Physician, heal thyself

In my last blog I made the following comment, which I repeat here for the sake of convenience:

I’m currently working on a saxophone section feature for the highly acclaimed Walsall Jazz Orchestra which, as well as being staffed by so many talented players, also has a true rhythm section, rather than four individuals with their heads buried in the parts. I’m using number XIV of the 36 seven unit scales listed in the book which has a diminished 7th chord as its tonic chord. The chord on the dominant is a minor chord with natural 7th. The chord on the 7th degree of the scale is an augmented chord with natural 7th that isn’t found in the family of six chords normally used in jazz and popular music. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge!

For the theoretically inclined reader, the compound structure (13) has a diminished 7th chord with a major triad above it. (On a C root a Cdim7 and Db major

The long absence from this site is due, amongst other things (musicians have other things going on in their lives), to the difficulties I had to face writing this piece.

Firstly – and I have to put my hand up here and admit to ignoring advice given in my own book – I made the mistake of wasting a huge amount of time trying to make something work that just didn’t want to know about me or my composition.

The problem was this: I originally decided to use a succession of five-part chords (that’s five real harmonic parts, not five voices, which can result from note-doubling in the unison and octave, etc.). To cut a very long story short, I faced two main problems (1) the rapid (not tempo-wise) succession of different harmonies was more than even my well-tortured ear could cope with. Numerous contradictions of pitches in adjacent chords were creating an unpleasant effect. (2) The chords, in the forms I had selected, offered fewer opportunities for using the inversions that are so commonplace in jazz section writing.

OK, so I saved my embarrassment over this by demonstrating my knowledge of musical resource and my powers of analysis. So what was the solution?

(1) I reduced the number of chords used (no prizes there, then). Rapid chord changes are typical of slow ballade writing (which this piece is an example of), so I did have an excuse for using too many in the first place.

(2) I settled on a style of writing that has been around since the time that men had to dodge the dinosaur droppings when they went out to find a meal for the day. I used the two alto saxes in two part harmony over a more sustained succession of harmonies underneath, played by the two tenor saxes and the baritone. There’s nothing new here. One of the best examples, if you really want to go back in time, is Kenton’s ‘Opus In Pastels’. This piece still works for me.

The earlier, abortive, work wasn’t wasted. It never is, really. During its course I’d evolved a scheme where the two notes not present in each five-part chord (it’s a seven note scale and 7-2 = 5) were identified and pencilled in above each chord out of expediency. This isn’t ‘painting by numbers’. I wasn’t a slave to the result but I knew that the most expressive notes for melodic purposes are those found in the higher extensions of harmony; the 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th functions. What I’m doing here is similar in principle: to use notes that have a ‘surprise’ value when used against the accompanying harmony. The two part harmony used for the alto saxes follows these notes predominantly, but not slavishly! Of course, unessential notes can be equally expressive, especially when used on the beat but these, too, can receive harmonic justification (which is how higher tension chords found their way into music in the first place).

Another interesting feature of the tonality I’m using is the high incidence of situations where the four trumpets, as one ‘choir’, use a four part block chord and the four trombones, underneath, use another. The two combine to produce an identifiable chord as a conventional 8 piece brass section but the treatment, of using one tone colour in the upper stratum and another in the lower, produce an arresting effect.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that the diminished 7th (tonic) chord of the scale results in a high level of malleability at the outset (to cut another long story short). Conventional scales have the authority of the ‘dominant 7th’ to deal with, together with its cadential tendencies.

Listen to Michael Buble’s version of ‘Cry Me A River’ and you’ll hear this stratified style after the key change during the loud ensemble. At one point, the trumpets play diminished 7ths with the underlying trombones/saxes using a plain old dominant 7th. The two together still produce an identifiable chord. I’ve heard a couple of transcriptions of this piece that completely miss the subtlety. Michael always uses good arrangements played by good musicians and is a perfect example of the fact that you don’t have to be a total bastard to succeed.

I have to admit I only recently learned the full significance that choosing the right title can have in helping an audience identify themselves with a piece of music. As I began writing the present piece, my mind became full of images of a lake and I was impressed by the way the harmonies implied reflections, something I latched on to straight away in order to exploit the effect fully. The last piece I did for the Walsall Jazz Orchestra soon earned the title ‘Eye Of Newt’ which prompted the pianist/arranger to suggest they could do an album of spells. I can’t interfere on this point but I’ve chosen ‘The Lady Of The Lake’ as the title for this latest arrangement, which at least maintains the period imagery.

Because my music notation program allows drag and drop I’ve taken to adding a graphic to each part and an image of a lady’s hand emerging from the water holding Excalibur proved ideal.

The next question is ‘Will the band like it?’. There’s a huge age difference between me and them so being considered to be dated (which is something I don’t usually worry about) worries me now. Having said that, this band wisely avoids the current crop of forgettable doowapbedowap banal rubbish that is so readily accepted by so many bands.

Watch this space…


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