Expanding the jazz palette

The book deals with various techniques that may be used to jet the jazz composer out of the block-chorded four-to-the-bar convention. It has served us well and, hopefully, will continue to do so but there’s more to life than that.

There’s an extended look at form and the serial development of rhythmic patterns; the capabilities of the string and woodwind sections are investigated and all thirty six seven note scales are explored, together with the huge number of scales of fewer than seven units, including their harmonic implications etc. etc.

Around the beginning of the 20th Century composers began to look for ways of expanding their control of musical resources. These included: dividing the scale into smaller units than equally tempered semitones; the specification of timbre; the use of the voice instrumentally and with notated dialogue; the use of noise and of sounds created by objects such as sirens, rattles and whistles; writing simultaneously in different metres.

Their efforts ran parallel to other innovations such as panchromaticism, bitonality, polytonality and serial techniques (which sought to undermine the dominance of the key, or other, axes).

Although the book, and all these blogs, stress the important role global communications will have in producing a multi-cultural world, it’s difficult to imagine at present how some of the above techniques will find their way into the main stream of what we call ‘Jazz’. Nevertheless we briefly discuss these now.


We’re already familiar with small variations in pitch in the shape of blues inflections in jazz. Trombones and strings can also smear or slide by infinitely variable degrees (solo or in sections). So can electronic instruments, even the earliest Moogs.

Bichromaticism involved writing consistently in a scale of 24 quarter tones. Quarter tone pianos and clarinets were even built. Some composers used other subdivisions of the octave using as many as 36 subdivisions (and more).

I’m not too sure about all this since, if we examine how our scales and chords evolved, we find that they were not based on conscious efforts to subdivide frequencies, apart from the decision in the middle of the 16th century to impose equal temperament. From that point on, instruments could play in any key, something we take for granted.


A note may be regarded as having three properties: pitch, colour and intensity. Pitch is the only one that had originally been treated to a notation system enabling the composer to communicate his wishes clearly to the orchestra.

Some composers have sought to devise systems of notating timbre as clearly and concisely as we notate pitch and dynamics. This practice may have some life in it although it’s unnecessary, with electronic music, where the writer has everything under control. He can even alter the tempo of the music without altering the pitch (and vice versa). Having said that, he still needs some form of identification (file name) even if only for his own convenience. There are so many possible modifications to attack, sustain, fade etc. that life can quickly become very confusing. With conventional methods, pencil and paper, for example, a composer may see his various sketches laid out before him at a glance.

One aspect of the work of the early pioneers that does appeal to me is the possibility of merging different sections of the orchestra. For example we could have a section of instruments playing very softly under a loud chord from another region of the orchestra. As the loud chord dies away the other section becomes louder, gradually taking over. This newly emerging section could even be in a different key, producing a novel form of modulation. Or the music could blow from ‘hot to cold’ creating a powerful effect as the two crossing chords briefly melt into noise. Or the instrumentation can be varied constantly by the sequential adding or taking away of instruments, which can be achieved imperceptibly. Schoenberg wrote conductors’ notes explaining this need.

The effect of a crescendo or diminuendo can be enhanced by this method.

American composer Charles Ives was fascinated by overlapping effects of a kind he experienced in his home town when two or more marching bands met at a road junction, each playing a different tune in a different key. There is something joyous about the resulting cacophony of dissonance. He once turned to a critic during a performance of a likeminded piece by another composer and said ‘Don’t be a cissy. Use your ears like a man’.


As so often happens, jazz got there first with scat singing (not strictly true chronologically). And there have also been some amazing results with ‘section’ writing for four or more voices. You need jazz ears to sing this kind of stuff. (Dig out some of the old Four Freshmen titles – they’re on YouTube; you’ll never watch X Factor again.)

The human voice is capable of producing an enormous range of colours and attack (articulation) forms.


We already use noise in the drum kit, where some instruments can be tuned approximately, but not others. Cymbals are predominantly noisy.

