Shoptalk about making the old chestnuts relevant
Over the past few days I decided that I’d like to perform a couple of classic charts from the Big Band Era. When I was 12 or 13 I bought a recent Les Brown recording from the mid-’50s where the band re-recorded a dozen of their hits from the previous decade. I loved the crisp brass playing (especially the tasteful lead trumpet playing of Wes Hensel), Billy Usselton’s swinging tenor solos and Donn Trenner’s piano playing. Trenner was then the musical director on the Steve Allen TV Show, of which I was a teenage devotee.
I was familiar with many of the arrangements on that record, as the original 1940s recordings were still popular while I grew up. Just about everyone in America knew Doris Day’s recording of Ben Homer’s Sentimental Journey, and Joe Garland’s Leap Frog had just been used in a Jerry Lewis movie. I was thinking about those two charts the other day, and thought they would work really nicely for our upcoming Swing 46 gig where we will play for swing dancers.
I started with the idea of just playing the original charts, but as I put them on score paper, I had some issues with them. There are definitely elements that I love about both charts—the form, grooves, transitions, certain figures, etc., but something bothered me right away—both charts were a bit cluttered and contained some non-thematic filler. As Brookmeyer used to say, I got out my eraser.
One common orchestrational device during the Swing Era was to give the saxes chords in whole notes while the brass play harmonized punchy figures. This was meant to provide continuity and security, but a side effect is that it also obscures the harmonies in both the brass and saxes—they mask each other. One solution that arrangers use is to give the saxes a unison thumbline under the brass. The unison long notes in the saxes will then be lean and won’t take away from the clarity that we want from the brass.
Actually, I found that both charts were overwritten and feel cluttered. By removing unnecessary material, the important figures stand out more. This also gives the rhythm section more space to function as they do in a small group.
Something I picked up from Ellington and Strayhorn—when the brass section is harmonized, each instrument gets its own pitch as much as possible. There is very little doubling. There might be occasional octave doubling between the trumpets and trombones, and almost never unison or octave doublings within the trumpet or trombone sections. Most other bands (including Les Brown’s) would use 4-part harmony in the trumpets and just double all four notes an octave lower in the trombones. I find this to be dull. I want more bite from the brass section—more dissonance and density. It should feel like a pebble in your shoe or the sting of Kung Pao sauce when your mouth gets the message.
Getting back to Ellington and Strayhorn, in the great majority of cases where the brass and saxes are playing melodic passages in harmony together, they use tutti voicings. This means 4-part close harmony in the trumpets, doubled an octave below in the trombones, and then doubling the saxes with either the trombones or trumpets, so that there are only four different pitches in each chord. This was traditional for Swing Era bands. I love the contrast of dissonant/dense brass voicings and more consonant/transparent tutti voicings. I prefer to have this distinction, rather than voicing the brass the same as the tutti sections.
This led me to re-harmonize the brass voicings in both charts. Sometimes I just couldn’t hear more than the four trumpet pitches. When this happened, I eliminated the trombones, and let the trumpets be by themselves or with the saxes in a tutti voicing.
One more issue that bothered me in the original charts was the use of the same pitches in the foreground and background, or in a set-up and the following figure. It’s really important that foreground and background be as different as possible. Giving them the same pitches or rhythms is confusing to the listener. It would be like watching a football game where both teams are wearing the same exact jerseys.
When a setup figure is too similar to the figure it is setting up, it’s like telegraphing the punch line when you tell a joke—none of the words in the punch line should appear in the set-up. That’s key to the surprise we need to get laughs.
Our music doesn’t usually result in laughter, but we do want the listener to follow our story. When I was in college, I was home on vacation and eating lunch one day with my mom. I had a Dizzy Gillespie big band recording playing while we ate. As we listened to a Benny Golson chart, my mom said to me, “You know what’s different about this music and your arrangements? Clarity.” Point well taken, Mom.