Posts Tagged ‘arranging’

The case for Bob Graettinger and other musical experimenters of the late 1940s

I wrote this short little essay a few years ago for an email group I belong to, so I thought I might post it here.

When the big bands of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Harry James were at their height of popularity in the late 1930s and early 1940s they primarily played popular tunes designed for their dancing and light entertainment value. With the rise of other popular forms of music, especially vocalists, and the waning public interest in big bands as entertainment vehicles, some of the surviving bands of the mid-to-late 1940s began to experiment with music that was designed to be listen to. This change in musical direction also accompanied a gradual shift in performing venues, from ballrooms to concert halls. The biggest names to go in this direction were Duke Ellington, Boyd Raeburn, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and of course Stan Kenton.

Removing many of the necessary musical requirements to please the dancing public composers and arrangers, by the late 1940s, became free to try writing jazz music that incorporated elements such as irregular rhythms, the absence of a bass line or a steady pulse from the drums, original melodies that were not singable, dissonant harmony, different types of ensemble voicings, longer sections for improvisation. While some of the music written during that time is forgettable, or rather more graciously heard as “noble experiments,” there are many memorable pieces including George Handy’s The Bloos and Dalvatore Sally, George Russell’s Cubana Be Cubana Bop, Eddie Sauter’s Hangover Square, as well his exquisite arrangement of Summertime, Ralph Burn’s Summer Sequence, Gil Evans’ arrangements of La Paloma and Spanish Dance, Duke Ellington’s The Tattooed Bride and The Clothed Woman, Bob Graettinger’s City Of Glass and the many compositions and arrangements of Pete Rugolo and Stan Kenton, including the Prologue Suite and Artistry In Percussion. I hear the musical explorations of that time as being very liberating and that these musical experiments, failed or not, deserve to be seriously considered for what they helped to give to the future of jazz arranging and composition. Consider the mere idea of a Fugue For Rhythm Section (Pete Rugolo) let alone its intrinsic value.

While European musical developments after WWII had a long musical history to build upon, or reject, jazz composers had no extensive history of big band music as a form of ‘art music’ and were creating something quite new. Duke Ellington’s large scale work Black, Brown and Beige from 1943 was criticized for its failings in relation to European composition. But, there was no structural model, or tradition, for Duke’s new ideas. The same can be said about the work of Pete Rugolo, Eddie Sauter and Bob Graettinger.

Despite the mixed results of Graettinger’s work for Stan Kenton, I feel that both his compositions and his arrangements of standards are the ultimate in musical liberation for their time, akin to the work of Charles Ives, another musical anomaly. Yes, Graettingter’s music is audacious and sometimes totally overwhelming in sound. However, judged in its place in time it should be, if not loved, appreciated for what it helped bring to jazz composition and arranging.

By the late 1950s this tendency to incorporate concepts of classical composition into jazz music was finally given a label by Gunther Schuller - Third Stream Music. While this term does tend to evoke the late 1950s, the idea is still with us in the present work of Bill Holman, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely, Maria Schneider and many other contemporary composers and arrangers. These writers have moved away from the formulaic chorus forms of jazz to a more European model of compositional ideal - that of musical development. On top of this they bring the rhythms of jazz, space for improvisation and opportunities for self expression by the performers. With more time (roughly 60 years) modern jazz composers have developed a greater sense of control and balance in their work. Those musical experiments of the mid-to-late 1940s are what we have built many of our present day big band compositional and arranging aesthetic values upon. I am very grateful to our preceding masters for having shown us a way.

UBC Summer Music Institue 2010 - Week 2

The students attending the senior week of the UBC Summer Music Institute ranged from about 14 to 70 years old. For this years senior jazz band, aged 14 to 20, we ended up with 7 saxes, 4 trombones, 5 trumpets, 2 drummers, 3 basses, 2 guitars and 1 piano.

Given that this is a summer camp I tried to have all the kids playing as much as possible. This did mean, as horrible as it sounds, that I had all 3 bass players reading through the charts at once, but with only one of them running through an amp. Both guitar players, each running through his own amp, played at the same time, with the more experienced student playing sustained chords and single note lines while the other played in the Freddy Green style. Multiple drummers always presents a problem. While I’m not big on adding extra percussion, such as shakers and tambourines, on swing tunes, there were a few charts where I had one of the drummers playing congas. For the last 3 days I added a second drum set and 2 more bass amps. To show the students how it can work with multiple drummers I played them some Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland recordings, which featured both drummers, Kenny Clarke and Kenny Clare, playing at the same time. The big thing to avoid when doing this is duplicating the cymbal work. The best combination is for one drummer to play with brushes with no hi hat pedal work and the other as normal.