We may resist the idea of using sounds from objects that are not musical instruments in the conventional sense but the use of an air raid siren or whistle at the peak of a crescendo definitely makes the skin crawl, something no one can deny. The sound of castanets creates Spanish imagery faster than any purely musical device, although authentic gypsy flamenco music featured hand-clapping.

All this is part of a much wider discussion of course. As stated in the book, music emulates the world around us and, as a result, it triggers an equivalent response in our auditory consciousness. Musical forms have dynamic qualities echoing forces that existed before man and his concepts even arrived on the planet. Music does not therefore necessarily need to communicate or describe. This is a big issue I know. I once got involved in a discussion group on this subject via the web but it became too stressful with philosophy students asking me to justify every claim I made.


Jazz writers have used multi-metred forms for some time of course (e.g. three against four). But although it’s easy to assimilate symmetric metres occurring simultaneously, asymmetric ones are difficult for jazz musicians to live with. The varied placement of accents and the combination of downbeats with anticipations and retardations in different voices are an essential feature of counterpoint, creating a polyrhythmic effect, although the metres are most likely to be symmetrical.

With symmetric metres, the bars of the different orchestral sections ‘come out even’, for example 12/8 against 4/4, 2/4 or 6/8 against 4/4. Asymmetric metres result in an interference ratio where a number of bars may pass by while we run around and jump on again. These metres are very difficult for performers who find themselves having to play 5 or 7 note groups over, say, a three in the bar pulse.

Composers also experimented with asymmetric rhythm groups within the bar. Normally, if we use a succession of note values that do not add up to the duration value of the bar, as notated by the time signature, we use tuplets (triplets, 5 note groups etc.) to preserve the underlying continuum. With asymmetric rhythms this did not apply and the ‘pulse’ ceased to exist, with each attack of melody or harmony having an individual duration. This style of writing is difficult for the human performer, especially when coping with the distractions from other voices in polyphony or the varying rhythms of a harmonic background.

With audiences having a taste for jazz that swings, writing in this way might mean keeping that day job going. Nevertheless there may be applications, even if merely in intros or bridge passages.


Quartet arrangements

Lately, I’ve been looking at some of my scores to investigate the possibility of adapting them to brass and saxophone quartets. It’s far easier to sell such arrangements if they’re part of a collection or series. 

Some are adapting easily but others require considerable rewriting. The tendency for small band parts to switch suddenly from a background to a foreground role can be tolerated up to a point and the lack of a rhythm section can be compensated by ingenuity in the writing. This may involve a vamp, rhythmic bass part, andante voicing with even note durations, or ‘oompah’ figures. I’ve used ‘bell’ effects (staggered entrances) occasionally. These, too, require faking a bit to compensate for the lack of voices in five or six part harmonies, but it can be done (it’s done by the best). 

You can’t always write for a small band with a rhythm section and then take the rhythm section away. The whole thing often changes.

Players need to drop out for a rest occasionally and this has to be built in, whilst providing contrast and relief in the process. This is especially true of the trumpet/cornet part in the brass quartet. This instrument can’t be expected to play the lead part all night. There have been times when I’ve played one of my own arrangements with a band and only then have I realised what a strenuous part I’ve written. Pianist* arrangers take note. Slow arrangements with lots of sustained notes are the killers, not the percussive types, even if they are loud and high.

*Pianist/arrangers also need to bear in mind that trombone players need both hands, so please leave enough time for inserting mutes.

Players also have to breathe and circular breathers are still in the minority.

Open harmony quartet voicings can create a surprisingly big sound. Nevertheless, I’ve decided some of my compositions would sound weak without the scope of the large ensemble and they’ve been put back in the cupboard. I put one away believing it wouldn’t adapt but took it out again shortly afterwards. With some careful work and a little ingenuity it just might work.

