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Topic: Rhythm Section Parts

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  1. #1

    Rhythm Section Parts

    I have a general question regarding preparing rhythm section parts for
    jazz orchestra. Does the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums)
    get a part that includes the other players in that section.
    I'm assuming the piano part would only include the piano but
    what about the bass part? Should it also include the piano part
    and/or drum part? And should the drum part include the bass and/or
    piano part?

  2. #2

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    The parts are always separate, though I suppose the left hand of the piano part might be similar to the bass part, depending on what the arranger wanted.

  3. #3

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    Keyboard players expect to see two stavs (treble & bass) linked. Unlike classical musicians, a lot of jazz players don't play the piano part as written. They just use it as a general guide ... or they get the chords from it (or from the Chord markings, or guitat tabs). Jazz bass players usually use the bass clef (transposing an octave) again, often using it as just a jumping off point and referring to the chord symbols.

    Acording to what jazz musicians tell me, they can expect to see anything from a complete score, with evey note and nuance on the page -- to just chord symbols, sometimes with just a general sketch of the melody and or bass line / counter melody.

    All the books on jazz arranging that I have read say that you typically provide the rhythm section with a typical piano score with chords noted on it -- or just the chords and rhythm indicated -- but that you should write out all the parts for wind instruments (except for places where you allow so many measures for improvisation.) Improvisation is a key component of jazz. One point all the books stress is that you should identify your chords exactly (incuding the inversion, etc.) so the improvs don't go too far off the mark and produce some nasty surprises.

    This seems to jive with what the musicians tell me. But if real jazz players have more to add, I'm all ears.

    Nothing helps me more with composing and arranging than feedback from the players. (On a piece of a quite different nature, I had my niece over recently to go over my violin parts. She said they were difficult -- difficult is okay -- but there was one arpeggio that required her to constantly change positions just to get one note. Seeing her try to do it made me feel like I didn't want to put any player through that -- they'd be worried about hitting that one note all the time and not the overall feeling of the riff. So I transposed the whole thing up a third -- and I was surprised to find that it actually sounded a little better, too.)

  4. #4

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    The information provided on the parts depends greatly on what level of players you're writing for and the level of complexity of the music. For example, if you're writing an easy middle school arrangement, then you'd write separate parts for piano, guitar, bass, and drums. The piano part would be entirely written out on a grand staff and chord changes would be provided. The bass part would be entirely written out and chord changes would be provided. The guitar part would consist of rhythmic slashes and the occasional written line, and chord changes would be provided. The drum part would consist of rhythmic slashes and ensemble figures and possibly a written out "fill" here and there. Any solos, except drums, usually, would be written out to give the young players something they can be secure in playing and to teach them about which notes go with which chords.

    For all other levels, high school, college,or pro, the parts would appear thusly. Piano would have a single staff with rhythmic slashes and chord symbols unless a specific written part was necessary, in which case you would use either the single staff or grand staff depending on the demands of the music passage. After that passage, you would revert back to the single staff. The guitar part would be the same as the middle school part - rhythmic slashes, chord changes and the occasional written line. The bass part would consist only of rhythmic slashes and chord changes unless there are specific notes that need to be played. The drum part would consist of rhythmic slashes on the staff for tutti ensemble figures and notes just above the staff to denote figures such as solo backgrounds or lighter section parts that need some drum accents.

    Grand staff "Master Rhythm" are fine for combos or short pieces, but they become unwieldy for large ensemble arrangements. A typical advanced piano or drum part will be about four pages, single stave. You don't want to have players wrestling 6-8 pages of music during the performance. Remember, the rhythm section almost never stops playing so both hands (and sometimes feet!) are needed almost constantly.

    To address some points made above:

    The bass players do not transpose the octave at sight. They assume that you've already done that. They play the part as written.

    For a jazz orchestra, otherwise known as a jazz big band, (both terms are equally fine and are interchangeable) the rhytm parts will not contain much, if any, notational information about the rest of the arrangement. There might be an occasional cue, and, of course, there might be the occasional melodic line. Other than that, though, the most information the rhythm players will get are notations like "sax melody", "trumpet solo", "trombone bkgds (backgrounds)". For a combo piece, depending on the complexity, the rhythm parts might be nothing more than jsut a lead sheet with extra bars for an intro and an ending. Everything beyond the melody will be improvised.

    Chord changes do not require the inversions to be spelled out. A soloist doesn't care if the C7 has a C or an E in the bass. In fact, the bass player mill probably include both in his bass line, and there's no telling which inversion the pianist might choose in improvising his accompaniment. What must be carefully shown is if that E in the bass is the third of the chord or if what you're really trying to communicate is a C triad over an E7, in which case you should use the chord symbol E7#5#9. If it's a simple first inversion C chord then you'd write "C/E bass". As an improvising soloist I would also be looking at the context of that chord within the progression to see which made more sense. Finally, your chord changes should be constant across all the rhythm parts and the soloist's part. If you want a Cmaj9, don't write C on the bass part and Em7 on the piano and guitar parts.

    Asking a player is a GREAT IDEA. In fact, just tonight at my theater gig I was talking with a composer (pianist) who had just finished his doctorate, and he was telling me what he had been taught about writing woodwind parts for a musical theater show. As a professional woodwind doubler for three decades now, I corrected him on some points and was able to tell him what really works and what's really difficult. I'll say it again, asking a player is a GREAT IDEA.

