Would you mind removing your hat?

It often surprises me how readily rhythm section players take it for granted that they will be hidden away at the back of the band. Perhaps it’s because we’re used to regarding their role as being a subservient one. In the book we suggest that the emancipation of the rhythm section, which took giant steps forward as a result of rock influences, should be encouraged. Here we suggest a few ways this might happen.

The book outlines ways of using instrumental forms, including arpeggios and other ‘broken’ chord formations, and of producing harmonies from melodic motifs. These techniques are particularly appropriate in the rhythm section, where a combination of piano, vibes, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel produce arresting effects, especially when assisted by the other percussion instruments.

The wind sections of the band (in the case of the jazz orchestra) will then use a complementary style comprising sustained harmonies or percussive and rhythmic ‘vamps’, similar to brass band and military band writing. It’s a role reversal that’s well worth looking into. Of course, the bass and guitar could be involved in a riff or melody with, for example, the glock or right hand of the piano continuing to decorate trumpets in harmon mutes. We don’t have to split the band into two rival camps.

Few bands outside the education sector will have ready access to some of these instruments, which is another reason we must all hope that the breaking down of cultural barriers in a shrinking planet will continue (see the last News Update). Keyboards provide a good substitute for some of these percussion sounds but more than one player would be needed in complex arrangements.

The piano, xylophone and marimba possess little sustain in the notes they produce (this does not necessarily apply to synthesized sounds) and the glock is capable of great separation of tone colour from the other instruments. As a result the composer will be able to use crossed voices more freely and will enjoy greater acoustic freedom with regard to the vertical distribution of harmony. Other constraints will also disappear in this medium to a greater or lesser extent. The risk we run is that it’s all too easy to produce decoration without formal content. When you can lift the stylus during a track on an old vinyl LP and put it back down somewhere else without it making much difference then it’s time to start worrying.

There’s nothing new about using single note guitar with saxophones etc. but this is not 100% satisfactory due to the different attack forms and the limited ability of the guitar to play a true legato, except within the span of the hand on one string at a time. Finger style playing on acoustic body instruments minimises the problem, which helps to explain its frequent use. Sustain can be produced within limitations.

Jazz guitarists in big bands in the ‘Fifties anticipated the techniques under discussion by using ‘slabs’ of open harmony as a foil to the other instruments. As we point out in the book, guitar parts have to be carefully designed to avoid conflict with the middle harmony parts of the ensemble. The instrument is limited in the chord shapes it can play and rapid successions of block harmony chords, even where possible, are not in keeping with its character. Continuous ‘comping’, despite its popularity in the swing era, is awful – I don’t care what anyone says.

Where the bass or bass guitar is used to reinforce bass trombone/baritone sax the intonation has to be spot on. Here again, it doesn’t always work due to the totally different means of tone production and attack forms.

In the book we also discuss ways of combining the band into three, four and five parts but even here I’m inclined to favour the purity of unison trumpets, unison trombones and unison saxes in three part counterpoint. It’s definitely easier for players to introduce bluesy inflections and nuances into their interpretation when they employ similar methods (valves with valves, slides with slides and keys with keys). The only limitation is posed by the fact that the conventional sax section comprises instruments in the alto, tenor and baritone registers so that they cannot all remain in a comfortable range all the time when playing in unison. (They will sometimes be written in octaves in counterpoint.) It’s usually possible to avoid problems by writing the melodic lines accordingly. Regardless of the size of the trombone section, I generally employ just three in section-by-section counterpoint to maintain a lighter, more agile feel. You’ll also need a well-balanced trombone section, which won’t be easy since trombone players are all crazy to have taken the instrument up in the first place. 

One final thought which has nothing to do with anything, really: I wish I could wake up one day and find that Microsoft had all been a bad dream. Ho hum.





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