For the first day and a half I simply handed out charts, reading them down and making comments as we went. Sight reading seems to be a big problem for many high school students and I tried to help them with this essential skill. I feel there are several components to successful reading skills, which I constantly pointed out:

  • Feel the pulse, like it becomes a part of you, or allow the pulse to make you feel like moving, nodding or dancing.
  • Always know where beat one is.
  • Play with confidence. This means to not hide behind soft, inefficient playing. It is always better to play out and loudly step in a hole, or miss read a pitch or rhythm, than to hide and try to follow someone else. Strong confident playing is easier to correct than weak playing.
  • The more reading you do the better you get. I’m sure that if I were to hand out the same charts at the end of the week the students would fair much better.

Besides helping the students learn to play large ensemble jazz I also want them to experience music that they probably do not play in their school program. In addition to the charts we performed we also read through: Lullaby of the Leaves - arranged by Francy Boland, Chunga’s Revenge - arranged by Fred Stride, Sax-Accord - Fred Stride (we had a very nice sax section), Old Man River - arranged by Bill Holman, Michelle - arranged by Chico O’Farrill, Stereoso - Bill Holman, Ring of Fire - Fred Sturm, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue - Duke Ellington, Waka Jawaka - arranged by Fred Stride, Perdido - arranged by Duke Ellington and Opus In Pastels - Stan Kenton.

For the last 3 days of the camp I had the band playing the Clark Terry/Jimmy Hamilton Perdido Line as an ensemble warmup. This was a great way to get the horn players playing with the proper jazz/swing articulation, as well as helping them learn to play together. I would sometimes have the rhythm section stop and have the horns continue on. It is interesting how a horn section quickly begins to focus as a single unit when you take away their rhythm section crutch.

As the week went on I had the bass players and drummers pick out the charts they might like to play, and we went down to a single bass player and drummer for most charts. For the Saturday afternoon concert I knew I had to do at least 2 charts for each bass player and one with all 3. I also had to do a similar thing with the drummers. Since the guitar players were working very well I left them alone to play together on every tune.

On the last day of the “camp” we were given from 40 to 45 minutes to perform the music we had been working on. Beginning the concert program was a concert band, directed by John Van Deursen, made up of very young students from Taiwan. We followed with our set and the Senior Concert Band directed by my colleague at UBC, Robert Taylor, ended the program. All three groups were excellent.

Here is a rundown of the charts we performed on the final day.

Don’t Get Sassy - Thad Jones; adapted/arranged by Mike Carubia

This is a wonderful simplified version, for young jazz players, of the Thad Jones classic. Like the original, this chart in Bb instead of the original Db, includes some challenging ensemble work. The tutti melody includes broad gestures as well as a little figure that requires the horns to play lightly, almost catlike. The solo section is fairly loose in structure and allowed a fair degree of latitude to include several soloists. While a Bb blues scale can be used throughout the solo section, a couple of our soloists worked on playing through the changes. Keep in mind that the summer institute is not an honour band so for many of the students it is their first foray into more advanced literature and solo work. Some soloists had never played an improvised solo before. For me, given the very short time frame, I prefer to encourage the students to play out, or speak up, be pleased with their playing and to not feel that a good jazz solo is measured by the number of notes per bar or displays of virtuosity.

Dragonwyck - Gene Roland; transcribed/adapted by Fred Stride

I’ve always enjoyed Stan Kenton’s Adventures in Blues recording. The entire disc was written by multi-instrumentalist/composer/arranger Gene Roland, who is also featured on both soprano saxophone and mellophonium. Several of the charts had always seemed like they would adapt easily to younger players. Dragonwyck is one of my favourites so I started with that one. The A sections of the tune are quite simple and are great for the beginner soloist. The bridge however, requires use of the diminished-whole tone scale [aka the altered scale]. I did spend some time explaining this particular scale, to more than a few glassy-eyed students.

