The Art Of The Jazz Set: Part One

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Being a professional musician these days is a challenge, especially if you are a woodwind specialist. We study and practice the finest details of theory, composition, improvisation, and so on. But there is little discussion, especially amongst young players, of the art of creating an interesting series of songs (a set). Thus, strategically choosing songs and their sequence for a performance can make a major difference in your career both artistically and economically. To illustrate how, I will discuss the general overall structuring of music written or arranged for a jazz quartet (in this case consisting of trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums). In Part Two I will discuss specific songs and eras to include.

There are many benefits of well-planned set, especially how it can help deliver a decent performance when you are not at your best: jet lagged, dehydrated, coming down with a cold, hungry, and/or whatever else happens when you tour and perform. An organized set is also very useful when there are last minute personnel changes, and you have little to no time to rehearse before a performance. A well built set also leaves room for flexibility and spontaneity if you decide, for example, to alter the set mid-performance to fit the mood of the room. The most important aspect of a well-planned set, though, is that you have in mind a target performance, a standard to which you aspire. Hitting this significant target requires the intense focus typical of a traditional Japanese archer, or legendary violinist Nicolo Paganini when he wrote difficult pieces to be played on a single string. So let’s look at a few key points that will help you build a great set.

A very effective way to begin a set is with an opening solo number. It may be freely improvised, but I have found that having a pre-planned, original solo arrangement of a standard song is most useful as a whet, an effective way to engage with the audience immediately. And though many saxophonists will use an excellent ballad like John Coltrane’s “Naima”, choosing a song  such as Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” or Dave Brubeck’s “Three To Get Ready” instead is a more surprising and entertaining show opener to jazz audiences (while also being a fun challenge for the soloist). With proper planning and preparation then, the solo intro will engage both you and the audience right from the start. Personal favorites of mine include the Miles Davis classics “Pfrancing” and “Milestones”, a rubato version of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”, “Kozo’s Waltz” by Art Blakey, and/or the classic early 20th century composition “Royal Garden Blues”. 

Having too many mid-tempo songs in a set is a mistake many young saxophonists make. Not being able to play artistically at faster tempos, they tend to stick to a comfortable, medium speed overall, with little variation in form and tempo. So when choosing songs, it is particularly effective to strategize towards your stylistic rather than technical strengths, until they are equal. This is where you may compensate by showcasing original arrangements of up-tempo songs, as is often the case with John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, or the classic standard Cherokee. Thelonious Monk ‘s composition Well You Needn’t is also useful as a stylistic vehicle, as its bridge section is difficult at high speeds, for saxophonists especially. Altering both harmonic and metronomic speed thus provides both artistic and technical solutions to up-tempo songs.

Another pitfall in set building is reflexively arranging a standard 4/4 song in other time signatures like 3/4 or 5/4. Although in theory it is a good idea, young saxophonists almost invariably just try and fit the melody into another time signature verbatim, without exploring any of the myriad possibilities of form and texture. The key to arrangement then is to find creative ways to maintain the essence of the original while featuring it in an unexpected context. So rather than re-arranging an entire song into 5/4 for example, simply alter a single bar of the melody into 5/4, which creates a surprising “hiccup” effect in the song, before returning to the standard time signature and chords for improvisation. You can also play the song in its original time signature and then arrange the solo section to be in 5/4, before returning back to the original form. Both methods provide an opportunity to create fresh arrangements without overcomplicating both the music and the overall set.

As I am using a piano-less quartet as an example, the lack of a chording instrument can be either an advantage or weakness, depending on the quality of the set. Though a piano might add more musical colors and possibilities, the space created in a piano-less quartet is an opportunity to demand more of yourself and the ensemble texturally. Thus, including a traditional song, or original arrangement of a song that does not require chordal accompaniment gives you the opportunity to explore more textural and improvisational elements, which are then played equally amongst the entire quartet in a contrapuntal rather than harmonic approach.

An example of this would be arranging songs that use various ostinato patterns, such as traditional African balafon songs, or your own compositions based on South Indian drumming patterns arranged into complimentary parts for the entire group. Using this method is not only enjoyable for the audience but also prevents you from staying rooted in your comfort zone. And when you add space to these arrangements to create freer forms of improvisation you create moments of chance and uncertainty, which simultaneously makes great art possible, and keeps the set from being over organized and predictable.

Ultimately, strategic set building helps bridge the gap between our goals and abilities, while creating a memorable experience for your audience. So make sure you enjoy the process, and good luck!

continued in Part Two…

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2 thoughts on “The Art Of The Jazz Set: Part One

  1. Even though your post is specifically about building a jazz set, I found things to be gleaned for other types of performances as well. Thinking ahead of time about who your audience is and the journey you want them to enjoy creates a different type of experience then if you decide to “just wing it.” I agree that organizing your pieces to invite, engage, and build interest at different levels and rhythms while leaving room for flexibility and improvisation is an art unto itself!

    1. It is a hard art as well. There is so much material and varying forms of presentation that one must be very thoughtful about it. Thus the genius of Miles Davis in his arranging, song selection and choice of sidemen to realize his sound. Miles was DEEP…

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