Formal Planning

Years ago, I had the opportunity to ask John La Barbera for some big band arranging advice over a beer in Louisville, KY. John’s arrangements, as many of you will know, have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, the Count Basie Orchestra, and many others.  His advice to me was:

“Always start by planning your arrangement’s road map in detail — then you won’t waste time being stuck later.”

To be candid, there are times when I follow John’s advice, and other times when I deliberately do not. Sometimes, I think more organic results are achieved when one allows a piece to unfold naturally, and remains open to the surprise of where the music might lead itself. To my ears, some big band pieces sound like premeditated cookie cutter projects. That being said, I do see validity in John’s advice to plan ahead. We all know there are many ways to get home, but it would be foolish to embark on a journey without a route and destination in mind.

A man standing at the side of a rural road, looking at an unfolded road map.

For this new Cow Tippin’ blues chart, I have no intentions to reinvent the wheel. I imagine using a very clear-cut form that will feature every section of the big band in both solos and (unaccompanied) solis. Chuck Sayre did something along these lines in his Keepin’ Track Of The Time chart, which I have previously programmed when conducting high school honor bands. Like his, I hope my end result will be a showy, fun piece, with ample space for soloists to flaunt their stuff.

Here’s the plan (before writing a note of music):

[No Intro]

Chorus 1: head presentation

  • simple
  • unison sax section and rhythm section
Chorus 2: head repeated
  • bring in full ensemble
  • BIG & voiced
Chorus 3: sax soli
  • harmonized
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • Bari acts like walking bass. some funky bari lines “in the holes”
Chorus 4: tenor sax solo(s)
  • solo break into it
  • short “send-off” (1 or 2 measures).  Punch into solo
  • 3 choruses?
  • last chorus:  last 2 measures = “brass send off”.  m. 11: tbn, m. 12: full brass
Chorus 5: trumpet soli
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • could start with all 4 and then include duet, trio, etc.
  • maybe emulate walking bass for part
Chorus 6: trumpet solo(s)
  • short “send-off” (2 measures)
  • 3 choruses?
  • last 2 measures = send off into tbn soli, by 3 trumpets and saxes
Chorus 7: trombone soli
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • nothing before, so they can stand up
  • include some flashy walking bass in bass tbn.
Chorus 8:  trombone solo(s)
  • short “send-off”
  • 3 choruses?
Chorus 9: Full ensemble
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • stop time on beat one of top
  • maybe start soft and not too high.
  • Crescendo into BIG full ensemble

Chorus 10: Full ensemble, continued

  • continue, with added rhythm section
D.S. or alternate head presentation
  • end fairly big

Maybe it’s the rebel/non-conformist in me, but even when I do premeditate an arrangement’s formal plan, I find my brain trying to break out of it at every turn. If I can resist this temptation, this piece should be relatively easy to write.

…famous last words.

Here’s how the chart turned out:
Cow Tippin’ – performed by the New London Big Band

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