Keyboard players are naturally good arrangers. We do it
every day while we’re writing, tracking, putting chords to melodies, and
mixing our music. All of these activities involve selecting textures,
achieving balance, and sustaining interest from beginning to end. But
arranging jazz for live instruments presents a world of
challenges all its own. How do you choose from among the myriad options
for voicing, rhythm, accompaniment, instrument combinations, and
harmonic possibilities? Below I’ve outlined a few harmonic and textural
devices that can develop a simple tune, create interest, and vary the
harmony and sound to raise your writing and arranging to the next level.
I use these techniques constantly while writing for small and large
jazz ensembles alike.
Click images below for larger versions, and scroll to the bottom for audio examples.
1. Melodic Beginnings
The melody in Ex. 1 is a good demonstration of a theme with a beginning, middle, and end. It begins on the I chord, then moves to the V, then resolves back to the tonic with a strong ii-V-I cadence. This melody has strong harmonic motion, and presents many possibilities for experimentation.
2. Melodic Development
Ex. 2a takes the melody from Ex. 1 and arranges it
with parallel moving, diatonic, close-voiced five-note chords under each
melody note. This technique is sometimes referred to as “planning” or
“thickened line,” and it’s a good way to write for a sax section or
small horn band. Remember to stay within the chord tones and let your
ear be your guide.
Ex. 2b could be called choral style open voicing,
with added re-harmonization. The secret here is to discover the desired
harmony and then construct the voicings under the melody. Remember to
keep the intervals farther apart the lower you go.
In Ex. 2c, I decided ahead of time to experiment
with the use of fourths and chromatic motion. Don’t worry if you can’t
describe every texture you create with chord symbols. This is linear harmony,
with the motion of the melodic lines dictating tensions and
resolutions. My goal here was simply to start and finish on the I chord, providing strong linear movement both away from it and back to it.
3. Harmonic Experimentation
In Ex. 3 I’ve moved our melody up to the key of Bb
to give me more room underneath it for voicing possibilities. I’ve also
doubled the note values to give me more space. This time around I’m
harmonizing each note with a jazz chord. (The famed arranger and
trumpeter Thad Jones used this technique often, as did many others). I’m
also using the venerable tritone substitution, as well as numerous
chords that just sound pleasing.
4. Swinging Shout Chorus
In Ex. 4 I wanted to create musical excitement by
making a swinging “shout chorus.” The melodic contour is still there,
but it has developed into a jazzy top line melody that includes block
style chords. This example starts with a top line, two-note melody with
syncopated accompaniment before moving into the “thickened line” and
large chords. Notice the contrary motion in the spread-out ensemble
voicings: When the melody moves up, the bass moves down, and the
ensemble splits out into more notes as the space between the top and
5. Cinematic and Classical Sounds
In Ex. 5, I’m no longer thinking about harmonizing a
top line with chords. What’s now left of the melody starts in the
middle staff, with counterpoint above and below. Then our theme moves to
the top staff in a high register in bar 5 with a descending line below.
I like how the texture thins out and then builds as the lines move
downward, setting its sights on a strong chordal cadence. This type of
texture would sound great scored for a woodwind quintet, chamber
ensemble, jazz band, studio orchestra, or symphony. The key words here
are simple and direct.
“Don’t just write what your fingers can already play—always experiment and listen,” recommends Scott Healy,
longtime keyboardist for TV’s Conan O’Brien. He’s also performed and
recorded with Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, and Christina
Aguilera, and here are some of his recommendations for getting to know
great jazz arranging.
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Central Park North
Miles Davis with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead
Bob Brookmeyer, Clark Terry, and Mel Lewis, Live at the Village Vanguard
Frank Sinatra with Count Basie and the Orchestra, Sinatra at the Sands
Scott’s own album Hudson City Suite is out now. Visit him at bluedogmusic.com.