Writing backgrounds requires a real knack, there are some of the older arrangers that were great at writing backgrounds which is how I learned. I learned to write by listening to their stuff. It came to me that what they did was firstly support what’s going on in the foreground whether that’s a soloist or singer. You have got to support what they’re doing but you can’t draw attention away from the soloist. You have to write phrases and figures- whether they’re legato lines or melodic background lines they have to be listenable lines that are not interesting enough to drag your attention away from whatever is going on in the foreground.
They have to be musical and melodic without being a melody.You don’t want a melody going on behind a soloist but you want something melodic and there is a difference in terms of the rhythm of the line. If the line has a sustained rhythmic style, fairly longish notes, its easy to keep it out of the way of the solo or the vocal in front. With ballads and medium tempo songs if the backgrounds are too rhythmic they draw attention to themselves. You want the listeners ear to be on the foreground first but have the backgrounds supporting it whether they’re chord pads, single unison lines or long notes following the chord progression. Make sure they’re not too rhythmic or interesting.
From time to time I have.I have taken phrases out of the melody or theme and absracted them, lengthened them, changed the rhythmic value of the notes for instance made quarter notes into semi-breves. Just sustaining a melodic line, either unison or chordal passages that have been taken out of the melody and stretched apart so that it doesn’t attract your attention in the way that the melody does. Background ideas can come from anywhere if they have a nice flow to them and stay out of the way.
Fot up-tempo tunes more rhythmic ideas are often necessary.One of the best ways to write rhythmic backgrounds that aren’t too distracting is to use a repeated pattern. If you use a repeated pattern, something that’s not complete in itself but rhythmic, we pay less attention to it when its been repeated a few times because we know whats going to happen. Again the lead line of the phrase shouldn’t be in competition with the soloist, it has to have a shape, it can’t be random chords-a melodic shape but not a melody. The trick is the repetition which sets up the line, we tend to hear it for a while then we ignore it. You can intersperse rhythmic phrases with long note phrases-a rhythmic phrase, a sustained phrase, a rhythmic phrase, a sustained phrase-which sets up a pattern that works on the listener on a subliminal level too and helps the soloist. Rhythmic phrases can push a solo along, they can push the rhythmic drive of the solo forward.
I tend to use another colour but you can run out of colours and have to use other saxophones behind a sax solo. If I did that it would be after I exhausted the brass sections. I would probably bring the saxophone section in with something very abstract and different from what the soloist may be playing. We would hear this as very different from what we would expect the saxophone section to play.
Ideally I’d set up a sax solo with trombones, or trumpets or brass with mutes. Just rhythm section sometimes-in the “Nico” chart the alto solo starts with rhythm section. There is no background, its down to small group to let everyone get loosened up. Then I gradually bring in unobtrusive but nice colours. This way the backgrounds can ease their way in without distracting the listener. Backgrounds are a form of comping but less spontaneous as they’re written down and will be performed the same way each time the chart is played whic is definitely something to keep in mind.
I came up through the 50’s and 60’s listening to witers like Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Bob Brookmeyer and Johnny Mandell. They were experts at writing melodic lines and background lines.Gerry Mulligan could write a very unobtrusive saxophone unison line as a backround line that really contributed something to the flavour of the solo without getting in the way at all. He had a special knack for that, Bill Holman and Johnny Mandell had the same expertise.They all had a good melodic sense for writing themes and they knew how to draw back away from it to write melodic background themes that weren’t a melody. It’s like turning the tap half way down.
When you write your melody you turn your tap all the way on you want to grab the listeners attention, their ears, their emotions and so on. If you turn the tap half way on, it sort of trickles out, its not so interesting as it was with the main melody. If you want to find out more about writing backgrounds go back to the older writers-they had that knack and I tried to absorb all that at the time. I listened to a lot of Gerry Mulligan, especially the charts he wrote for Stan Kenton and when he had his own band. The writing was always excellent. Bob Brookmeyer did a lot of writing for Gerry Mulligan’s band and for Mel Lewis’ band-anything he did I listened to carefully. Johnny Mandell did dozens and dozens of albums, he still writes for Barbara Steisand and people like that. Beautiful, magnificent orchestral scores! Bill Holman has his own band and is still writing, he did a lot of writing for the Kenton band as well. Any 50’s and 60’s albums from these writers are worth listening to. They were the masters of jazz writing. If you want to learn the tricks of the trade those are the guys to plagiarise,which is what I did. I just loved it, I grew up with that music and absorbed it as I grew; I tried to copy them and write the way they did.
I now write in a completely different idiom to those guys as heard in arrangements like “Nico”. But I think I absorbed the principles of how they did things well enough that I could use them in my own way without sounding like them. Gil Evans is another one-he is “the master”! There are things in Nico that were influenced by Gil Evans but they don’t sound like Gil Evans. I never tried to copy him in my writing; I did try to learn, look at scores, listen to Miles Davis recordings over and over and over. I grew up with those as well and I absorbed those things of his but never tried to copy him as much as I loved his writing. I never wanted anyone to say, “Oh, that sounds like Gil Evans”. Gil Evans was like a master watch-maker with his scores. There were so many details, so many little things that could be noticed in his scores. Other guys at the time were more “beboppy” and cool school, they didn’t write that gem-like detail in their scores. I guess that’s what I learned from Gil Evans-pay attention to the little things, the little details.