Something else that has taken me by surprise, even after all these years, is the extent to which ideas change along with the lineup. More than once, when checking over an old score, I’ve found myself thinking ‘Oh no! Why did I do that?’ And then I realise that I was thinking orchestrally and now I’m thinking quartetwise. Unison countermelodies that stretch the rules to the limit and come dangerously close to interfering with the melody or clashing with the background will sometimes work in cases where a single instrument, lacking the ‘inertia’ of doubled-up parts, will sound wrong. (Difference in orchestral tone colour and volume also assist separation, along with contrast in the treatment of rhythms.) We only have one of each instrument in a quartet, which is the main reason small ‘front lines’ are so enjoyable for blowing musicians; every part really means something.

So these quartet adaptations are not as straightforward as I’d hoped. 

A ‘short score’ sketch will suffice before producing the final score on computer and extracting the individual band parts. I’m working on six together, picking each one up in turn and doing a little more. This is another technique to guard against tricks of the mind, as things start to go stale. Score pages are being assembled two-up, one above the other, on an A4 sheet of paper (297mm x 210 mm)** so that two x four stave quartet scores, A5 size ‘landscape’, can be produced at a time. I also get two score covers out of each sheet of thin card I use for the covers and the plastic comb binders are also cut in half.

 **In publishing, there was an understanding in many quarters that you put the depth first when stating dimensions but the growing use of computers, where some programs do it the other way round, has confused the issue.

One of the pieces in my embryo catalogue, a mini suite in 3 parts, has been especially composed for quartet. The other adaptations are concise, tuneful arrangements of around two and a half choruses plus intro, modulation and coda. The original full band versions were ideal for light entertainment in the park, not for setting the world on fire. They will all be playable by musicians of average ability.

I’ve written some brass quartets for Bb cornet, Eb tenor horn, euphonium and Eb tuba. The so called tenor horn is really an alto horn (which is what they call it in the USA). This is not the ‘regular’ brass quartet instrumentation, which tends to be two trumpets/cornets, trombone and euphonium, so I’m not making life easy for myself here. It’s just that the instrumentation I’ve chosen is very flexible and capable of providing a variety of textures.

Now it so happens that the brass quartet instrumentation is similar to the sax quartet of Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor and Eb baritone. Only in one case so far have I decided to change the key. This was because the alto sax finds it easier than the horn to go way above the stave and the soprano sax isn’t too happy on its lowest notes. In theory, the written parts for transposing instruments should always represent a similar level of difficulty. This doesn’t always work in practise. Eb horn players who can play around their written top C all night are rare and the instrument’s low register is best forgotten.

The computer changed the key automatically but it was necessary to correct some of the crazy accidentals the program came up with. (My latest notation program doesn’t have this problem.)

So, if you’ve written brass quartets, they can be changed very simply to sax quartets, or vice versa. I can’t believe I’ve only just realized the commercial potential of all this after so many years in the job. Obviously, quintet and sextet arrangements might be capable of similar adaptation, depending on the instrumentation.

Finally, check, check and check again. The current brass band test piece I’m rehearsing has so many errors it’s difficult to forgive, even on the ‘oh well, we’re only human’ basis. But more on that another time…



Score layout: instrumental parts

There’s a vast store of information on every subject readily available out there on the WWW. Added to this, colleges and universities have risen to the challenge of preparing the next generation for the bitterly fought battles of contemporary life. These blogs are drawn from years of (sometimes painful) experience and are intended to supplement what we already (probably) know by approaching matters from a different viewpoint, where everyday practical problems sometimes refuse to move out of our way.


Conductors regularly have to sight-read unfamiliar pieces, in addition to keeping their eyes and ears on the musicians, so that a standardized layout helps them to find the various parts at a glance.

In the big band, saxophones are normally written at the top of the score. This is possibly due to tradition, since woodwind parts appear at the top of orchestral scores. Below them are the trumpets, followed by the trombones and the rhythm section, piano guitar bass and drums, in that order.

