I finally finished my most ambitious and complex big band arrangement so far. The two words “ambitious” and “complex” can only mean one thing: this contraption will probably never get played. But then, who knows. My friend Brent Wallarab, who directs the IU Jazz Ensemble, played two of my earlier pieces this past season and both of these were somewhat “ambitious” and “complex”.
This one has a long history of revisions and false starts. It started out as a sketch in 15/8 meter, received a “B” section (that’s the sing-along part) and the epic six bar solo vamp based on Bm11, C#m9 and Dmmaj7 which made it’s earliest appearance in a piece for 7 string classical guitar called “Trail Mix”. It was written early 2012 for “Splinter Group” and played live once or twice, but nobody really knew what do to with it – least of all I.
After I had my first successful encounter with big band arranging via my German friend Lothar Landenberger in 2014, “South Central Indiana Rain Dance” seemed like a worthwhile and rewarding big band candidate. I started with way too many chords and wrote myself into a corner. For testing drum grooves and flow I had done a little recording with guitar and sequencer. I liked the tribal nature of the tune, but just wasn’t able to translate it into big band sounds. Then, as so often, other stuff came up and the project slipped towards the bottom of the to-do stack.
The thing with this tune is that there are so many (in my opinion) great ideas in it and it was clear that it was just too hard to play live with an ordinary quartet. Also, wouldn’t it be cool if the IU Jazz Ensemble actually played this? So, I dug it out again and started over. Since it’s a rain dance, it needed a tribal drum sound. In the original the melody is written in parallel fifths and just translating that into the horns without adding more harmonies or chords was extremely powerful. The “B” section, which plays the melody in stacks of fourths, worked nicely without additional tonal material. That section also has the melody moving in 3+3+2 and the drums groove to a Weather Report-ish latin groove.
One of the biggest problems arranging original material is always what to do for eventual soloists. If the source material is a standard or a song with a repeating chorus it’s relatively clear, but my fusion writing usually intentionally omits that. I like a more linear flow. Chorus based soloing is fine, but it often feels like a toy train going around on a circular track.
Lastly, the big featured soloist on this piece is the bass. On my lackluster recording everything except for bass and guitar parts are programmed. And any high school band bassist could do better. But it demonstrates the idea.
I hope this one does get played for real, soon. And one, day when I have enough big band material I’ll spend my last dime to record them all (laughter).