In my last lesson back in the January 2014 issue, I demonstrated how adding just one note can change a chord’s color and character. This month, I’ll offer up ways to give your arrangements added punch, power, and clarity. I used many of these techniques on my new album Hudson City Suite.
1. Call and Response
Ex. 1 illustrates the time-honored technique known as “call and response,” which creates excitement by way of a musical “dialogue.” Here’s a traditional big band example: The saxes riff with a close-voiced, harmonized line, and the first brass chord is voiced with a wider spread between notesat the bottom but more closely at the top. Then the brass play a unison riff doubled in three octaves. The sax riff will sound tight and swinging, the brass will be powerful and full and the octave unison passages will be clear and loud.
2. Sweet and Light
Doubling across instrument choirs (i.e., woodwinds and brass playing the same notes or lines) is often my secret weapon of choice. Pairing tenor saxes with trombones, trumpets, with alto saxes—or even bass with bass clarinet—helps enrich and widen the music at hand. Just about any combination will work. Ex. 2a comes from the “less is more” school and features three-part harmony with unison doubling, here with a six-piece horn section. The voicing comes from melodic moving lines.
Ex. 2b fully maximizes the sound of a small section with unisons: alto and the trumpet double the lead, and the trombone and tenor sax follow in fourths and thirds below.
3. Richen Up
You can fatten up your chord voicings with inner unisons. I call this “cross-doubling,”wherethe doubled notes spread and richen the sound. Here you can use more instruments on fewer notes. In Ex. 3a, middle C and the D below it are doubled. Eight instruments play six notes. Both the trombone and sax voicings are solid, and cross-doubling makes the section resonate.
In Ex. 3b we voice a big chord with cross-doubling. Here, 12 instruments are playing a seven-note chord. This sounds full, the instruments will blend well together, and no one in the band will feel left out!
4. Make It Scream
Even with a small ensemble at your disposal, you can still roar. Your assignment: In a moving “shout” passage, harmonize the notes under a riff. My band has seven horns, so I always have to weave the brass and reeds together, and keep most of them relatively high in their range. This passage is a harmonized Bb blues riff. In Ex. 4a, both the brass and sax voicings each have a nice spread, and everything moves together.
In Ex 4b, the line is harmonized in a tight and punchy band of moving chords. Remember: Always make every voice count!
Rules and Caveats
There are just a few rules to keep in mind when constructing your arrangements—rules that you can choose to break as long as you know them first. First, don’t put the root in the middle of the chord, as it really detracts and makes things sound classical. Second, try to use wider spacings in the lower register of a voiced chord. Otherwise, it will be a muddy day in overtone city! Finally, don’t write two instruments on the root of a voiced chord. You gain nothing but intonation problems while losing another available voice.
Hit the Books
“Arranging and orchestration textbooks actually work,” says Scott Healy. “My former teacher Ray Wright’s Inside the Score takes apart famous big band arrangements by Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, and Sammy Nestico. Ray explains large ensemble voicing and voice doubling in detail. Also Don Sebesky draws on his decades of experience in the studio in The Contemporary Arranger. Both texts come with CDs so you can hear the notes in action.” Healy has worked Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, and Christina Aguilera, and is the longtime TV band keyboardist for Conan O’Brien. Healy’s Grammy-nominated album Hudson City Suite is out now. Find out more at bluedogmusic.com.