A vocal line, together with the lyrics, will appear last of all. Incidentally, cuing in the lyrics is often useful on instrumental parts, especially those involving frequent tempo changes, rubato, etc.

It’s more in keeping with the function of the saxophone section, especially in ensembles, to place the brass above the saxes and in short score sketches and scores for a composer’s personal use it’s worth considering this layout. I always use it because it looks right.

Tradition is a very powerful force in music.

Years ago, before the ‘common man’ received the benefit of a good education, those ‘in the know’ were keen to maintain their elite status, often for reasons of financial gain, so that the ‘do-it-this-way-because-I-say-so’ argument prevailed. Some (not all!) teachers are resentful of young talent because it reminds them of the relentless passage of time, another reason that those with fresh ideas will find themselves being repressed.

I’m still kicking against authority. Why, for example, do English style brass bands regard the tenor trombone as a transposing instrument? Why do they call the alto horn a tenor horn? Why do they call the baritone horn a baritone? It’s a tenor instrument. Why do they call tubas ‘basses’? The name fits. It’s just a horrible word.

Anyway, back to the subject…

With the full orchestra, the basic format, from the top down, will often appear as follows:

English Horn (Alto Oboe)
Bass clarinet
First violins
Second violins

The problem is that straight composers very often called for a specific intrumentation, often involving very large orchestras, so that it’s difficult to generalize where instrumental layout is concerned.

With the concerto grosso format, which features an instrumental group as opposed to a single instrument, the ‘band-within-a-band’ could be grouped together, possibly bracketed and with wider spaces between the first and last staves of the group compared with the rest of the orchestra. Anything which improves clarity will be helpful.

Cellos and basses are sometimes found on the same stave in old scores. This is only possible when the cellos are in bass clef. Cellos also use the treble clef and (less often in my experience) tenor clef to accommodate the wide orchestral range of written parts.

It’s sometimes possible to write percussion parts for all players with all percussion instruments written on one sheet, where the level of musical activity permits this. All instruments can be written on one stave, with verbal identification above each entrance and clef changes as necessary. This is useful when bands struggle to maintain a full section, which is almost always the case. For example, the tuned percussionist could stroll over to the drum kit and play a cymbal roll on one of the top cymbals. I once saw a player hit the big bass drum with the side of her foot while playing the chimes with her hands. (‘Multi-tasking’ is an idea that’s taking the female population by storm, of course.) Parts appearing together on one sheet also act as cues, giving an overview of the whole piece.

All this is less than ideal, of course, but one of the purposes of these blogs is to present an ‘everyday’ view of our musical lives.


Although the full ‘symphony’ model goes down to c (sounding as the b flat below the second ledger line under the bass clef, equivalent to the ‘pedal’ b flat on trombones), many jazz and dance band players will have the model without the lower extension, with a range an octave lower than the standard Bb clarinet.

Players have been known to downgrade to the shorter instrument, making enough money to buy a flute or clarinet.

The bass clarinet is much more controllable at softer dynamic levels than the baritone sax and consequently makes a more practical bass instrument to the woodwinds.

One problem with all this doubling is that many orchestra pits in theatres and small club bandstands don’t allow much space and some instruments are too ferociously expensive to be kicked around by guys rushing to the bar at interval time. Sounds mundane, I know, but we can’t ignore the problem.

I recently wrote a bass clarinet part for a show and the excellent young girl player arrived, her face glowing with the enthusiasm of youth. She had arms full of instruments, all of which she could play well, and I noticed her brand new full symphony bass clarinet begin to topple off its stand below stage. I made a mad rugby tackle across the floor and just caught it.

‘Can you transpose the part on baritone’ I asked, removing a splinter from my hand. ‘Sure I can’ she replied. So this was the solution, at least until her nerves settled down. Instrumental amplification is not always sorted out properly in some of these shows and the baritone cut through the commotion on stage better, anyway. It isn’t always possible to move the mike down in relation to the bass clarinet, with a couple of bars rest available. It may still be positioned for a recent flute solo. In any case, all dynamics in the pit tend to be moved up a notch and there’s little need for pianissimo unless the sound balance is really good.

