Modern Jazz Voicings: Arranging for Small and Medium Ensembles by Ted Pease and Ken Pullig

This entry is part 38 of 38 in the series 2022 Reads

As always, I’m posting this quite a while after finishing the book.

Despite having gotten a decent foundation in classical music theory, and some jazz theory of the sort a young improvisor learns, I never managed to find a good source for horn arrangements. A while back, I was inputting an arrangement I did for jazz quintet and orchestra (meaning classical orchestra), when I realized that I didn’t know much about how one goes about actually doing proper jazz arrangements, especially the kind of classic block chords used in sax soli, horn section arrangements, and stuff like that.

Not that I necessarily plan on writing anything for big band, but really, I feel like I should be able to write for a horn section at least as well as I can write for a string quartet, given than I’m a saxophonist myself. 

I got a recommendation online for Ted Pease and Ken Pullig’s Modern Jazz Voicings: Arranging for Small and Medium Ensembles and figured I’d give it a shot, with the loose plan to proceed on to Pullig and Lowell’s Arranging for Large Jazz Ensemble next, or maybe Gary Lindsay’s Jazz Arranging Techniques

I think jazz theory especially is weird, pedagogically. Like a lot of people, the first thing I was taught was scale/mode correspondence. My teacher had me write up charts of completely random chord progressions and improvise through them. I’m talking truly random, like I was rolling dice to figure out what chord came next in the sequence. My teacher recommended this to break me out of leaning too hard on Jamey Aebersold. It’s probably not surprising that it took a few years before I learned about why modes are useful—how they help us collapse common tones within a progression with the same key center. 

Conservatory theory is also weird: you learn figured bass, for example, which is one of the least useful forms of music notation on Earth. (Seriously, I could not believe that people insisted on using figured bass in university. I still can’t really.) You learn a really constrained form of theory, and the approach to part-writing is weirdly constrained to “acceptable harmony” and away from what good part-writing is actually about: writing sinuous, beautiful lines with effective control of voice-leading. I struggled a lot with Palestrina counterpoint because I always wanted to include those jazz harmonies. 

But the truth is, I didn’t really understand how those harmonies were achieved in arrangements. I remember the first time I heard Supersax (the track “Salt Peanuts,” below), being blown away and wondering, “How’d they do that?” It wasn’t even a case of loving Supersax—I was never crazy about the their sound, but I was very curious about how they did it—how jazz harmony specifically could be arranged for groups of horns, building coherent block harmonies onto melodies with a ton of passing tones that came out sounding like something other than mud. 

(Bonus points if you caught the Hanna Barbera cartoon reference in that track!)

My ears have never been good enough to listen to that kind of wall of sound and catch specific tones—though I suspect most people can’t, and it’s more the texture of the voicings that allows those familiar enough to make an educated guess. Maybe I’m wrong—or maybe the wall-of-sound is am artifact of how things are recorded. (I know when I spread things out across the right-to-left spectrum in Musescore, I can hear the details more clearly; when all the voices are centered, it’s more just textured stacks of indiscernible notes.) Either way, I know what I experience when I hear these kinds of block chords: they register in my brain as an impressive but impenetrable wall of sound. Experience playing in tenor sax in big bands taught me that some really gnarly harmonies are involved, but little more. (A while back I revisited a long-ago arrangement I attempted in undergrad as accompaniment for a vocalist singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and it was… horrible!)

It was after my disappointment in that arrangement that I decided to get a copy of Pease and Pullig’s book and get myself a better grounding in jazz-style harmonic practice for arranging and orchestration.  