I generally have an idea of the form of the whole thing. For instance, are we having a short or a long introduction? With the theme itself I’ll think about whether its going to be an ensemble piece or is it going to have solos? If there are solos, which instruments will play the solos? Is the band going to contribute some development to the piece? Will there be another chorus of band, a showcase or whatever? How is the piece going to end?
Oftentimes I’ll try to use one soloist throughout the entire piece and I’ll let them play several choruses-really develop their solo. “Nico” is an alto saxophone feature, “What you hear is what you get” has two soloists-muted trumpet and vibes. That’s a choice I make when starting the piece-do I have one solo or two?
You have to make that decision. In “Nico” I knew I wanted alto saxophone to play the melody and the solo work, I knew the alto would be the featured instrument. In “Haunted Screen” I had soprano sax and trumpet in unison playing the melody and each time a little melody phrase comes in they play it, the band might play some other things in between but the soprano sax and trumpet are attached to the melody. In “What you hear is what you get” the melody is divided up between the saxophones- the high and the low saxes,they play answering phrases to each other. The saxophones were the only combination of instruments that could play that type of melody because of the range and the voicings that I used. Sometimes they’re in unison, for instance, the soprano and alto are in unison and then split into 4ths or 5ths for a couple of notes. The same happens with the tenors and the baritone. I split them because the alto couldn’t go high enough or the baritone couldn’t go high enough or wouldn’t sound good, that way the soprano or tenor would play the high notes. I knew as I wrote that little melodic idea who would play it and I wrote for those instruments. With “Nico” I wrote the theme first and I knew it was going to be an alto feature. I wrote the theme as a 3-part small group melody. If you go through the saxophone voicings with the melody, you’ll see the under two parts of the saxophone line form intervals of a 4th or a 5th or some variation under the melody so you could play them with one hand on the piano. The bass line down below is in contrary motion to the melody most of the time and it plays notes that don’t go with the melody line. I was thinking of these things when I wrote the theme-I knew which instruments were going to play and I wrote specifically for those instruments when I wrote the original theme.
The melody is an AAB form-I was tired of hearing three A’s in a row all the time when people play a standard song. I had the melody sitting in my drawer for a while and eventually thought I’ll try doing a big band version of this. Then I had to work out what to do with the other saxes and that sort of thing. The introduction I used comes back at the end in a different key and has nothing to do with the song, its just a moody little bit. I don’t know where it came from, it wasn’t inspired by the theme itself but it sets the mood for the rhythm section and alto melody. Its a peculiar little thing but I like it.
I knew I was going to stretch the theme out and pull it out of shape a little for the ending. From there the rest of the arrangement fell into place-who will be behind the alto, what instruments will best support the alto, what will show off the alto to its best advantage? I worked out the backgrounds-some chordal, some unison lines and muted trumpets.I tried to mix the colours which I like to do with backgrounds. Because “Nico” is a ballad, I had time to experiment with colours and let them contribute something.
Yes. I wrote “Nico” originally for Kim Richmond in Los Angeles to play with his band. I then re-wrote it as a big band piece for Lee Konitz when he played with the Berlin Radio Orchestra. I also heard Nico performed several times in Australia with either Karl Luskovski or Peter Farrer playing alto-they both played wonderfully well and were very creative.
The right and left hand go in opposite directions. I like that feeling of things expanding as they go along then contracting and coming together again. Oftentimes the chords in the right hand aren’t really “real” chords. There are lots of 4th voicings in there and 4ths with an extra note in them and such. They don’t form proper chords, in the traditional sense, especially when you add the bass. “Nico” gave me a lot of trouble in terms of trying to tell the soloist and pianist what the harmonic scheme is. With the piano what I did was use semi-breve block chords to show the player how I would voice it, just simply as I’m not a piano player. Then I tried to find a chord symbol that would describe the harmony I could give to the alto-at least try to give some idea of what I was thinking harmonically. A lot of it has to do with hearing the melody, letting the melody take its own course, the harmony following along with the melody, the bass line going in its own direction.These are all horizontal ways of thinking.
I did classical counterpoint study and being a horn player I loved sitting in a band playing lines that went somewhere else, that took me on a little trip, gave me some fun in the part I had to play. I always looked forward to places in arrangements that moved horizontally. That’s the sort of thinking I like even within more traditional harmonic structures.
There are a lot of things in “Nico” that don’t fit a label. There’s one chord in there I’m still puzzling over-I never did resolve what I could call it. I love improvising jazz players-you can let them do what they like to do best. One of them might solve that chord for me one day.
Playing in groups has been the best education I’ve had in term of hearing different combinations of instruments. I tell people to go to rehearsals of orchestras, get the score from the library and look at the score as they work. You can take note of what certain combinations sound like for future use. Go to big band rehearsals! Pick up on the knowledge that great composers have given us.Learn by taking advantage of what others have done. Hear, learn and study from playing in groups and orchestras and going to band rehearsals.