Again, this is all less than ideal, it’s just the way things sometimes turn out.


I played a gig recently with a useful big band where the baritone sax part was very nicely played by an elderly lady who can no longer grapple with the big sax. She uses the Yamaha wind synthesiser, which can produce a variety of sounds. This instrument and its predecessors have been around for a number of years now, of course.

As so often happens with all but the most expensive gear, the brass sounds are not too good and the alto sax sound is so-so but the baritone sound blends in well with the section. I have to admit that I didn’t notice at first until I glanced over to the saxes, but then I was sight reading my own parts.

Purists will hate the idea but for anyone who, for reasons of age or health (or budget), can’t play the baritone itself, this curious instrument does solve the problem amazingly well (for a fraction of the cost).

It will also descend right down into the bass sax register so that sudden drops down to the baritone’s bottom ‘a’ (c concert) work every time, regardless of tired reeds or player fatigue. It was this capability that caught my ears attention in the first place.

The compact cabinet speaker it uses is surprisingly resonant and hides away nicely on stage.


Beefing up on the trombone

The trombone, in one form or another, already gets a good look over in the book, not out of favouritism (I’m a bass trombonist) but because the instrument is unique in its construction and is often misunderstood, even by experienced arrangers. The charts of slide positions in the section of the book dealing with orchestration are invaluable.

It is mainly English style brass bands that treat tenor trombones as transposing instruments in treble clef. This blog will use concert pitch references only.

Arrangements often call for impossible slide smears. (Trombonists often call them ‘glisses’.) The charts in the book show the possibilities. Smears are only feasible moving ‘horizontally’ up or down through the slide positions. Smears requiring the player to lip up or down the harmonic series, moving the slide at the same time, can only be faked, although they can sometimes be faked fairly convincingly.

There are opportunities for using alternative positions using the valve with Bb and F trombones, or valves with double rotor bass trombones (see below), to provide added possibilities. For example, the low Bb in first position can also be found in a lengthened third position with the F trigger. The position chart in the book can be used to work out other cases.


Jazz scores will sometimes indicate a ‘shake’ in the brass parts from top to bottom of the section. Most trumpeters and trombonists play a lip ‘trill’ using the note itself and the note immediately above in the harmonic series (the ‘bugle’ notes) without using the valve or slide. This will give major or minor thirds in the middle register. Seconds occur in the higher register, where notes in the harmonic series are closer together.

Shakes are a ‘noise’ effect, hence the usual practice of not modifying the upper note to fit the tonality and of accepting the differing width of the resulting intervals in the various levels of orchestration.

(Strictly speaking, the term ‘trill’ implies an interval of a major second or less. In string writing an interval of a minor third and greater is called a ‘fingered tremolo’.)

A buddy of mine who studied trombone at a centre for orchestral studies in London showed me what can really be done using rapid shakes in the lower register (I’m still amazed when I think of it) but there’s a sensible limit. Shakes on trombone can only be guaranteed in the middle register and upwards because the intervals of the harmonic series become wider apart the lower you go. The interval between a fundamental (pedal note) and its first harmonic is an octave and the next adjacent upper note is still a perfect fifth away.

Shakes are absolute lip wreckers, by the way, and a great way of building lip muscles.

One solution, and not a bad idea anyway, is to have the trumpets only play the shake, especially if the trombone section is written in open harmony. Another possibility is for the trombones to play a wide, slow, slide vibrato. You can barely tell the difference in a loud ensemble.


The book mentions the addition of a second valve, pointing out that the limitations of the single valve bass trombone are eliminated (but see below). The first double valve bass trombone was probably built by Reynolds in the early 60’s, so it’s worth a moments admiration for the bass trombonists of old. Re-listen to those older Kenton and Sinatra recordings and gasp.

