.
Here is a MIDI file of a C6 chord vamp. Practice improvising only using the notes in the C major pentatonic scale above over this practice track. While you’re practicing, take some time to stop playing and think about what you just played and how it sounded. Then wait for a moment before playing to think about what you are about to play. Really try to be as creative as possible while only practicing the C major pentatonic scale over this chord. You might also try improvising over the notes in a complete C major scale and compare the difference in sound. Certain notes will sound hipper, while other notes (the F, for example) will sound quite dissonant and want to resolve a step up or down.
Skipping one of the chords in the tune for a bit, let’s look at the Dmin7 chord. This chord is diatonic to C major. Since it is the diatonic chord based on the second note of the major scale this chord is analyzed as a minor ii chord. If you play the C major scale but using D as the root tone the scale becomes the dorian mode.
Here is a practice track of a Dmin7 vamp. Try the same approach as above – use lots of silence to give yourself a chance to evaluate what you just played and think about what you will play next. Experiment with the different pitches in the D dorian mode over this chord. Some notes will sound more colorful and some will be a bit bland sounding (such as D, the root of the chord).
The G7 chord is analyzed as the V in the key of C. This diatonic chord is harmonically unstable (particularly with the 7th added) and wants to resolve to the I chord (C6, using Take the A Train as our example). Like the Dmin7/D dorian example above, the chord and resulting mode (G mixolydian) are diatonic to the key of C.
Here is a G7 vamp practice track.
The bridge of the tune temporarily changes the key center from C major to F major, but both for the sake of keeping the examples diatonic to the key of C and to give us another approach to the Fmaj7 chord, I want to demonstrate this chord as functioning as a IV chord in the key of C, rather than a I chord in the key of F.
Playing a C major scale using F as the root results in the above lydian mode. This is 1 note away from being a major scale. Instead of a Bb we have a B natural. This is a very colorful tone (#11) and provides a slightly different sound when used over a major 7th chord. Try it out with the below practice track.
There’s one other section in the arrangement of Take the A Train we were working on that contains a chord progression that can be largely thought of as diatonic to the key of C major, that is the turnaround. A turnaround, if you’re not familiar with this term yet, is a chord sequence that is really static in that it doesn’t really provide a cadence pattern or otherwise move us away from the tonic key. In our arrangement the turnaround happens in the last two measures of the first A section and the final A section. The chord sequence itself is C6, A7b9, Dmin7, G7 (or a I VI ii V sequence). As you can see, all but the A7b9 chord are diatonic chords that are covered above. Rather than get into the weeds about what to play over the altered dominant type of chord that this one non-diatonic fits into, to get us started improvising over this turnaround I want to present this turnaround with a diatonic Amin7 chord instead (a very common chord progression, I vi, ii V).
Here is a practice track of the turnaround C6, Amin7, Dmin7, G7, but rather than two beats per chord each chord lasts one measure. All of the chords and resulting scale/modes are diatonic to C major, so if you play nothing but notes in the C major chord you can get by. As you’re playing this chord pattern, though, you will want to listen for how certain notes sound over each chord. Remember to use lots of silence to help you evaluate and think ahead.
There are three other chords in our arrangement of Take the A Train that are not diatonic to the key. Two of them are dominant 7 chords. Like the G7 chord above, using the mixolydian mode will provide good note choices for your to practice.
The C7 chord happens just before the bridge. It functions as a V chord to the IV chord. In other words, C7 leads to F.
The last chord to discuss is the most unusual, but it’s not all that hard to play over. The D7#5 chord that happens in the 3rd and 4th measures of the A section provide some harmonic instability and help set up the following ii V I diatonic pattern. A scale that gets good note choices for this chord is the D whole tone scale. A whole tone scale is a 6 note scale that only has whole steps between pitches. Because it only uses whole steps, you could even think of the below scale as having no real root. Any of the pitches in the scale could sound like the root of the chord.
Try out the whole tone scale of this practice track. Remember to use silence in your soloing.
Once your comfortable enough over the individual chords you can work on applying them in the context of a tune. Here’s a practice track to the entire tune Take the A Train.
If you need the changes to the whole tune, here is a PDF of just the chord progression, but you’ll want to know that this particular PDF isn’t exactly the same as the arrangement my students are working on. It’s close enough, though, that you should be able to use it to help practice the above note choice exercises in context. As always, use lots of silence during your practice to evaluate and think ahead. Listen closely to how particular notes of these scales sound over the chords. Listen to the musical effect of improvising only using steps and compare this to times when you might use leaps (or, in the case of C pentatonic, when they happen to be built into the scale).
Then after a while, make sure to forget about all this and jam. Let your ear be your guide as to what you play and let the spirit and mood of the music tell you what to play, when to play it, and how.