Hit The Road Jack

This week I have been feeling a bit like this character in the recent Geico commercial, who emerges from living under a rock. For the past couple of weeks I have been more or less “unplugged” and in seclusion, trying to complete a big band commission for the Westchester Jazz Orchestra. I finished the piece on Monday and will get to hear it performed tonight at the Irvington Town Theatre.

The concert is billed as “the music of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.” When the musical director, Mike Holober called, asking if I was interested in writing something and if I had a piece in mind, I naturally consulted my wife who is much more in tune with pop music than I am. She suggested, “Hit the Road Jack”, which I conveyed to Mike without really listening to the piece. As the deadline approached and other projects were completed, thereby creating time to write, I sat down and actually checked out the tune. I started to get nervous when I realized there was one, repetitive, 4-note bass line throughout, with no harmonic motion/variance to other key areas.

The task got even harder when I considered how I might manipulate and personalize the piece to make it my arrangement. It would be easy to turn it on its ear by doing something crazy like altering the bass line or time signature, but then something else dawned on me. The audience. People would be paying to hear their favorite Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder tunes, not my mutilation of one of their hits. I found myself paralyzed thinking about how I might satisfy both the audience and the progressive thinking band members who would have no interest in playing a stock, instrumental version of the original.

Surprisingly, it was jazz trumpeter, Dave Douglas that helped get unstuck. I shared my quandary with Dave while he was at UConn, doing a brief residency. He suggested that I write two short arrangements — one where I “knocked it out of the ballpark”, catering to the audience (while remaining hip), and the other, where I presented my compositional response. This was enough to get me inspired and going. I ended up only completing phase one of his recommendation, but plan to follow through and complete a response at some point — certainly before I ever consider recording the piece. I imagine calling it “…And Good Riddance”, but am open to suggestions.

In general, I’m happy with what I’ve written for tonight’s show. I think I created some allure by imposing some interesting twists and turns. Here is a MIDI audio file generated from my Finale music notation software, to give you the gist of how I manipulated the piece. You will have to imagine an open trumpet solo, drum fills, etc.

For those interested in the mechanics of arranging, here are some notes to document both the process and techniques I employed. [If I don’t take a moment to write this now, I will undoubtedly forget what was involved.]

I began by listening to many versions on YouTube. I researched not only renditions by Ray Charles, but by others as well. Surprisingly, with the exception of Tina Turner, no one has deviated too far from the original. A version by the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, albeit somewhat cheesy, provided a stop-time solo break idea. The Lennon Sisters’ version sparked an idea to have the trombones play a riff response to the bass line, although expanded. The motion picture rendition from “Ray” helped to solidify the essence of a heated, two-way conversation. I tried to depict this with sections of the ensemble conversing and responding to one another.

I chose to stick with a medium bright shuffle groove, reminiscent of something Thad Jones might do.

Because the bass line is so prominent in the original, I decided to play/experiment with it subtly in the introduction, middle development section and ending.

The melody was presented first in the saxes, in octaves, using some blues inflections.

The response was given to the trombones, again in octaves. In between there are some harmonized ensemble hits to create excitement and variety.

This led to big, harmonized, stop-time ensemble hits around which a trumpet solos. Unlike the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, I varied the rhythm of each hit to make it sound less commercial and more jazz-like. At this point I deviated from the repetitive harmonic progression, going to the IV chord, eventually descending by step, leading to an open minor blues. It seemed natural and would help to satisfy the improvisational urges and expectations of a progressive, soloing, modern jazz orchestra. Trombones were used in writing background figures.

For the lyric “Oh woman, Oh woman, don’t you treat me so mean…” I brought in the trumpet section, in unison, accompanied by harmonized trombones (in a manner similar to how a pianist’s right is accompanied by left hand rootless voicings.) The octave saxes returned for the recap of “hit the road Jack, and…”.

I knew a key change would be helpful if the piece were to be extended beyond the original’s 2 minutes and 20 seconds. The question was, would I take it up a half step, or would that be regarded as “too stock” and be perceived as a device geared to pander to the audience. I elected to go up a major third. The deal was sealed when I realized all of the common tones that existed between an Ab minor tonality and the G7 altered dominant chord used to get to C.

At this point in the chart I was becoming desperate to create some harmonic activity. To do this, I loaded it up with secondary dominants, working backwards from target chords. Because the lines were fairly active (primarily eighth notes), I used the 4-part Basie style of writing.

To contrast this, in the subsequent section I wrote a simple soli for the low register instruments, expanding the bass line figure. This was delegated to the bari sax, bass trombone, string bass, piano and guitar. Drums fill in the special holes.

The chart climaxes with an ensemble shout chorus, which is very loosely based on the melody. Some very intentional melodic and rhythmic liberties were taken. It then winds down by my distributing the melodic material around the band with combinations of sections: saxes/tbns, trpts/tbns, saxes/rhythm, trpts/saxes, etc.

The ending is similar to the intro, but concludes with an ascending line leading to one last statement of “take the road, Jack!”.

It never fails to amaze me how much time goes into conceiving and writing a big band chart. This arrangements represents almost two weeks of my life.  Hearing it performed live tonight by the excellent Westchester Jazz Orchestra should make it all worthwhile.

Westchester Jazz Orchestra
The Westchester Jazz Orchestra

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