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Arrangements vs Spontaneity

Discussion in 'Music [DB]' started by Chris Fitzgerald, May 1, 2001.

  1. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    This one has the potential to get really heated - which I hope it doesn't - but it's been on my mind a lot lately, and I wanted to get some views from outside my isolated little world.

    This year for whatever reason has been my busiest playing year ever so far, and I'm getting to play with a lot of great players on a fairly regular basis. But one thing that has been missing in this crazy schedule I've been keeping has been the opportunity to sit down with the people I'm playing with and actually rehearse arrangements of the tunes we're playing on all of these gigs. I am finding that - even with great players - the music is starting to suffer from "genericitis" because of the lack of rehearsal time, and this gets to be kind of a drag at times.

    Part of the problem is the obvious one: everyone is too busy to rehearse, the people hiring for the gigs don't seem to care, so and so just had a baby, etc..., but part of it is also a mindset thing - some players (even great ones) seem to feel that jazz is more "honest" somehow if you just play and see what happens, letting the music just "go where it wants to go" each time you play. I think this is fine in principle, and is an absolute must as a skill to develop as a working musician, BUT.....I also feel that there is too much "generic jazz" out there and that this is one of the things that makes a lot of "layman" listeners tune out when jazz is being played in public. I mean honestly, when you're playing for three hours, it makes sense to mix things up a bit and set up some different textures from the beginning of the tune every so often. I know that the great groups/artists/albums I listen to the most seem to make each tune have its own distinct flavor as apart from the one you just heard and the one you're about to hear.

    I hear a lot of people who don't really care for jazz say, when asked why, "because it all sounds the same...tune after tune". I also hear this same rap coming from jazz musicians when asked why they don't dig pop/rock music, and it really cracks me up because in a way, both groups of people are right from their perspective! Why shouldn't more jazz musicians work up more individualized tunes/arrangements which lead the sound away from the swing/latin/ballad/waltz sequence? Sometimes I feel as if the personality is being sucked out of jazz by the mindset of "let's just play, man...call a tune". (Can you tell that I haven't been able to rehearse with my trio since the pianist had his baby? Does it show?)

    Should jazz musicians (in general) spend more time arranging before playing? Thoughts on the issue?
  2. Well, I don't play a DB, and I don't often play jazz, but I think there are merits to both sides of your question.

    Jazz musicians spending more time arranging before playing:

    I think that playing with a group of people in any genre of music should require some arrangement. I think that having an agreed upon arrangement will let the individual musicians know exactly where they have "room" to breathe. It also helps less advanced musicians find their place and contribute in a more meaningful way.

    Jazz musicians letting the music "flow":

    There is something to be said for spontaneity. It gives a whole new realm to the music, a life and metabolism of its own. This might only apply if the musicians in question are more advanced, aching for creative expression and having the tools to accomplish what they are hearing in their head.

    I have found that most genres of music sound the same to people until they really listen to it. Pop, Rock, Heavy Metal, Jazz, Classical, Opera. Every one of these genres will be accused of "all sounding the same" by some group of people.

    In final answer to your question, perhaps the best idea is a combination. Maybe a less structured arrangement coupled with spontaneity and originality will lend life AND structure to the piece.

    My opinion, abuse it as you see fit.

  3. rablack


    Mar 9, 2000
    Houston, Texas
    Ed - Love the amended signature line - very "timely" ;)
  4. I feel your pain, Chris. I enjoy playing more when there's an arrangement and I also prefer listening to arrangements. I think the overall history of jazz thus far, the head-solos-head thing is a relatively recent development. Even the be-boppers had arrangements.

    Arrangements don't have to be anything complex. I lucky enough to be working with some like-minded cats who, though we're all professionals juggling gigs and teaching and families, etc., we *make* time to rehearse a few times a month (even it's 9am on a weekday or a Sat. evening when none of us have other gigs or before the other gig), and we're able to do some arrangments. We write original intros and outros; have different ways of doing the head (the rythm section might do a written thing under the melody, overlap melodies, write counterpoints, bass plays the melody the horns playing harmony & counterpoint); if the tune is long form we might derive different ways of breaking it up for solos; there might not be solos, maybe just a collective thing; change the time signature of a tune; or simply decide we're gonna be pretty free on a tune. At one of these rehearsals we might only play one or two tunes all the way through in the two or three hours we're together. The time is spent getting the other stuff together and it pays off. The tunes are more interesting, we sound more distinct from other groups and things don't get redundant. IMO, even with great players, things get boring. And not everything needs to be arranged either. A couple of arranged tunes a set break things up nicely.
  5. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I'm with David on this one, especially the part about not EVERY tune needing to be arranged, but if even every other/every third tune has an arrangement to it, you'll get a lot more variety in your set. To be honest, I think it's often just laziness that keeps people from doing head and/or form arrangements more - although that's a huge general sweeping statement and nothing more than my personal opinion.

