I don’t know how interesting this will be for some of you, but since I’m really into arranging and grateful to the arrangers I’ve had the opportunity to learn from, I thought I would try to write about my experiences.
I’ve always had a huge respect for arrangers, even more than for composers. I just knew how complex arranging could be and I remember thinking “Wow! I hope someday I will be able to do that.” Of course the melody is important, but for me, it’s the arrangement that really makes a song work, by putting the melody in the best possible light and capturing the listener’s ear and making them say “Man! I like that.”
I remember when I was about nine and a guy quickly wrote a couple of bars for four voices and had four of us sing the parts. I thought Wow! That’s what arranging is.
My father loved big bands so he would drive me once a week so I could play with a big band called: “The Jazz Swingers”. Later, I tried to write an arrangement for the band, but I didn’t know about writing a score and just wrote all the parts (which is kind of like an architect building a house without a plan). Everyone was so impressed that I could keep all the parts in my head but it would have been so much easier if I had known to write a score. They didn’t ask me to do an arrangement, I just showed up with it and when the leader asked for the score I realized that I was going to have to make one. I remember thinking it was such a hassle because I thought I was finished with the arrangement and I had already let go of it mentally.
Then, when I was about 12 or 13 there was a writing competition that I think Yamaha was holding. I just went for it, bought some books on orchestration and wrote a whole rhapsody for symphony orchestra and piano. I had to send Yamaha a tape and of course I did not have an orchestra to record it so I recorded it with different organ sounds. It was horrible, I didn’t have a single string sound and I never heard back from the competition.
Later, I did get the piece played by a summer youth camp orchestra. The conductor saw it and had us play it, which was really exciting. He said he liked it, but he pointed out that the one thing he found a little awkward was the glissando’s I had written for the strings.
I didn’t really study arranging seriously until I went to Berklee, and then it was to such an extent that it was a bit overwhelming. Herb Pomeroy taught three arranging courses. The first was called “Line writing”, the second was called “Writing in the style of Duke Ellington” and the third was called: “Composition for Jazz Orchestra” . It was all a very sophisticated way of arranging, and it showed me some holes in my arranging technique from being self-taught. It also made me discover different approaches. At first it was daunting to realize how much I had to learn, but it was also kind of exciting.
I discovered a lot of fantastic arrangers while at Berklee, in particular I remember playing some charts by Hal Crook in Herb Pomeroy’s big band. To this day I still remember the impact of those charts.
More recently I was playing in the Wayne Bergeron Big Band and we did some charts by saxophonist Bill Liston. Bill really knows how to use simple stuff to its optimum. I talked with him about it and he explained that writing for high school bands has taught him how to write with simplicity.
If you don’t have much technique you can fake an arrangement by being loud and dramatic. But when you’re working with high school kids who might have limited range, you learn to make the most out of what they can do. Using this technique results in a raw but strong sound with each instrument in the middle of its range. Tom Kubis is another arranger who has really mastered this ability.
Now what I’ve learned from Bill Holman is entirely different. I’ve learned that I can do something that is completely beside the point and out of the blue. I’m not sure I can explain this well… developing an idea is one thing, but what Bill sometimes does is introduce something new with an abruptness and then he slowly takes you back to the original idea. He gives himself freedom and I’ve learned a lot from that. After hearing Bill’s charts I found myself wondering why I had limited myself and thinking “Hey, why didn’t I think of that?”
An example with Bill is that he might suddenly stop the form, or extend it in the middle. And that’s something everyone is taught not to do. The form is the form and you don’t mess with it. Then someone like Bill comes along and he throws out all the traditions and rules. Of course the thing to remember is that you have to really know your rules and traditions in order to understand how to break them.
Arranging for Maynard Ferguson was more of a flamboyant thing, big sounds and of course, the trumpet(s) out of the usual range. You could be a great arranger… but a bad arranger for a band like Maynard’s. I had always been a soft (tentative) arranger, you know, afraid of big changes. Even with trumpets I tended to never write them particularly high, I was cautious and so they used to end up in the lower register. I don’t think that I was a good arranger for Maynard’s band at the time I was touring with him.
I guess where I got most of my arranging experience was writing for a school in Switzerland. Fritz Renold was a close friend of mine from Berklee and had the idea of starting a school where students would learn to play jazz by rehearsing and playing next to professional musicians. So he put a big band together of students and hired professional musicians to teach and lead the different sections. The section leaders would work with their students doing rehearsals and clinics during the week leading up to the final concerts. It was a great concept and the students ended up sounding great.
Anyway, when Fritz first started the school he wanted all original music because it had to suit the abilities of the students. His goal was to have the instrumentation of the Duke Ellington Big Band, which was four trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones and rhythm but the students that were available to him never came near to matching that standard.
The first year I only wrote three of the charts but I realized right away how much I enjoyed doing it. Then over the years I wrote more and more of the charts. I wrote about 16 charts a year for eight years and that was my income. I wasn’t in any bands at that time so I was happy to be writing.
Then every April I would fly to Switzerland for ten days to work with the students and help put the show together.
Of course I’ve done a lot of arranging for The Tierney Sutton Band and my trio over the last sixteen years, but since they have their own dedicated web pages I thought that I would skip writing about those groups here.
At the moment I’m working on some charts for trumpeter Carl Saunders’ next recording, a chart for The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and several arrangements for the amazing Broadway singer Betty Buckley. I still have so much to learn and I’m keeping my ears open to all the amazing arrangers that are out there. I hope you will too.