Woodshedding the Big Band

Here’s another blow-by-blow account of the creation of a piece using a jazz composition I wrote about 8 years ago entitled Flameout. This is a term used in aviation circles to signify that a jet engine has stopped working, which is very worrying if the aircraft is airborne at the time.

Overview: the piece changes from medium slow to double tempo and back and is based on three keys, actually the Dorian mode (a favourite in jazz circles since the ’60’s) on three different roots. These three keys are also used in simultaneity at certain points in the arrangement, in both harmonic and contrapuntal writing. The result doesn’t sound contrived. The roots are: C, E and Ab (=G sharp), i.e. a major third apart. A further major third above would take us back to C so this symmetrical arrangement of tonalities is useful for the polytonal portions of the work. I generally use equal intervals between the tonalities in polytonal writing but this isn’t compulsory, especially if the chosen scheme relates to other characteristics present in the particular piece. (There are three major thirds and four minor thirds within an octave before the reappearance of the root.)

Much use is made of chords built from 4th intervals which, lacking the traditional diatonic hierarchy, require systematic chord transformations (voice leading) as described in the book. An open key signature is used because of the number of accidentals that would occur if a key signature had been ascribed. This is mentioned in the conductor’s notes in the score.

Three bars of clipped, rhythmic, unison motifs splitting to 4th interval chords on the accents lead into a sustained open position 4th interval chord from the trombones. Above them, muted trumpets swirl in a pattern of rhythmically rotated forms, each of the three trumpets used being in a different key and using a different mute. The 5 saxes cut through it all with a unison (not octaves) semiquaver run based on the three keys in rapid succession.

Next, the drums play a wicked vamp which is formed from the serial development of rhythm described in the book. This really has to be played by a hooligan to work. Both hands and both feet are required here and good taste has to go through the window. I can’t remember who said that ‘Good taste is the enemy of great art’ but he or she had a point.

(Apparently, a number of people involved in the arts have made this comment.)

Four trombones pick up the rhythm in 4th interval open chords, rotating the three tonic chords of the chosen keys in a circular permutation. In traditional terminology, the functions used are root, 4th, 5th and 9th. Tenors and baritone play a unison theme (the range is wrong for the altos) in crotchet triplets which is easy to play except for the breath control. Non-circular breathers have to stagger their breathing and snatch a breath as well as they can to preserve the effect of an unbroken line. The theme is based on the three keys used, again rotated as a circular perm. The trombones and saxes are out of synch in terms of their vertical correspondences so that the melody at any one point is not written in terms of the underlying chords from the trombones. Again, this does not sound contrived because by now the listener has had time to assimilate the process leading up to the content.

The most likely application for this ‘displacement in time’ is in the lead-in, or anacrusis, if you prefer, where the tonality anticipates that of the ensuing passage, rather than the underlying harmony. This is an example of how music can develop in maturity when the mastery of musical resources is exploited to full effect.

The triplets are needed to avoid undesirable correspondences with the unusually active background. The marked difference in rhythm also assists with orchestral separation since the melody and background are in the same register; saxes and trombones are not all that different in tone colour.

At the repeat of this passage the trumpets enter (actually, the saxes do not repeat the previous section but continue with the development of the permed harmonies and serial development of rhythm). The trumpets are written as the trombones but in close position clusters instead of open position. Their rhythm and harmonies are displaced in relation to the trombones, creating a futuristic, interlocking, bitonal ‘oompah’ style which is really hairy.

A full ensemble version of the vamp rounds off the passage, using the full range of the big band in 4th intervals.

The jazz solos begin here and the instructions to the players are simply ‘Dorian mode in C’ but transposed to D and A for the trumpet and alto soloists respectively. Initially, just soloists and the rhythm section are used. A background figure of walking minims by three trumpets in unison and three trombones in unison enters at this point. The interval between the two sections is a perfect 4th. This grows to double 4ths (the same two parts in octaves) played by four saxes and four trombones doubling up on the parts. The trumpets add to the growth with unison phrases growing to octaves. Their rhythm is diminished to half note values as the piece evolves.