    Teaching and playing at the Aebersold camps every summer has also driven this home to me year after year. I'm not gonna mention any names on the net (I'm not completely stupid, and I also don't want to single anybody out), but every year I see a stage full of some of baddest motherf***ers you could imagine all standing on the same platform, and the result is sometimes - not too often, but more often than you would guess - some of the most boring music I've ever heard. When this happens, it's usually because the group has no group concept. Give me a better rehearsed group of *slightly* lower tier players instead, or better yet, get those same guys to figure out what it is they really want to sound like as a group before they count off the tune. And to be fair, there is a lot of great music going on at the camps where people take care of this business.

    I guess I'm just wondering about what I think of as the "Improvisation Purist" attitude that I see so much. It's almost as if certain people think that arranging a tune somehow shackles their creativity by setting up a vibe or direction that a particular tune is going to start or end with, and I guess I just don't see it that way. Arrangements don't have to be note for note scores - they can be pretty vague and still be pretty effective. As an example, I think of two of my favorite jazz albums: Joe Henderson's "Lush Life", and Fred Hersch's "Dancing in the Dark". Both are full of great players, both are largely standards, but on both of these records, EACH TUNE HAS ITS OWN IDENTITY, its own character which is separate and distinct from the others. And each arrangement has enough breathing room in it that I feel pretty sure that it could be taken in many different directions depending on how everybody felt at whatever particular moment they played it.

    I guess I'm venting a little bit, but think about it: shouldn't it be the norm for a group to have its own concept of what the tunes it is playing are going to be like texturally? Or is it better (as some would have it) to just start out with everybody playing their "standard" role in the group and let it evolve from there? Like David says, maybe a mixture of the two is best. All I know is, every time I see YET ANOTHER group do the Head/everybodylineupandblowyersh*t/Head thing, I start reaching for some coffee to simply stay awake at some point. And that includes groups that I happen to be playing in at the time....
  6. Monte


    Jan 9, 2001
    DFW Area, Tejas
    I have to go with Chris and David on this one. I have a group that has stayed more or less the same personnel for 5 years and practice together about 3 or 4 times a month. Here in my area there is a college that is somewhat of a jazz factory (think North Texas with less students and faculty) so I get lots of calls to play with guys. They throw together a band, whoevers hottest at the time, and go out and get gigs. Nothing wrong so far, but they never want to rehearse, preferring to show up and let it flow on Real Book tunes, standing there asking each other what do you want to play. Makes you look like a bunch of amateurs, and worse gives jazz the impression that we could care less what the listeners dig. That may be true but it also gives jazz that elitist slant that makes so many people think they're just not sophisticated enough for it. If you don't rehearse, how are you gonna know which RB changes are wrong (and there are many)? How are you going to be able to put cool hits in the head? My group may not have the best players in town but the audience really digs it when they hear something like our signature tune "Good Gravy", which is just a blues but adding the hits makes it hip. Jazz is more than get through the melody so you can solo. Adding interludes, shout choruses, rhythm section stuff, etc. makes it YOUR song. JMO, of course.

  7. But those groups have a "group concept," and that is probably as important as the arrangements. The group concept allows them to go beyond the soloist+rythm section format that can become so tiring. Check this out: group concept=ensemble. And that's another reason this one thing I'm doing is working. We play as a group, listening, reacting, conversing.

    Arrangements don't have to result playing the tune the same way. It's still open, there might just be some agreed upon conventions and they can easily go out the window if the vibe wants them to. Or I don't see how doing, let's say, A Night In Tunisia in 7:8 is stifling anyone. On the contrary, if you pull it off, you're gonna sound pretty hip. And written intros and outros are like a signature thing. Arranging tune doesn't mean the thing is scripted. A good arrangement is one more thing you can do to sound better than other cats. If I just want to get my nut off I can go to a jam session. On a gig I want to sound better than the cats who played the night before me or the night after me. I want people to remember the group and to check us out again. Philly, like New York, Ed, is loaded with cats who no one can beat, so if some slick arrangements help us compete and get work, I'm all for it.

    Arranging in jazz goes way back. And if you read about the cats back in the day, they took great pride in their reading chops and their arrangements. I think the practice of playing arrangements really fell by the wayside as the popularity of jazz began declining and gigs became more and more scarce. Fewer gigs meant is was harder to keep steady groups together. And with the advent of bop, the focus of jazz began shifting to the soloist. I think these two factors conspired against the practice of arranging.

