A keyboard-oriented approach to composition

[This month, we asked 2018 Grammy Award winning jazz composer/keyboardist Jeff Lorber to give us some insights into his writing process. As you'll read, Lorber takes a hybrid approach that gives him the flexibility to try new things, yet remember the different stages of the work. —Ed.]

Getting Set Up

I usually begin a new piece by opening a session template in Pro Tools that is ready to capture the basic instruments I like to use (Minimoog bass, Yamaha Montage Rhodes and acoustic piano) along with some of my favorite effects (a chamber and EMT-plate reverb simulation, a Bricasti-type, and a few different kinds of delay). Although the effects are plug-ins, none of those instruments are virtual: I’m using the real thing.

After finding a drum beat that suits what I’m going after, I'll try out some chordal backing ideas to set up a basic harmonic and rhythmic framework that will support a melody.

I always have an old-school Mel Bay music notebook next to me to jot down the chordal ideas so I won’t forget them, and so I can read the changes, if necessary, to evaluate and possibly modify or add to the ideas. (I’m working on Book #26 right now, and my collection of sketch notebooks goes back decades.) I work in pen (a Pilot V ball 0.7) rather than pencil, so I can clearly see the progression of ideas in case I want to go back to an earlier version.

Creating the Basics

First, a bit of backstory leading into song, “Highline,” which I wrote for the forthcoming Jeff Lorber Fusion album.

“Funky Gospel,” the opening track on my first album from 1977, was a medium tempo number that became one of the more popular songs we played on the club circuit in the Pacific Northwest. I thought it would be fun to go back and revisit the vibe of that song.

Like that first song, “Highline” is a medium-tempo blues in F, with some gospel flavored chords. The first attempt I made at creating a musical bed felt too syncopated (see Ex. 1). It didn’t create a solid rhythmic pattern suitable for both a chorus and verse melody, which was what I was going after.


With my second attempt, I found a more solid foundation for the musical bed (see Ex. 2). In this case, the bass line is pretty basic and just goes with the chords.


Chorus and B-Section Melodies

Let’s look at the construction of the melodies. The chorus melody features blues and pentatonic lines over the more chromatic chords, which provides a nice contrast between the strong blues melodic movement and the richer gospel-style backing (see Ex. 3).


The B section creates a place where interesting harmonic movement can take place, thereby setting up the chorus (see Ex. 4). Going into the B section, the orchestration changes and instead of a blues feeling, we head to some more jazzy, whole-step chordal movement with Dbmaj9,Ebma9and F minor. Then those chords repeat, but the second time resolve to Bb.

From bars 27 through 29, we get modern harmonies with Bbmaj9,Ab/C, F/A, G/Band then a resolution to the V chord, C11followed by a C7(#9, b13). If you follow the bass line, you’ll hear strong movement that builds to the end of the section: Bb, C,A, B, C, which is very simple but sounds more colorful because of the modern voicings above.


The Solo

The Rhodes solo during the chorus breakdown starts with basic blues phrases (see Ex. 5). In bar 2, it slips into some bebop with an indirect resolution to the Cbefore the Dorian scale phrase that follows, and then another indirect resolution, this time to the A, before some more blues. It ends with a 16-note-triplet descending blues phrase.