(One point: the bass needs to be a five string or a four string bass with the bottom string tuned down to Eb. Notes can’t be taken an octave up without wrecking the acoustics of the low register chords.)

The slow portion of the arrangement ends with each of the three sections in a different key (the three keys used). The trumpets trill on their cluster chord, the trombones walk in open position minims and four saxes, also in clusters, cut through the middle of the ensemble using the characteristic ‘kernel’ of the rhythm. There is much use of four part chords which also happens to free the trumpet, alto and trombone soloists to stand in front of the band for much of the time. Ten brass are required in this arrangement.

The composition changes to double time here and the trombone soloist enters over a series of wraith-like five part harmony passages from the saxes shifting rapidly in arpeggiated figures. When the piece was first test flown I advised the saxes to have a quick glance over this part of the arrangement but the young players sight read it to perfection leaving me feeling slightly foolish. One of them deftly prevented her music stand from going over with one foot at the same time.

Interlocking trumpet and trombone stabs urge the thing along, again providing a high-tech oompah.

A brief three part counterpoint continues the freedom of the ad libs. The instrumental split is trumpets/altos, trombones/tenors and trombones/baritone. The rhythm is a serial form given extra plasticity by the quaver rests which receive different stresses as they move in relation to the bar lines and accents. Occasionally, a rest is replaced by a tied note group. From the point of view of developing rhythms, rests and notes are the same thing. The rhythm is identical in each part, with staggered entrances from the top down at the half bar. I usually write the top part and then cue in the rhythm in the other part between the staves before attending to the pitches. A mixture of agreeable parallels and contrary motion between all parts cleans things up and each voice stands alone as an acceptable melody.

In counterpoint, I prefer using unison trumpets, unison trombones and unison saxes to benefit from the similarity of articulations and inflections of the families of instruments. The orchestration chosen here leads into the voiced ensemble that follows more naturally.

A brief ensemble leads into a four bar ‘bell’ effect which doesn’t go from the bottom up, as is more common. Instruments enter in pairs in a seemingly random up and down order before the trumpets ascend in a more traditional bell pattern leading into a powerful ensemble, in 4th intervals once more.

The composition returns to tempo 1 here with the drums playing the original vamp. A repeat of the theme occurs except that, instead of building, instruments now drop out in the second eight bars. The three part counterpoint reappears but this time treated bitonally, each voice using one of the three keys of the piece.

After another passage of organised noise from overlapping voiced sections in the three different keys the trombones and saxes lay down an open position Cm7 chord written (from the bottom up) C, G, Bb, Eb and G. The five trumpets then enter together as a section on Bb, D, F, A and ‘top’ C concert. The Cm7 and Bbmaj.9th chords jointly form a Cm13 chord but the effect is quite different. I would call it a 15th chord. It’s true that the top note is a reappearance of the root but two notes an octave apart (in this case the chord spans four octaves) are not the same note. An octave is in such a simple ratio, 2:1, that we give the constituent parts the same letter name. The reappearance of the root also chops the music into the scale structures we’re all familiar with.

The treatment of this last chord gives a very common harmony an element of surprise and the trumpets seem to be much higher than they really are, possibly because of the elevation in the status of the top ‘root’.

At the blow-through, I was prompted to notice how much more convincing a performance is when the bells of the trumpet and trombone sections point out horizontally in a straight line from left to right. It isn’t merely a visual consideration. Balance can be badly affected by mumbling down into the desk, especially on cramped bandstands. A number of bands perform with the trumpet section standing throughout the performance.



2 thoughts on “Woodshedding the Big Band

    • Thanks for that. These blogs would be easier to follow with musical examples but I haven’t upgraded yet. The reason for this is that I’ve been endlessly ‘shelling-out’ for a year or so now with little to show for it and there has to be a limit. I’ll get around to it when I can justify doing so. Thanks again and keep in touch! J.M.

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