Having taken classical orchestration and composition classes (and some jazz theory lessons) in the past, the first couple of chapters were pretty elementary to me: I already have a rough idea about the ranges for instruments in a jazz group, and how timbre shifts in different registers for different instruments; and I have enough experience to know what voice leading is, what anticipations and delayed attacks are, and what approach notes are. (That said, right at the end of Unit 2, in 2-3: Reharmonizing Approach Notes, was my first breakthrough. It’s a relatively short section, but it discusses best practices for building block harmonies onto melodies that contain a lot of passing tones. (Short answer: pick your approach from a very flexible and obvious set of options.) Turns out my instincts back in undergrad were sharper than I thought: my mistake was just trying to apply jazz logic to a European Renaissance-era harmony, and consciously suppressing some of those instincts for a few years made jazz arranging harder for me at the time. 

The first few units were pretty basic, but around Unit 3 things start to get interesting. That’s also, not coincidentally, where I found myself starting to crash into walls. My understanding of jazz theory was intermediate, meaning I knew about two-thirds of the theory that’s quickly reviewed in the book, and kinda understood most of the other third. Some stuff about reharmonization, passing chords, tritone substitutions, and some of the more unusual chord-scale correspondences were things I was aware of, but hadn’t really mastered, and this book somewhat demands mastery of those things. Occasionally there was a term used that didn’t get defined, and sometimes I found myself looking up terms only to fail to find a helpful definition even there. I can see that if I’d gone ahead and reviewed the theory first (say, using The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony, which literally covers a lot of the same harmonic theory in detail), it might have been a little less slow going for me, but even so, I only took a couple of weeks to work my way through the book, so that’s not too bad. The audio clips definitely helped a lot, even though I found myself wishing that the voices had been a little more spread out across the stereo spectrum so I could have a better chance to pick the tones apart. (Timbre alone isn’t enough for me.)

While I thought the exercises at the end of each chapter were useful practice—and frankly, I found myself wishing for more of them from time to time—self-teaching is a challenge, because nowhere is given even an example set of answers, or notes about what specific pitfalls existed for each problem. There were also a few occasions where the order in which the book presented the exercises seemed a bit counterintuitive. (I usually have my students to analysis before they have to do productive exercises. More analysis would have been nice as well. Since there are no “suggested” or “example” answers, there are some exercises I didn’t manage to finish completely, and others where I finished, but am not too sure about the results I got. (It’s really odd that after more than 20 years of use, nobody’s uploaded any kind of answers like that.)

All in all, though, I am satisfied with what I’ve learned from the book, and I look forward to digging into the book that seems like the most natural follow-up, Pease and Pullig’s Arranging for Large Jazz Ensemble… though probably I should take a detour through that harmony book, if only to confirm what I reviewed in this volume, and firm up what I learned here at the same time. 

One thing I’ll say—and I’ll say it again—is that for those of us who don’t play piano, notation software with automated playback has been a real boon, especially with something as excellent as Musescore being available for free. (When I was a student, Finale existed, but it was very expensive and very user-unfriendly, so I was stuck using it on a tiny, ancient Mac in the electronic music lab on campus, and never got very far with it.) If I’d had something like Musescore as a music student, or even earlier, it’d have been a total game-changer for me. 

Of course, I actually did most of the exercises with pencil, but for the ones involving actual arranging (like the last few, and some in Unit 3) I input them into Musescore so I could hear them and to some extent so I could check my work aurally. I would still love it if someone looked at my work and pointed out problems, because I’m sure there are some things I messed up, but if I have to learn this stuff alone, hearing it is a decent substitute, even if the soundfonts for jazz playback are nothing to write home about. I’d be curious about what can be achieved with outputting MIDI into a DAW and then playing back the tracks through the SWAM instruments, but… ha, that brings us back to “I can’t afford it.” (For now, at least… though the iPad SWAM instruments are, at least, somewhat more affordable!)

I was even tempted to share my work here, but… I suppose that’s going to annoy some instructor out there whose students might plagiarize it, so… maybe not. If anyone out there who is comfortable with this stuff feels like doing a kindness, though, let me know: I could easily export sheet music and (rough) MP3 renderings of them and would love to get some pointers. I also will probably revisit the book after working my way through the Berklee Book of Jazz theory, as I’m sure I’ll have a little more clarity about some things that escaped me on my first time through this book. 

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