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Brass

The Art Of Arranging

Ian Gardiner gets out the manuscript paper and tells you how to spread those blobs around


Ian Gardiner brazens it out

The first half of 1986 has witnessed another of those nostalgic period reconstructions that popular culture increasingly has been thriving upon. This time it's been poised on the cusp of the Fifties and Sixties; the sunny age of 'You've never had it so good' — we've had Sam Cooke's Wonderful World climbing the charts, Hancock's Half Hour on the TV screen, hard bop Jazz resounding across the club dancefloor, Brylcreem on the bachelor bathshelf and, of course, at the centre of this whole phenomenon, that unassuming, low-budget feature, Absolute Beginners.

Dig deep into the credits of that film and you will unearth the name of Gil Evans as chief music director, at which point kindly doff your beret and bow your goatee in deference to the heppest horn arranger of the period. With his wily manipulation of brass and saxes, Evans manages to energise even the most anodyne of the various pop contributions to the film into a dynamic and highly charged soundtrack, proving how crucial a horn arrangement can be in the overall success of a particular sound or of a particular song. To arrange like Gil Evans you need at least 40 years experience, an objective somewhat beyond the scope of this article, but nevertheless, for those with more modest ambitions, here are some guidelines towards effective brass arranging.

The normal brass section can deploy any combination of trumpets, trombones, and saxes, from the 'four, four, five,' line-up of the standard big band, down to the more flexible and more economic combination of three or four players that most bands prefer to use. This comprises a trumpet (always the uppermost or 'lead' instrument), one trombone and one sax, with the possible addition of another trumpet, giving a brighter attack to the overall sound, or of another sax, giving more weight and depth. Before discussing the individual ranges, it is worth mentioning a notational problem encountered when writing parts for trumpets and saxes, since they are 'transposing' instruments and are therefore written out in a different key and pitch to that in which they sound!

However, before you throw away your manuscript paper and wheel in the Synclavier, the simple answer lies in preparing the parts at concert pitch and then getting the individual musicians to transpose for you, something they should have plenty of experience in dealing with. The sounding ranges of trumpets and trombones are therefore as in Example One. The ends of these registers are a variable area according to the virtuosity of the individual player; there are high-note trumpet specialists who can provide those screamers, and similarly, bass trombonists who can plumb subterranean depths well below the bottom string of the bass guitar. Just listen to the theme music for the BBC's Money Programme for both techniques in action!


Like most acoustic instruments, brass tone brightens considerably the higher the register, and the top range of the trumpet is one of the most brilliant and penetrating live instrumental sounds, so that care needs to be taken when miking it to preserve that brilliance. The bottom range is correspondingly much coarser and requiring a lot of care in intonation, but such limitations become virtues according to the context, and in the Specials' Ghost Town, a low, guttural trumpet and trombone duet evokes a lot of that track's pervading atmosphere of menace.

In connection with these particular instrumental timbres, mention must be made of the flugelhorn, a sort of wider bored trumpet played by most session trumpeters that possesses a beautiful rich and expressive tone when played quietly, and that will often be found providing that mellow touch in the standard 'Why not come back to my place for breakfast' Soul ballad.

There are four standard kinds of sax, each with a distinctive tone colour: the soprano sax has a nasal quality in its low register, perhaps similar to an oboe, but becomes more ethereal in its upper range (listen to Branford Marsalis' soprano on Sting's Love Is The Seventh Wave); alto and tenor are the most standard, the latter having a darker tone, although here it has to be said that saxophonists generally pride themselves on cultivating an individual and original sound (and like to be able to identify who's playing second alto in that rare recording of the Cab Calloway Orchestra of 1946), so that any comments about tone are dependent upon the particular player and the particular instrument; the baritone sax is most commonly the lowest of the family (although there are a few bass saxophones knocking around), and it is most effective when producing those fruity low notes that frequently doubled bass lines in many classic Rock and Roll cuts, and in most early Motown. The sounding ranges of the four instruments are as in Example Two.

Saxes blend together in virtually any combination, and blend equally well with the brass. Once again, the tone alters considerably according to the dynamic — a quiet note on tenor, close miked, as played by Stan Getz, for example, can be very breathy and intimate, yet the same note played fortissimo with wide vibrato, miked further away, and played perhaps by Springsteen's associate, Clarence Clemmons, could become very raunchy. In terms of agility, the saxophone is limitless, and it can also be very vocal and expressive. The inclusion of a 'famous name' sax solo on a track, whether it's Phil Woods' alto for Billy Joel, or the ubiquitous tenor of Michael Brecker for Dire Straits, not only adds considerable class, but also imputes to the song a degree of emotional maturity (look forward to a solo from Courtney Pine on the forthcoming Samantha Fox ballad, I've Something To Get Off My Chest). Simple sustained tones or chords on saxes are effective as a background also, but remember that, unlike your Emulator, wind players do occasionally need an intake of oxygen.

