Down a Horn

Sometimes somebody can’t make it to a gig, so the horn arrangements have to change. Maybe there’s warning, maybe not.

I’m working in groups with two to four horns, often with doubling. For a lot of charts, two horns are enough; truth is, doing the arrangements, you start running into parallel lines and perfect intervals. You can do only so much clustering, after all, and two notes is enough to get the point across. In cases where I know one player is specifically likely to be unavailable—doubles on another instrument, or is the addition in the larger configuration of a modular band, or has some sort of life change going on—then from the beginning I’ll make the other instruments stand alone with that one fattening up the sound. That means tonics, sometimes octaves, fifths, fills, etc.

What’s more interesting is being the only horn on charts that normally have a section. Big-band style pops and tight licks are only cool because it’s a group acting as one. Otherwise it’s just me going splat at random times. So in those cases I’m going to do more freestyle, legato, out-of-rhythm variations on what the group would be doing. Where the standard arrangement is the horns doing a punch-and-fall on the downbeat, I’ll do a single legato note, shaped with dynamics, hooking into something the vocal or a rhythm instrument is doing. It’s good to enhance the various cymbals with a horn, like the bass drum meets the bass.

Another thing I can do is interact much more personally and conversationally with the lead vocal, since they’re also one instead of a group. Maybe I harmonize, maybe counterpoint, maybe echoes; these are all techniques that tend to be a bit clumsy if a horn section does them behind a single vocalist, though it’s wonderful antiphony when it’s vocal harmonies vs horn section.  In one song, I played loose, legato triplets in the first two choruses, but for the last chorus and outro the harmony singer picked up her trumpet for a staccato syncopated horn section version of the same motif.

Point is, it’s a lot of freedom. That means more responsibility, but it’s also a chance to try out licks and gestures that I might make into horn section charts later.

Standard Arrangements

A solo cocktail piano player has a bit of freedom when using a fake book. He can get into and out of the piece any way that sounds good, take extra repeats, leave out the bridge, pick any convenient key. In a band, everybody has to know what’s going to happen.
I mentioned before that someone can call out an arrangement in a few seconds with some standard terms. A band that rehearses frequently and has been playing together for a long time will have a custom standard arrangement, and they won’t even need to say anything beyond that. While there isn’t a standard standard that all jams use, usually it’s close enough that I can roll with it.
In the trio, the intro is piano through the head, sax melody on the head, trumpet solo, piano solo, optional sax solo, and one or both horns on the foot. In the quintet, we usually start with the last eight or sixteen bars, have the horns split the head AA / BA or some other sensible way, do solos in order (trumpet, piano, sax, bass, optional fours with drums), horns split the foot the same way or reversed, and do one of our standard endings. In the vocal swing group, intro is either last eight or just solo piano, followed by vocal doing all verses, trumpet solo, vocal on last verse (or full head), end in a rallentando.
Endings are the devil. Sometimes the quintet does a rehearsal of nothing but intros and endings. We have perhaps half a dozen standards endings. In college pep band, the director had hand signals for frequently used pieces (for example, the fight song). So in the quintet, Bill can hold up two fingers, and we know to repeat the 3rd and 4th bars from the end up a step; or hold up three fingers, and we’ll do the Basie stinger.
With that, we can sightread anything off a lead sheet and know we’ll start and end together.

Transcription, Arranging from scratch, and Rote rehearsal

Each time I do an arrangement for Play It With Moxie, or any other group, I go through the same few steps before I ever start writing notes.

When you decide to cover a song, your first decision is whether to make a faithful reproduction or make it your own.  Reproducing the recording has several benefits.  The audience will respond to the familiar.  With a transcription you can hand out the sheet music, play the recording, play along with the recording as a group, play it without the recording, and have the song ready very quickly.

On the other hand, if you learn the original improv solo you will be assured of capturing the style but not necessarily the soul; and you might be as good as the original, but you will not be better.  Personally, I’d rather have my bandmates’ minds in the moment rather than trying to pull from some distant recording.  If you create your own version, everyone’s had a chance to put their stamp on it, to get invested, to be eager to share with the audience.  Also, if you do it straight off the recording, the audience may not care because they could just listen to the recording.  You will never sound as much like the original band as the original band does–you may be better, but you won’t be more like them than they are.

You may not have a choice.  If your band doesn’t have the same instruments or voices, you might not be able to pull it off.  I prefer to take it consciously in a different direction, put a different beat to it, play it like you play some other song–especially if not all the players are familiar with the recording.  Sometimes it’s best to hand out lead sheets at a rehearsal, have someone play it solo, then have people join in and make an arrangement out of a jam.  Still, you’ll have to preserve the characteristic recognizable parts somehow, if only in the introduction or chorus.

Finally, you don’t have to use everyone all the time.  There’s a lot to be said for playing your strengths and not getting in your own way.  Bottom line, you need to know your players, their instruments, their capabilities, and how they blend.  That’s going to come from trial and error, and that’s a worthy way to spend rehearsal time.

Musical Illusions

Check this out: the tritone paradox.  We tried this at a quintet rehearsal, and we split about 50/50 overall on how many went up and how many went down.  I’m calling musical illusion next time I have trouble transcribing something.