22 December 2015


I don't think our bands should over-rehearse. But it helps if they at least rehearse a little, have planning meetings and work out how to make the presentation of a tune more interesting.

Here's an example of how effective such preparatory work can be. The piece of music to be played is a 32-bar song in Eb, with a typical a - a - b - a structure.

At a planning meeting, the band comes up with the following head arrangement. They will play the Verse once (16-bar) and then work through the song five times:

(1) The 16-bar introduction in which the cornet (or trumpet), backed by the rhythm section, firmly establishes the key of Eb, running around arpeggios in bars 1 - 8 and 13 - 16, with a contrasting 'middle 4' on G minor for bars 9 - 12.

(2) The trombone takes the lead as the band plays through the 32-bar tune for the first time.

(3) Surprise: an abrupt key change to Bb! The full 32-bar tune is played a second time - in the new key - with a good deal of drama added by the cornet's use of 6ths, 9ths and flattened 3rds.

(4) The vocal. The full 32-bar song in the key of Bb. In the first half, the singer is supported by the rhythm section. Then there is gentle support from the cornet in the 'middle eight' (which is distinctly of the IV - I -  II7  - V7  pattern).

(5) The Band improvises on the complete song as we go through it for the fourth time, but with the tuba taking the lead in the final sixteen bars (while the front line provides quiet sustained chords through the Middle Eight).

(6) Drama again! We have suddenly reverted without any transitional warning to the original higher key - Eb! Our attention is grabbed immediately by the cornet energetically improvising over well-disciplined stop chords for the first 24 bars. The full ensemble joins in for a storming final 8 bars, all stopping abruptly on the third beat of the 32nd bar (a common but very effective coda-less way of ending a tune in traditional jazz).

Now isn't that likely to be a lot more interesting and exciting for both band and audience than the all-too-common procession of 32-bar 'solo choruses' all in the same key - the 'arrangement' used by so many bands?

If you would like to hear this very head arrangement at work - demonstrated by one of the world's finest bands - listen to Tuba Skinny playing How Do They Do It That Way? on their CD entitled Owl Call Blues.

There are also some YouTube videos of them playing this song. In these, at Shaye's direction, tiny amendments to the head arrangement (e.g. a two-bar coda) are sometimes applied. Click here to watch one.

Tuba Skinny picked up this tune from Victoria Spivey's 1929 recording with Red Allen and his Orchestra, which you may also find on YouTube. You will discover that most of the features I have listed (including the key changes) were present in that original recording. Tuba Skinny have based their head arrangement closely on that of the Spivey original and you can hear and see what a great 'head' arrangement it is whenever the band plays this tune: all members of Tuba Skinny are well drilled in the structure.