    Another thing I think is destined to return, if it hasn't already, is collective improvising in the way Dixieland was collective; no one really soloing, but sorta everyone soloing, in a controlled conversational way.
  8. Monte


    Jan 9, 2001
    DFW Area, Tejas

    I love this!! The first time I heard it used was when I got to play with Don Lanphere in Wichita 4 or 5 years ago and he and another sax and trombonist would do this. It goes way beyond trading 4's, and if done right can really be hip.

  9. But at this level, I at least, am not competing with Sonny Rollins. I'm competing with other local cats, despite some of them being on that level. A group I'm working in can sound better than other cats on the same level. Better as in tight, polished, sounding like we care about how we sound. Something as simple as an intro can put that across.
  10. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Last year I was lucky enough to get to play a gig with Lynne Arriale's trio. She sent me the charts way in advance (I already had most of her CD's) and I worked my *ss of learning that stuff. When it came time to do the gig, she called about half arranged stuff and half standards, and playing the arranged stuff was one of the biggest musical rushes ( the good kind, not the kind in Ed's new signature) I've ever had. There was just something about shifting from the tight controlled aspect of the arranged part to the complete freedom of the solos that just kicked me in the *ss every time - it kind of felt like being shot out of a slingshot. I had no idea where the solos were going to go (and most cases, they didn't follow the "lead" of the solos on the CD's), but since Steve Davis had been playing with her for years, I just locked onto what he was doing and kept my ears open. The standards were fun too, but not quite as much. Man, talk about "group concept"....Lynne and Steve know each other so well that they can go places (like across the barline) at will at this point at the slightest provocation. I've had similar experiences with my own trio, but like I said, we've hit a slight bump in the road.

    Ed, I'm all for "group concept" and not advocating that everything be notated to the nth degree, but "serving the music" can also mean personalizing it as a group by working some things out beforehand. Funny enough, I actually was thinking of your Quintet when I started this thread...I really dug the way that group always left me guessing what was coming next. I could never pin down what I could "expect" to hear, and I like that. It keeps me on the edge of my seat.
  11. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Very interesting debate and already so much discussion to digest!

    I go to a Summerschool, a bit like the Aebersold ones and it's always very noticable, how Monday night's "Jazz Club" is very subdued and the music is a bit "lacking"; but by Thursday, when everybody (tutors and students!) has had time to write or rehearse some arrangements, the atmosphere is very different and everybody is really digging the music and very excited about what is happening on stage.

    I think I can add something to this debate as an "audience member" as well - basically I go to my local Jazz club, which has typical quartets/quintets every Friday night. Last week they had Harvey Weinapel quartet.

    Anyway - the groups are always very good, but some weeks you get players who are more "well-known" than others and I can remember two consecutive weeks which really allowed a valid comparison.

    Both bands were identical quartets led by an alto sax player. The first week was more well-know guys - the leader writes for JazzWise magazine and is considered one of the best players in the UK - but they played all standards, seemingly with little variation and while I was very impressed with the playing, the evening was "dragging" (not in the time sense!) until they brought up a local singer for a very nice version of "Lover Man".

    Next week the leader was a local guy, who wrote all the material and arranged it with his quartet who presumably had had a fair amount of rehearsal, as there was a great variety of music, combining different styles - african, oriental etc . Now I liked both weeks, but on paper, the first group looked to be the better bet, but as an audience member the second held my interest throughout and while I can't help but agree that the first group were better players, I think the second group shaded it - just!

    But then, I think the majority of audience members just like the atmosphere and the chance to have a few drinks with like-minded individuals - as I often do, so maybe the first groups had got it right as they got equal audience response with less preparation?
  12. You've all got some great points from this angle. I have been composing originals for about 15 years now and learning standards has been a fairly recent development for me and my drummer(last couple of years). When we first started doing standards in a trio once a week (not our regular gig, more of a "can we do this?" thing), I was suprised at the simplicity (structurally) of most of the tunes - they begged for the personal touch or arrangement. Obviously, these tunes are designed for improvisation and simplicity is often beautiful, etc. However, a unique arrangement doesn't have to be complex, and it doesn't have to get in the way of the instrumentalists...it is a framework that refelects the group character.

    Which brings me to our originals...I am the consummate terrible arranger. I come up with all these bits...sometimes grooves, sometimes melodies, but I never have a clue as to the best way to fit them together. Our drummer, however, digs this and is good at it. So what we'll do is take each bit and jam on it until we can feel its flavor a bit, and then fit them together in the best way based on the group dynamic (as Ed said). So, IMO, the best arrangement is based on what you want the group to sound like and what it DOES sound like, and is organically spun out of the group interplay. It can take a while, but its worth it. I would tend to agree that I (and I think alot of musicians) prefer a tight band with interesting cool arrangements and good playing over a loose band with boring (or no) arrangements and great playing. Of course that's a massive generalization, and for me only pertains to certain musical genres like jazz, instrumentally focused rock, and some others. And even in these genres, you can throw in 50% loosey goosey tunes in the set and it's usually a good thing...keeps both the players and the audience on their toes. And with the blues, you can usually throw everything I said out the window...