Malaguena - Ernesto Lecuona; arranged by Bill Holman; adapted by Fred Stride

I wrote this version of this Stan Kenton/Bill Holman classic, which is down a fourth from the original, in 2003 or 2004. I’ve used it with many ensembles since. The kids love playing this high energy chart. We had strong leads in the trumpets and the trombones, as well as a fine rhythm section, so it seemed like a no- brainer. I also had both drummers playing on this one. Drummer #1 played the part as normal while #2 played with felt mallets during the inro and added cascara-type playing throughout the latin section. The 2nd drummer did not play during the swing section. I also had all 3 bass players playing, except for the swing section where we went down to a single player. Multiple players on a walking bass line is not a good idea.

The Shortest Dissonance Between Two Points - Les Hooper

This one doesn’t seem to be particularly popular, but is, nevertheless, a typically excellent Les Hooper chart. I’ve never played or heard a bad, or even mediocre, Hooper chart. Les is a consistently first rate writer. This chart features bass throughout and so was a natural as a “bass section feature.” All three bass players played on this one, both melody and improvised solos. The horn parts are not hard to play, but do require work with blend, tuning and especially releases.

One Big Happy Family - Les Hooper

I did not intend to feature a Les Hooper set. But as I went looking through my library for a fairly easy-to-play blues, I ended up with this one in my hands. I always like to include something that I can get multiple soloists playing on, especially something that is harmonically straightforward, like a blues. I also wanted something that I could put together quickly and that would be relatively easy for the band, something they could relax on, as many of the other charts were tough on the face and brain. This chart fit the bill perfectly. This also seemed like the perfect choice to have my rehearsal assistant, Adam Gough, get his feet wet directing. He did well and the kids obviously liked him, he has a bright future ahead of him as a music educator. One of the enjoyable experiences during the week was watching one of the kids in band do an impersonation of me helping Adam with his directing.

After Six - Fred Stride

For roughly the past 10 years, of the 18 years the UBC Summer Music Institute has been in existence, I have been writing originals and arrangements for the camp. The main reason is write things that high school students will not have not played before and for me to deal with the challenge of writing with the limitations of your average high school student in mind. This year I thought I would write something in 7/4, not fast, using straight 8ths (latin?) and somewhat modal. I also wanted to have the horns start the piece playing a groove on a single pitch (G), which would become a pedal point against which I could set a melody, then eventually add the rhythm section. The resulting sound for this section of the chart is one of a somewhat busy and rhythmic texture. It then struck me that a contrasting section would be most welcome and should feature a single horn section, possibly voiced, over a simple groove. I then played with these ideas throughout the chart.

Harmonically this piece is quite different from your average high school jazz chart. The first chord that is heard is a C/Ab. These types of chords have quite a dark colour, which appeals to me. With this dark hue happening along with the rhythmic texture I felt the B section should at least start with a lighter, or sunnier, harmony, something from a major key source. I ended up with Fmaj7/G. Of course I’m never one to stay too long in a single harmonic territory, so I made my way back to the darker sounds of the A section, giving the chart an AAB form of 12,12 and 22. To help tie it all together the end of the B section uses the final 6 bars of A.

The solo section, which is not based on A and B, uses a combination of chords from both A and B. I also decided that since these chords are unusual for high school students I should spend a little longer on each one. I also felt I should not use the C/Ab types of chords, that I should restrict myself to using those chords that involve familiar scales and modes, Bb natural minor for the Bbmin7(b6) chord, D dorian for Fmaj7/G, B natural minor for Bmin7(b6) and F lydian for Cmaj7/F.

After Six - Solo changes

After Six - Solo changes

To be honest I didn’t think we would get too far the first time through, but the kids really surprised me, especially the drummer. They got the overall concept of the alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4 quite quickly which allowed us to work on phrasing and the overall feeling of the piece.

Finally, I’ve never felt that great coming up with titles so After Six seemed convenient as a working title. So, on the last day of the camp I asked the students if they could think of anything better and one of them suggested Before 8, which I thought was quite funny. But, after some discussion they all seemed to agree that After 6 was a good title, as you could read other things into it.

Black Friday - Walter Becker, Donald Fagen; arranged by Fred Sturm

I simply love Fred Sturm’s writing, whether it is for pros or young students. A number of years ago I acquired a disc of Fred’s arrangements of Steely Dan tunes for the HR Big Band in Germany. Black Friday was a perfect vehicle for our 2 guitar players. There is a significant amount of written lines for them to deal with and the solo section is over an E pedal, giving them quite a bit of room for solo work. The first few times we went through the chart both guitarists were playing their favourite rock/blues licks for their solos, but I put a challenge before them of forbidding any such licks and for them to play a little more freely, to go for harmonic colour. They were encouraged to think of E only as a home base and as a place of resolution, not as a chord. They were set free to journey anywhere in their solos and solo exchanges. They were both wonderful and rose to the challenge, of course I let them use their distortion and delay pedals. Another challenge in this excellent chart is the first trumpet part which presents several high F#s and one high G# above high C. It’s amazing, that when a piece of music is this well written, that playing those notes down the octave did not harm the energy level of the chart at all.

