Sunday, August 29, 2010

String Writing

String Writing In Jazz

This time I have written my post offline for later transfer (I have already told Ronan that I lost my text the other night when trying to respond).

When I first taught myself orchestration I approached it via every book I could find on the subject. There were score excerpts available from great classical writers through to Stockhausen as well as various writers using cut-out scores. I soon found myself getting under the hood of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, mainly because I heard a very prominent minor 9th chord along with Ravel's polytonality that has influenced so many jazz writers. It was very obvious from the get-go that anyone wising to study orchestration in classical music had a wealth of information available through sheet music shops and libraries. For me there was a gap - somewhere along the way the big band/dance band writers had adapted their approach to the string orchestra to accommodate jazz harmony as found in the big bands. Approaches to voice for Big Band were taking shape as soon as the line-up settled on a standard size for big band. We saw 6 brass moving to 7 before Don Redman introduced 8 brass and 5 saxes. The latter soon became the standard line for a jazz big band, along with it came a vocabulary of voicing techniques.

Both Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle studied orchestration with Mario Castlenuovo-Tedesco - in Riddle's case, using his GI bill. Tedesco, taught his students by having them orchestrate piano music. Riddle's command of this was shown in his orchestration of the Gershwin Preludes and three lesser known Preludes for solo piano by Delius.

I have always been fascinated by the use of the orchestra in jazz, not just the strings. Why? Mainly because of some reasons Ronan has made in his post. Early big band writers tended to voice in parallel block writing - absent was the interplay between the two out voices as found in most of the classical repertoire and there was very rudimentary use of counterpoint, if at all. The dreaded pad? Pads were, as pointed out, often the result of lazy or deadline writing! The arranger knew it would sound good while the players had to struggle to stay awake. The best arrangers employed some inner movement even in the pads, and it makes all the difference to both the listener and the player. On a personal note, I blame technology for a regression in writing and usage of pads with the advent of synthesizers and keyboards. It would take two keyboardists to be able to execute some of the pads written by the best arrangers while many contemporary arrangers seemed to operate in a two hand span a lot of the time. Keyboard technique was now dictating the pad, and it was so much easier to hold a chord than worry about inner voice movement (or outer voice movement for that matter).

When I finished recording Jeremy Pelt's "Close To My Heart" album, for which I wrote the string charts I was more fired up than ever to try and see scores by the great arrangers who had paved the initial ground for others to follow. I was most interested in their use of 'divisi' writing to cope with the number of notes in contemporary chord voicings. This is one area where transcription will at best, be an approximation - mainly because of the difficulty of knowing which instrument is playing which note, especially on older recordings. For example, in a three note lower structure voicing, Conrad Salinger had the celli playing the outer notes while the violas played the middle note.

I set about collecting scores from these great writers and have spent the last few years marveling at their work. 
The Ravel and Debussy influence can be heard in many writers, also Bartok, Delius, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Aaron Copland. The opening pyramid from Appalachian Spring when played as a vertical structure became the basis of some of the voicing approaches by Nelson Riddle in his arrangements of "I Get Along Without You Very Well" for Frank Sinatra and later Linda Ronstadt. The same voicing shows up in his chart on the same song for Eddie Fisher. Robert Farnon's command of counterpoint and love of Debussy and Bartok showed itself in much of his writing (he met Bartok in New York at the McDowell Society). Farnon, Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Axel Stordahl, Ralph Carmichael, Bill Finegan, Johnny Mandel, Angela Morley and more recently Jeremy Lubbock had voicings that were like thumbprints that were unique to each of them. The use of string quartet tended to be more of a budget decision with some exceptions - The magnificent "Close To You" album by Sinatra/Riddle features the Hollywood String Quartet (members include Felix (1st violin and Sinatra concertmaster) and Eleanore Slatkin (cello). This album was a commercial flop at the time although history has been much kinder to it. It got lost in the shuffle of other Capitol Sinatra recordings even though it features some of Sinatra's best vocal's of the period. Riddle spent a lot more time on these arrangements, consulting a lot with the Slatkins while Leonard Slatkin remembers much discussion of the Ravel and Debussy quartets (for more details see Charles Granata's book "Sessions With Sinatra"). Eddie Sauter's string writing for the Stand Getz "Focus" album still receives almost a genuflection when mentioned. Bill Finegan's string charts on Ellington's music for a Sonny Stitt album also contain some great overlooked writing. William Grant Still straddled both sides of the classical/jazz fence - his slow movement of his 2nd Symphony is breathtaking. Johnny Mandel's restraint on Shirley Horn's "Here's To Life" has some of the most tasteful writing with beautiful use of pads and economic movement. Jeremy Lubbock's intervallic writing for strings appears in even some of the most commercial projects he's been hired for. Claus Ogerman overcame potential pitching issues in tight, cluster writing by clever division of the string section.

The Charlie Parker With Strings arrangements have also interested me for some time. I have all the scores and parts and have often felt the following. The writing style behind Bird seemed at first,  dated, even for it's time. Bird's playing seemed so modern and I must say, there is a feeling of joy in his playing on these sessions. It is no surprise to learn that he sobered up for these sessions according to some sources. Annie Keubler, Rutgers also told me that Mary Lou Williams told her that Bord had asked her to write the string arrangements and she refused because of his health (they were close friends) - Annie quoted Mary Lou as saying "I won't work with you when you're like this". My connection with these works are through some work I've been doing with Steve Wilson (alto). Steve doesn't try to do a Bird impersonation, though the influence is there. In one concert he played 'his bag' on these charts and it worked so beautifully - sometimes, playing or hearing it live is all that it takes...

Blue Mitchell's "Smooth As The Wind" features very inventive string writing by Tadd Dameron, leaving me wondering what his orchestral writing would have been like had be been given more chances. The title track is a beautiful arrangement - these charts were written from Lexington, Ky., prison while serving a narcotics conviction.

Now I'm off to listen to the Bartok quartets 3,4 & 5 which, by pure coincidence Fintan O'Neill had just given me...

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