    I've been emailing this thread to all the musicians I know...I think it's great.
  13. Here's our problem - our keyboardist is a great b3 player, no bones about that. Probably the best musician in the band in many regards. But he is not used to composing lines on top of original stuff, and actually spins his gears if the aforementioned new stuff is in an odd time sig. He seems to prefer to just revert to 4/4 funky pieces (Jimmy Smith, you get the idea...what B3 player WOULDN'T want to rock some of those....), which (especially from a bass n' drums perspective) can get really tiresome. Has anyone had to deal with something like this? I don't want to make it "an issue", yet I feel like we aren't paying enough attention to our originals, which is the concept of the band...however since he's the newcomer, I don't want to make him feel like it's not "his" band too...hewp me, pwease. I guess I am just looking for people who have been through similar things and found a good productive way to deal with it. Oh by the way, 3 of the 4 bandmember (including me) are total hotheads, with the keyboard player being the hottest of the heads.
  14. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Actually, it's not that big a deal, just life getting in the way of the best of intentions.. I should be used to that one by now. Basically the guy just had his first kid, and is the first call piano player in town. We both got too busy for the Tuesday night gig (little or no money, for all practical purposes) so I've gone from being completely spoiled to still playing a bunch but it's mostly club dates & casuals at the moment (more money, less food for the soul). It's a cyclical thing, and it'll come back around. No biggie...like I told DONOSAUR a few weeks ago, I've been working too many 65-70 hour weeks in a row, and I'm feeling burned out, that's all. I gave my last final exam today, so after all of the derby gigs are done I plan on sleeping for a couple of weeks to get my energy back. It'll pass...

    About your suggestion about bringing charts to the gigs: I'm planning to do that, but I'm in the middle of a steep learning curve on that one - Until a couple of years ago, I was the PIANO PLAYER on most of my gigs, and it's a hell of a lot easier to pull off an arrangement when you are in complete control of the harmony (i.e. - voicings, textural thickness, "blurry" harmonic reharms w/references to modality, "inside-outside" harmony, etc...) than when you only get to play the bottom note of it and rely on somebody else to realize the harmony the way you're hearing it. I keep learning this lesson over and over. I don't really feel right making a lot of suggestions to Harry (because he's basically a musical genius and I'm fortunate to be able to play with him at all while he's here), and the other guys I play with - while good - hear the harmony differently than I do. So I'm left with a choice:

    a) Score out what I would play harmonically (on the piano) note for note for the pianist, which would be time consuming for me and would likely seem fussy and difficult for those trying to read the sh*t on the fly, or;

    b) Re-examine my concept of arranging and find a way to focus on GENERAL things I can write that hint at the sound I want without spelling it out too directly, which would allow the music to come out of the band more naturally and let everybody's voice breathe a little easier.

    As in all things, probably a mixture of the two, judiciously placed, would be best. And again, I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining too bitterly...Life is good, there's plenty of work, and I'm not starving - I'm just trying to find ways to make it all a little better, that's all.

    The replies in this thread have all been great, by the way. Thanks everybody. I'm not normally a hothead, but when I work too much I'm told I can be kinda grouchy. Not much, you understand, but just a tad. ;)

  15. Heh, speaking of hothead, our keyboard player bought this B3/Leslie a couple of months ago, and the low end kept cutting out. As I said before he's quite a hothead. Classic quote from the last time it happened: "I am calling this $@#$@ right now and if he doesn't come over RIGHT NOW and fix it for good, I am going to stab him in the face!". Now, you gotta understand, he isn't violent like that (he doesn't throw down with blades), but he was PISSED. And he is an Irish man from Boston! So now we call him "the Face Stabber". For example: "when's the face stabber showing up?". Ooh god, you might not find this very amusing as it's kind of "you had to be there", but it is really funny if you know him...
  16. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Full circle indeed. I've been spending quite a bit of time over at homercording.com trying to learn how to get my, uh, well....home recording setup going (never woulda guessed, huh?). Anyway, I did a bunch of research, bought some mics, saving for some more, yadda yadda, and I start calling people up to come over and play.

    Most of these guys won't rehearse unless you pay 'em, but as soon as you say "it's rolling" it seems like everybody wants to talk about arrangements. Kind of like putting your best foot forward, I guess. So, my new strategy is: invite all the guys I play with over to record on a semi-regular basis, and have a bunch of arrangements for that purpose. Then, when I know I'll be gigging with whoever, I just drag those charts to the gig. Well, it MIGHT work...

    Hey reedo, howsabout we record some duets when you're passing through this way?

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