On single valve tenor and bass trombones (which are essentially the same except for bore and bell size) the low B a semitone above pedal Bb is missing. The C is already right at the end of the slide. It’s possible to obtain this note on the single valve instrument by extending the valve tuning slide out to the grooved mark provided (effectively tuning the F valve down to E) but you lose the really useful low C and bottom F in first position, cancelling out one of the advantages of the valve. Nevertheless, if there’s time to do this it’s worthwhile since nipping up to the B an octave above will wreck the arrangement, especially in slow moving ballads*. It’s possible to play the whole arrangement with the valve slide extended but the main slide positions all change. Pulling the valve tuning slide to E also lowers each slide position very slightly because, since the total length of the instrument has increased, the slide has to be moved a little more each time to maintain the pitch ratios. I just wanted you all to know how clever we bass trombonists are. Pulling to E gives a full chromatic run down to an octave below the B we’re talking about. In the real world you’ll never go there.

*With hard practise, the note can be played in the same position as low Eb with the F trigger. It’s a ‘false’ note (harmonic, actually).

Jumping down suddenly to the bottom C (two ledger lines below the bass clef), found right at the end of the main slide on the single valve instrument, is difficult. I spent weeks practising little else and progress was slow. Increased difficulty is always associated with increased effort and tension but, at the same time, the embouchure has to be very suddenly relaxed to drop down to low notes and it’s difficult to get the two requirements going together, especially if you’re English, because of the stiff upper lip (joke). Human beings also tend to clench their teeth when in discomfort but, here again, the instinct has to be resisted and the jaw kept open.

The two valves of most double valve instruments jointly provide first position low D with the result that the elusive bottom C is also obtainable with the slide extended to approximately opposite the bell, which is a little shorter than fourth position on the standard trombone. It’s called ‘third’ position with the two plugs depressed. There are six slide positions when the F valve is used and five when both valves are used and they become wider apart each time.

The second plug can be used alone on independent systems but there’s a school of thought that prefers the dependent system, where the F valve alone or both valves together are the only options. The argument goes that the resistance through the valves is less. It is, but the effect is more likely to be felt by the player than the listener. Most independent system bass trombones give a Gb in first position when the second valve only is used. I find the independent system useful sometimes, especially when blending with euphonium valved legato in brass band ensembles.

Some instruments have the second valve tuned to G and others provide a removable crook, giving the player a choice.

Most bass trombonists choose the double valve instrument nowadays, but ignorance of the points raised in this blog is something most arrangers would not wish to live with, added to which there are thousands of tenor trombones in use which use the single valve, and a number of top bass trombonists never changed to the double valve instrument because of its extra weight, which can quickly tire the left hand and arm. In short, it isn’t correct to say that the single valve instrument is obsolete.

One of the most difficult aspects of learning to play the bass trombone is the development of a controlled, round sound, especially at low volume. Any fool can get that parade ground rasp.

Breath control is another important part of the daily practise routine. The amount of air that disappears down that big throated mouthpiece is awesome. In a routine medical it emerged that my chest expansion is double the average. This is probably true of all low brass players. (I mean players of low brass instruments!) The ability to snatch a breath imperceptibly is important. Also, notes can be cut short due to the tendency of the note to ‘carry over’ the bar line in our perception. This requires agreement with the other guys. If a passage contains repeated or similar phrases and the whole passage can’t be played in one breath, it’s better to cut short the end of all the phrases, for reasons of consistency. Again, get together as a section on this. Circular breathing in the extreme low register requires superhuman control.

Alert MD’s will oversee the points raised in this blog.

Trombonists playing in orchestras may occasionally meet intonation problems when the lower strings play double stops. For a full explanation of this, ask an acoustics expert. Double stops are effective in solos but orchestral parts should generally be written divisi (divided).

Many other tuning methods were chosen during the development of the bass trombone. For more information on this visit http://www.yeodoug.com/resources/faq/faq_text/valves.html