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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 6

Charting Musical Flights: The Arranger

by Paul Serralheiro / March 2, 2003

Part 1: Job Description

"As a jazz writer," Matthias Ruegg of the Vienna Art Orchestra was recently quoted in Jazzwise, "you have to appear at the right moment, and then disappear at the right moment, and learning to do this takes a long, long time." While writing music is the job of both the arranger and the composer, the fruits of the composer's work are usually rewarded either financially or in terms of prestige. The best arrangers, by contrast, are a deprived lot and are very rarely adequately celebrated--like the host who has thrown together the right people, food and entertainment for a fabulous party that all the guests enjoy without being aware of the efforts that led to those magic moments.

Yet, this self-effacing art requires the effort and perseverance that any successful musical endeavour demands. "The arranger," wrote musician and educator Jerry Coker in The Jazz Idiom, "needs to have heard and remembered an enormous amount of music of many styles, past and present. He needs to have absorbed all the theoretical materials studied by the improviser (chords, scales, intervals, patterns, melodic development, ear training, etc.) and more (notation, scores, form, instrumental ranges, transposition, keyboard, voicings, orchestration, counterpoint, etc.)." Add to this the conducting skills and entrepreneurship required to see projects through and you get a clear picture of the weight of the job. Many musicians contribute occasional arrangements to their group performances; very few actually make arranging their main musician activity, however, and even fewer develop a distinct voice as artists. The job is underpaid (in most cases, there are no royalties, since you didn't actually compose the piece) and not very glamorous.

Asked by interviewer Zan Stewart what he had been doing since his successes with Miles Davis in the late 1950s, the great Gil Evans replied "I sat in front of the piano for 30 years trying to find different ways to voice a minor 7th chord." Quiet workmanship is the rule, but without the arranger many of the masterpieces of jazz would not exist and many soloists would not have had the opportunity to display the full extent of their gifts. As Joachim E. Berendt put it in The Jazz Book: "Jazz musicians--not just today, but from the start of jazz...[--] see the arrangement not as an inhibition of the freedom to improvise, but as an aid."

The need for this aid is due to the fact that in jazz, improvisation and composition pull in opposite directions, in a conceptual and practical tug-of-war. On the one hand we have the desire of individuals to play what they see fit, and on the other, a static work that may have begun as improvisation but, once "snatched from the air" has lost its spontaneity--a spontaneity that the musicians must attempt to revive. Improvisation stretches the notions of form and structure which the original composition brings into play. For jazz musicians using the elements of a common language, an established grammar of expression with its own vocabulary, conventions of style can be loosely adhered to, but in matters of form, when an ensemble is involved and a successful public performance or efficient recording session is at stake, some kind of agreement as to common goals, interpretations of harmony and episodic structure--a "chart"--is needed to keep things together, to create interest and to stimulate the soloists. That's where the arranger comes in, ear cocked and pencil poised.

For the arranger, as for all improvising musicians, the situation is similar--make something up. This is also true for the composer whose creations are the end result of a process that began as improvisation, but the arranger, like the improviser, is working with something that already exists. He or she is the navigator who provides the chart which will see the group of musicians through their explorations of the composition, voicing chords, writing contrapuntal figures, devising introductions, interludes, endings. The arranger takes an existing tune and its harmonic underpinning and makes it over to express his or her own musical imagination or to create inspiring settings for gifted soloists, balancing soli and tutti passages, creating in effect a kind of concerto, as witnessed by the achievements of Gil Evans' charts featuring Miles Davis (Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, etc.) and Lalo Shifrin and Chico O'Farrill's big band backdrops for Dizzy Gillespie's frenzied flights.

Since in jazz the performance is the composition, the arranger's work is crucial: he/she is the figure who adapts the composition to the available personnel, the requirements of the occasion and often defines the artistic concept. While underpaid and under-recognized, the job has attracted many gifted musicians and the best of them have in their work a quality of their own: a recognizable, unique voice that is the result of years of devotion to a craft, which, just like that of the woodshedding instrumentalist, is an exacting one.

Next month we will consider the specific achievements of some of jazz's outstanding arrangers and explore the nature of their contributions to the ongoing development of this quirky art form. In the meantime, to find out more about the elements of jazz arranging, visit the following website run by Doug Bristol, a doctoral candidate at the University of Northern Colorado: http://webpages.charter.net/dbristol4/tutorial/topics.htm

Soft Talk

Michel Graillier and Riccardo Del Fra

Sketch/Harmonia Mundi Ske 333014

This CD, by Parisians and veteran musicians pianist Michel Graillier and bassist Riccardo Del Fra, has a name that speaks its purpose. The tones are muted, the themes understated, and the resulting mood is intimate, as both musicians feel the pulse in a similar manner and create quietly exciting music. Of the nine pieces on this disc, only one is a standard--the other eight were penned by Graillier and Del Fra. To these ears the new tunes, with their flowing melodies and impressionistic harmonies, sound like standards, even contrafacts of standards. Their titles--given the absence of lyrics -- provide entry points into the conception of the tunes, all of which place a heavy emphasis on melody, stated either by the piano or the bass. The eight originals are titled "It Happened to Us", "Petit Troquet", "Profilo di Lei", "Spring's Walk," "Marie Murmure a la Mer", "Nowhere", and "Blue Wind" (the latter recalling Pat Metheny's ballad "Red Wind"). The only standard, "I'm a Fool to Want You", closes the disc, as a kind of summation of its mood, intent, and vision. These centre on the romantic strain of show tunes and crooner vehicles that have been associated with jazz, and which is the very kind of music espoused here: romantic, sensitive, nuanced, poetic in a subtle and sophisticated way, albeit somewhat predictably. Soft Talk is an aptly titled recording indeed. Paul Serralheiro

(c) La Scena Musicale