For the 18th time I had a great time working with the kids at the summer institute. It was obvious they really wanted to play challenging music in a great band. Pushing them hard and not allowing them to settle for anything less than their absolute best never seems to be a turn off for them. They definitely came through on the final concert. The energy on stage was exhilarating. I’m already looking forward to next year.

For more information about the UBC Summer Music Institute click here

After Six - Score - page 1

After Six - Score - page 1

Thank You Rob!

I have been very lax about getting off my butt and posting something to my blog. There always seemed to be something else to do, particularly writing music. Well, the recent passing of Rob McConnell has finally caused me to write something.

Thinking about Rob’s passing and listening to his music again has brought a few things to mind.

The day after I heard of Rob’s passing I hauled out my large collection of Boss Brass recordings and spent the entire day listening once again to some of my all time favourite big band arrangements - Just Friends, Body and Soul, Street of Dreams, Out of Nowhere, Portrait of Jennie, My Bells, Easy To Love, Autumn In New York, You Took Advantage of Me, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, A Time For Love, Take The “A” Train, Blue Hodge, Louisiana. In fact, I’m having a difficult time stopping this list. They are all great. Let’s just say that, much like one of my other favourites, Bill Holman, Rob never wrote anything less than a great chart.

I cannot remember when I first heard the Boss Brass. I could have been, and probably was, one the early brass ensemble pop LPs Rob recorded for the CTL label. But, it could also have been a Jazz Radio Canada program. Jazz Radio Canada, a CBC program that ran once a week nation wide in the 1970s, featured Canadian jazz groups in either live or studio sessions. I was addicted to the weekly program. Coincidentally, this was also the program on which I got my first professional writing gig, contributing arrangements for a Bob Hales big band program in 1976.

Listening to the weekly broadcast, it seemed there was an abundance of great big bands in the Canada, at least it seemed that way to me. From Vancouver we heard Bob Hales and occasionally Doug Parker, Edmonton had Tommy Banks. Other names escape me for the moment but I would be sure to have heard bands from Calgary and Winnipeg. From Quebec we heard Vic Vogel. There were groups from the Atlantic provinces and from the Toronto area we heard the big bands of Phil Nimmons and Rob McConnell. This program created a strong sense of Canadian jazz. It made us all aware that there were other players and writers out there creating some great music.

Of all of those bands, the one that struck me the most was the Boss Brass. I was probably 19 or 20 years old and, unlike my peers, I had grown up listening to the old big bands - Harry James, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman (yeah I know, I was a little weird). So the great sense of swing and the strong contemporary sound of the Boss Brass really grabbed me. I was a major fan from the first note I heard.

For starters, I was struck by the sound of Rob’s band. The virtuosity of the ensemble work, led by the stellar trumpeter Arnie Chycoski. Of course I simply loved the beautiful flugel horn playing of Guido Basso, who is blessed with a singular sound and style that is immediately recognizable (by me singling out 2 trumpet players you can probably guess my instrument of choice). No less wonderful were the saxes, playing those seemingly impossible solis, the beautiful trombone section led by Ian McDougall and the great rhythm section, particularly drummer Terry Clark.

I remember catching the Boss Brass on a CBC television special, probably in the mid 1970s, in which they played things like Mr. Tricky Nervous and Come Back To Jesus, Or I’ll Kill You which were never committed to disc. We also heard A Time For Love and That’s Right on the program (to be honest I only remember these exact titles because I recorded the program on cassette).

While all of Rob’s recording are great, there are 5 Boss Brass recordings that stand out to me:

The Best Damn Band In The Land was my favourite easy listening Boss Brass CTL recording, and my first BB disc. Of all Rob’s early CTL LPs this was the jazziest, featuring a wonderful, but short, chart on Louisiana and an exquisite Santa Claus Blues.