Discuss the subject of brass arrangements with most musos and one name will emerge: Earth, Wind and Fire. If the 'Earth' represented the rhythm tracks, and the 'Wind' the falsetto lyrics, then the 'Fire' was definitely provided by that gold-plated brass section. Horns can raise the temperature of a track in many ways, by doubling phrases in the lead or backing vocals, adding an edge by doubling rhythm guitar figures, playing riffs over repeated chord changes (an old Blues big band practice), or by contributing single punctuating notes (stabs) or figures of their own. In each case, however, it is important to give them space to be heard both in the overall song structure and in the density of the band arrangement at the relevant point. With reference to Earth, Wind and Fire, the brass are mainly highlighted in the introductions, instrumental bridges or link passages, and in the out-choruses, although even here, with all tracks-a-throbbing in the groove, their lines rarely collide with the vocals.

This question of space also governs the sound of Elvis Costello's band on the album Punch The Clock — here rhythm guitar parts are kept down to a minimum and the formidable TKO Horns are left to combat with just bass, drums and Steve Nieve's acerbic piano as support to Costello's vocal ironies. TKO are a section of four players, a versatile unit producing a suitably punchy sound when playing unison lines, riff figures, or just single note stabs; generally the trombone doubles the lead trumpet an octave lower, and the saxes choose between the two or add inner harmony notes. If you add a scream trumpet an octave higher, so that a unison line is doubled in at least two octaves, you obtain the basis of the EW&F sound.

A section of saxes alone can be useful for sustained chordal ideas, without necessarily sounding like a '40s dance band and, in particular, the standard sax quartet line-up of single soprano, alto, tenor and baritone creates an interesting, pungent version of that sound. In combination with flugelhorns, saxes can also evoke that lush, sun-kissed effect that features very evidently in the later Steely Dan albums, for example, and in other much less memorable late '70s fusak.

Scoring and voicing chords are more difficult areas to summarise within the confines of this article, but one basic rule is to try to avoid voicing harmonies too low, with most of the instruments in their low register. This will probably obscure the overall band sound and cause problems in intonation with the players. You may decide to work out your arrangement in advance on piano, or perhaps on keyboards that approximate to the real sounds, in which case, when transferring it to instruments, remember their capabilities of subtle phrasing and articulation, and particularly of crescendo and diminuendo. One great dramatic device is to make a chord crescendo out from nowhere as a beginning to an ensemble phrase. Singing a line to a player is often a better way of conveying your idea than notating its subtleties on paper in terms of the conventional dots and squiggles.

There are modifiers to brass instruments, similar in effect to guitar pedals, say, in the form of a large range of mutes, more the field of the experienced Jazz arranger but worth experimenting with the individual player in the studio. A straight mute will create a tight, 'compressed' buzzing tone, a plunger mute opened and closed on a trombone can elicit the effect of opening out the tone similar to a volume pedal, while a harmon mute with the stem removed (open) and close miked gives a trumpet that intimate, melancholy sound familiar from the Miles Davis recordings of the Fifties. Sade improved her Jazz credentials by featuring harmon muted trumpet on Is It A Crime.

A lot of sax players double on woodwinds, normally flute and/or clarinet, instruments that have occasionally surfaced in Rock settings, the clarinet doing some Grade Five soloing on Bronski Beat's cover of It Ain't Necessarily So (or rather It Ain't Necessarily In Tune). It has a big brother, the bass clarinet, that has a range similar to the baritone sax, but that possesses a woodier, almost more ethnic tone, and a brace of this species can be heard burbling in fifths beneath Steely Dan's Babylon Sisters, and also cutting a minimalist boogie in Steve Reich's Octet.

There are, of course, many fine woodwind-like sounds available from both analogue synths and the ever expanding range of sampling instruments (how many times have you heard the Emulator 'shakuhachi' sample in the last six months?), and perhaps this is not the place to enter the real-instruments-versus-samplers debate. Nevertheless when one comes to creating a horn arrangement there is little doubt that you must use the real thing (pace Trevor Horn). Although the unscrupulous may, at this very moment, be sampling brass stabs off records of LA's choicest session players for insertion into their heavy dance mix 12", the Fairlight, Emulators et al cannot recreate the varieties of tone, inflection, phrasing and attack that a real section will provide, and if you can't afford to fly over the Seawind Horns there are plenty of home grown alternatives. However, they may not dance so well.

Brass arrangements have been integral to many different Pop conceptions, from James Brown's Get Down Funk, to Phil Collins' in Volvo entertainment, from Reggae and its various offspring, to Peter Skellern's Hovis brass band nostalgia. There's still room for manoeuvre to create a new brass concept, however, and the current spate of young British Jazz big bands of the likes of Loose Tubes, the Jazz Warriors, and Happy End, might provide the example of a trend towards a bigger and more orchestral sound.

Which brings us back to Gil Evans. Records of the Month: Miles Davis/Gil Evans, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead; Gil Evans/Cannonball Adderley, Pacific Standard Time.


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International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

 

International Musician - Aug 1986

Feature by Ian Gardiner

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