Form, Melody, And Hotness

kandiskyHello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!

I’m in the thick of it now folks, donate your fans, bring me your ice-packs, yours truly is a hot jazz composing/arranging machine and I’m burnin’ up! Specifically, writing hot jazz for the 10-piece “Chamber Jazz ensemble” at McGill so this SMNP is going to be an appropriate length for a change.

I pulled an all-nighter last Wednesday in order to have a new chart ready for the 10-piece band to play on Thursday morning and I’m pleased to say the music sounded pretty good,… I think. Not having slept the night before, I was pretty brain dead on Thursday (after rehearsal the only thing I was able to do was watch “Amazing Billiards Trick Shots” on TSN and then pass out).

I’m really starting to get into writing music for larger ensemble because it gives me that which I covet so,… control. Musical control that is. Composing for a small group (3-5 pieces) is similar to drawing a sketch and letting the band fill in the texture and colours. Writing for a larger group however, feels more like architecture: you have to consider the look of your house, the style, how people (the band) will function best within it, and most importantly it has to be structurally sound. (hehe, excuse the pun.) I can almost feel the different parts of my brain flexing while considering the balance of harmony, melody, voice-leading, tonal texture, balance, phrase shaping dynamics, and form. It’s fun,… and who doesn’t like a little flexing?

The only part of the process that takes getting used to is the turnaround time involved with reading music with a student band. By “turnaround time” I mean the time in which it takes for the band to play your music at performance level. If you’re the composer, this period of time kinda hurts because you’ve spent many hours/days/weeks to write this music just so; you’ve poured all of your energy into the fine-tuning of it and so once it’s done, the song is already deeply ingrained in your brain. Then, when the band reads it and plays mistakes, it feels like you’re being prodded with small pointed sticks. I know that sounds dramatic but it’s true damnit!

It’s during this learning process where professional musicians stand out. How? They just “deliver” on the music so much faster. It’s not really a question of talent (there’s a lot of talent in this 10-tet at McGill); I guess it’s because students get used to weekly rehearsals and just having lots of time to prepare things where as pros have gotten used to the whole trial by fire approach and hardly ever have much time to get the music concert worthy. Pros know that time is money, and part of the reason you get called for a gig over the someone else is because you can focus, sight-read, and get into the spirit of the music quickly.

Now to be fair, sometimes the students are doing everything right and it’s just my music that needs fixing but it takes a fair amount of prodding time before I can tell how many of the problems are on them and how just how many are on me. Anyways, I’m not trying to be asshole here (who needs to try?) it’s just interesting to see how pros and students differ in ways beyond just how well they play.

Meanwhile, as the music’s being rehearsed, the chamber jazz ensemble director Joe Sullivan has been extremely helpful. Joe’s showing me it doesn’t pay to be overly critical of a composition during this prodding learning period. It’s easy to hear the first run-through and think “Oh Jesus, I just spent a week of my life, most of an ink-cartridge, and a small trees worth of paper on a big steaming pile of horse shit. Back to the drawing board” but I’m learning that oftentimes the problems in an arrangement only need minor adjustments and not a complete reworking.

Gotta run now, I’ve got another song to arrange and I’m going to try and get the bulk of it done today.

Thanks for reading, have a great week and enjoy Super Bowl XLII (42) tomorrow,… GO SAINTS!! jd

(above painting by Kandinsky)

  • John Doheny

    Terence Blanchard told me something similar about writing film music, that he’d been accustomed to coming in with a sketch for his band, just the melody and changes with maybe a suggestion for ‘groove,’ like ‘swing’ or ‘second-line funk,’ and then having the band make it happen. Then suddenly he’s writing film music where everything has to be fully realized, including piano parts in both hands.

    My hat’s off to you for doing this, because it makes me realize how easy it is to write for a small quartet-quintet. A lot of the time of course the tune doesn’t sound EXACTLY like I heard it in my head, but if you’ve got really good players, it often sounds a LOT BETTER. Having such a clear concept and then not getting it (at least right away) would tend to bum me out, I think.