    Never write the bass line in the piano part unless it's a particular figure you want both to play. Otherwise, leave the bass line to the bass player. He's probably going to change it some anyway and when he does, that's going to create collisions between him and the pianist which aren't going to sound good at all. Sonically, there is no need to double the bass line in the piano. It's only asking for trouble and it's absolutely not idiomatic.
    Paul Baker
    Baker's Jazz And More
    Austin, Texas, USA
    www.bakersjazzandmore.com

  5. #5

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    Another idea just occurred to me - go to your local sheet music retailer and browse through some published jazz band arrangements. See what the parts look like and go from there.
    Paul Baker
    Baker's Jazz And More
    Austin, Texas, USA
    www.bakersjazzandmore.com

  6. #6

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    bmdausti - As someone who is now trying to orchestrate his own score for a musical, I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you were able to tell him about woodwind parts ("what really works and what doesn't").

    I had some formal training on the piano (classical, for the most part) but most of what I know about orchestration I get from books, muscians and orchestrators. As you can see, what is written offen differs significantly from what is actually done in the real world. (Even my orchestration books don't agree with each other all the time.)

  7. #7

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    bmdausti - As someone who is now trying to orchestrate his own score for a musical, I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you were able to tell him about woodwind parts ("what really works and what doesn't").
    I don't want to hijack this thread from the original poster, but I'll try to answer briefly. Maybe a new thread should appear on the General Discussion page? Anyway, the discussion I was referencing was centered on doubling and not so much on orchestration. That's a very different topic that, as you know, can fill volumes of books.

    Probably the best thing you can do as an arranger/orchestrator is to have some practical experience with each of the instruments. That way, you'll truly have a feel for the problems you create when making orchestration choices or assumptions. Failing that, spend time with players and ask them to tell you their horror stories. They're usually only too happy to share those. In fact, I have a friend who makes a copy of each show he plays so he can show his students what they'll be up against in the "real world".

    One of my examples was when I was playing the Reed 5 book of the national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie a few years ago. In the show there is a high society party where a tango was being played by the orchestra. I had the bass line on bass clarinet. Since bass clarinet is one of my strongest doubles, I took to the part quickly, but was having some difficulties. The conductor told me to play out and "have fun with it". My problem was that some copyist or orchestrator had written (or allowed Finale to write) the part in D# minor, double sharps and all. A better orchestrator would have known that clarinetists are more comfortable in flat keys and that Eb minor would have been easier to read than D# minor.

    Another example - I'm currently playing a show that has a fair amount of klezmer (Yiddish folk music) clarinet solos, which is fine. However, rather than write the part for Eb clarinet, the part was written for Bb clarinet so I'm forced to play very technical parts way above high C and with a key signature of five sharps. On Eb, the part would have been technically much easier to play, and with one less sharp to worry about.

    OK, so I don't do "briefly" very well

    The last big point to be made is to allow plenty of time to switch instruments, if at all possible. We can switch from anything to anything else so long as there is time to physically put one horn down and pick up the other, get set, and make the entrance. The exception to this is when double reeds are involved. In that case, much more time must be allowed so reeds can be moved from their water bottles back on to the instrument, and, in the case of bassoon, the instrument re-hooked to the seat strap. If you have the opportunity anytime soon, see if you can go sit in a theater pit with the woodwind section and watch what goes on.

    The bottom line is - write what you need to write for the show, but really think about what you're writing and the practical implications to the players. Case in point - key signatures. If the star can sing the song in A or Bb, PLEASE write it in Bb! Don't write in E (sax's C#, clarinet's F#) if you can write it just as effectively in Eb (sax's C, clarinet's F) or F (Sax's D, clarinet's G). The less we're focused on counting sharps and flats, the more we can focus on making music - your music.
    Paul Baker
    Baker's Jazz And More
    Austin, Texas, USA
    www.bakersjazzandmore.com

  8. #8

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    This is the kind of stuff I need to know. I've started threads about this but have gotten little if any response.

    There aren't many people in this forum that are writing for the theater, but there are a few. It would be nice to get everyone in one place, where we could ask questions.

    Most of your last post deals with keys and I was aware of this. When I write for the piano, I pick the key that sounds best for the mood of the piece. But I learned early on that some keys are just better for a pit orchestra (i.e. a mixed ensemble). Just as an actor, having appeared in a few musicals, I noticed that most of the songs were written in Bb or Eb. Then I stumbled upon a web site that listed all the best keys for this type of orchestra and I began adjusting my score, wherever possible to make it more playable for the wind instruments.

    Allowing time to change instruments is something I worry about a lot. I try not to avoid changes within a number if possible -- unless there is a lot of time in between. And if I have two numbers in a row (or, more typically, scene change music immediately following the number) I won't make them change there. But, working against all this, is the desire to have as much variety as I can. Two hours is a long time to listen to music -- even if it isn't playing through the whole show. Even some of my favorite musicals start to sound a little monotonous in the accompaniment by the time you get to the middle of the second act.

  9. #9

    Re: Rhythm Section Parts

    Changing within a number is fine. Multiple changes within a number are fine. The critical point is that we need at least 5-8 seconds (preferably more) to make the switch. As mentioned, double reeds take much longer, but sax, clarinet, and flute changes can be made pretty quickly.
    Paul Baker
    Baker's Jazz And More
    Austin, Texas, USA
    www.bakersjazzandmore.com

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