The Jazz Album. The first Boss Brass jazz LP was an lp I eagerly anticipated and it didn’t disappoint. Great charts and playing throughout, but Rob’s arrangement of Body and Soul was a standout. This arrangement has it all - a great reharmonization of the original tune, a sax soli using rich 5 part writing, great ensemble lines and a powerful shout. While I think it’s a highlight of the recording I understand, from several sources, that Rob didn’t care too much for this chart. Portrait of Jenny is another great arrangement and features wall to wall Guido Basso.

Big Band Jazz. What’s not to like about this 2 disc recording? This was a limited direct to disc LP set (mine is #01204). While there are a couple of very minor performance glitches, they take nothing away from this great set. I played this disc over and over and over and over and over and… Every arrangement is a gem. I would class this as one of the best big band recordings of all time. The opening track of Just Friends with the unbelievably together stop time tutti, the tricky trombone line coupled with the bass, the solos and the big, powerful shout. Then there is Street of Dreams, Dirty Man, A Tribute to Art Fern, and Porgy and Bess Suite. Writing about the quality of all the arrangements, and the fantastic playing on this recording, could easily take up multiple blogs.

Present Perfect. First of all, the sound of this lp was fantastic. Rob always had first class engineers and the recordings were always sonic delights. You Took Advantage of Me and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes are real high points on another album full of highlights.

The El Mocambo: Live In Digital. This was the first time I saw the band in person and provided a real “ear opening” experience. The band was at this club in Toronto for about 10 days and I was there almost every night. The virtuosity of the ensemble work was as stunning live as it was on disc. The dynamic range, even when I considered my previous experiences listening to Count Basie and Stan Kenton live, was breathtaking. Without microphones I could still hear every woodwind part. The entire band moved and breathed as one single entity.

All the subsequent discs, including those by the tenet, are equally wonderful, but the ones mentioned here are some of the first recordings I acquired so they have a strong place in my own musical identity.

Despite the great tradition of big band music, Rob McConnell managed to develop a big band style and sound that was all his own. Even his earliest recorded arrangement, that I am aware of, for Maynard Ferguson of Come Rain or Come Shine has some of those now classic McConnellisms - beautiful harmonization, great lines, great voicings, a great dynamic range and a superb sense of structure. Rob never wrote simple arrangements, consisting of a melody chorus followed by a long solo section with a few simple backgrounds and a return to the melody. His charts always had something substantial for the ensemble. Rob would often follow his opening melody chorus with some new, often virtuosic, ensemble writing. His charts would often have multiple climaxes. I found the same qualities in his own solo work, within his big band or small groups. Even the wonderful duet recording with Ed Bickert, Mutual Street, is loaded with great musical drama.

Certainly Rob, like all of us that write for big bands, borrowed and learned from the masters. However, I have always been impressed by someone that can create something singular, an identifiable sound, while still acknowledging the past. Rob, like Bill Holman and Bob Brookmeyer, fits this category. However, while Holman and Brookmeyer seem to want to reach beyond their past accomplishments, Rob seemed content to remain within his sense of the tradition. This does not mean that any one of these three writers is better artistically than the other. But rather there is, in my mind anyway, a place for all of them. Good music is good music.

If one had to single out one distinctive feature of Rob’s writing it would probably be his sense of harmony. His harmonic work really reminds me so much of pianist Bill Evans, always full of beautiful tension and release. He also maximizes these harmonic colours by using rich, full ensemble voicings along with a great sense of orchestral colour, especially with the additional french horns and woodwinds.

It’s not only Rob’s manipulation of harmony that allows him to stand out, he also had an equally deft hand with melody. And, although not known as a composer as much as an arranger, Rob’s own tunes, that are scattered throughout his recordings, were always a highlight. Even his larger scale big band jazz originals were always tuneful. Check out the beautiful middle section of That’s Right.

Finally, on top of all of Rob’s qualities as an arranger, composer and player, there was always Rob’s sense of humour, which would often come out of nowhere in the music. A favourite moment is the return of the melody in Louisiana where he changes key after the first bar.

As much as I love the sound of any good big band, it’s the writing that always seems to draw me back repeatedly, to listen over and over. To this day, after almost 40 years, I can still hear the sounds of those early Boss Brass recordings vividly in my mind and I know those sounds have had a very big effect on the big band music I create for myself. I have been told I am a harmonically oriented writer, who loves to write virtuosic ensemble passages. Well, I’ve always known where that came from. Now you do.

I know I will go on for the rest of my life enjoying the sounds of Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass.

Thank you Rob!

Let’s see, where is that CD with Phil Woods?

Categories

Archives