© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that, you know that you are in the presence of incredibly talented big band arranger.
When listening to the Mike Barone big band perform them, all of his arrangements just seems to come together and to sound just right.
Whether its the way in which the melody is initially stated, the tempo, the backgrounds for the solos, the shout choruses and the ending – each arrangement is artistically inspired and masterfully crafted.
Mike was kind enough to grant the editorial staff at JazzProfiles a telephone interview for the express purpose of discussing how he approaches big band arranging.
Arranging for big bands is something that he has been doing for over 50 years, and yet, Mike’s completely unassuming when he talks about it as thought there is nothing special about what he does.
The other motivation for talking to Mike about this topic was we really enjoy his charts [musician speak for “arrangements”] and were curious about how he went about creating them.
Incidentally, for more detailed information about Mike and his career, visit his website, click on “Articles & Reviews” and scroll down to the interview he gave to Steve Randisi of Cadence Magazine on September 1, 2006.
With Mike, it all begins and ends with arranger-composer Bill Holman – his single biggest influence.
According to Mike, the arrangement off Stompin’ at the Savoy that Bill wrote for Stan Kenton’s Orchestra in the 1950s “… changed my whole life. Bill had more ideas going on in that chart than some arrangers have in a lifetime.”
And like Bill, although Mike has some formal training, Mike’s arranging skills are largely self-taught.
Mike also credited Johnny Mandel and the late Gil Evans as additional influences on his writing for big bands and noted that the late Neal Hefti was a “great melody writer.” He also had words of praise for the late Benny Carter and Gary McFarland, respectively.
And, while not necessarily an inspiration for Mike in a big band context, the music of Charles Mingus is a big favorite of Mike’s.
When Mike talks about what goes into his big band arrangements, one gets the feeling that he takes everything into consideration from the tempo at which a particular piece is played to the musicians who make up his band at any given time.
In expanding a bit on the subject of personnel, Mike said: “My job as a band leader and as an arranger is to balance bringing good players together with great players.”
“I’m not trying to sing my own praises, but I’ve been around a while to the point where I got guys ‘standing in line’ to play in my band. New guys are always coming around and these young guys from the University of North Texas and the Masters program at USC are a windfall for me; and man can they play. Their reading skills are incredible”
Over the years, the high quality of the musicianship in Mike’s big band “… has made it possible for me to get an idea and just do it.”
“An idea will just come to me and I’ll start walking around the house singing it in my head.”
“One day, the pedal tone that bassist Paul Chambers plays on Miles Davis’ version of Someday My Prince Will Come was playing through my mind and I put together the introduction to my chart on I Won’t Dance using this figure. It’s just how my mind works sometimes.”
When I asked Mike why he often chooses older tunes such as I Won’t Dance, Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and When You’re Smiling, he commented: “There a challenge. Figuring out how to make them sound fresh and different is like solving a musical puzzle.”
“I get bored very easily, so what about the listener? A lot of these old tunes have great melodies so I like to work them through, sometimes changing keys, putting ensembles in certain ranges and finding another tempo for the tune.”
An excellent example of how Mike re-works a standard in this manner to given is an entire different feeling is his use of a medium bossa nova rhythm for his chart on the Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer standard – Blues in the Night.
To my ears, Mike does a superior job of voicing sections in unison to play the melody and alternating these sections for a set number of bars so that a portion of the tune is heard through the trumpets, and then perhaps through the saxes and then later through the trombones. He may alter this pattern subsequently and change keys to continue to embellish the sound of the arrangement.
And then there are the voicings within sections for as Mike said: “Finding the right notes is very important; you’ve got to know the range of each instrument and the ranges of each instrumentalist.”
Yet while all of this – and more – is going on, Mike’s arrangements never sound strained or forced; they just flow.
Another ingredient in the mix according to Mike is “finding the right tempo; tempos are very important.”
A perfect example of the rhythmic flow that is so characteristic of Mike’s writing can be found in his arrangement of John Coltrane’s tune Grand Central which was originally performed by John along with alto saxophonist “Cannonball” Adderley on their Cannonball Meets Coltrane Emarcy LP.
“I just constructed my arrangement right off the record,” said Mike, “with the tenor on top of the alto in the unison line, but I used two tenors instead.”
The powerful pulse of the original performance is maintained throughout but Mike elaborations as a vehicle for tenor sax soloist EW and VT are astounding – he’s just all over this tune.
I don't know how many times I've played his arrangement of Grand Central but I still can't figure out how he incorporated and integrated the many ideas contained in it. See what you can discern as we have used Mike’s arrangement as the audio track to the following video.
Here are some guideposts to keep in mind:
- The “line” or melody is stated from 0:00 – 0:40 seconds; Grand Central is an AABA 32-bar tune
- Tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts takes a one chorus solo from 0:41 – 1:14 minutes
- Tenor Saxophonist Vince Trombetta solos for a chorus from 1:14 – 1:47 minutes
- Following a 4-bar drum break by Paul Kreibich at 1:48 Minutes, the entire band plays a chorus in unison from 1:50 – 2:20 minutes
- a simultaneous solo involving the two tenor saxophones begins at 2:21 Minutes while the band “lays out” [does not play]; when the band comes back in behind them at the bridge, Mike has them playing “stop time”
- at 2:53 minutes the tenors beginning trading 8-bar solos with Vince taking the first 8-bars
- the band comes back in for a “shout chorus” from 3:13 – 4:14 minutes only this time Mike changes the key
- a 3-chord phrase from 4:14 – 4:19 minutes launches each tenor into a cadenza [a point at which the band stops playing, leaving the soloist to play in free time [without a strict, regular pulse] before the tenors restate the theme at 5:09 and close out the tune.
If you’ll excuse the analogy, listening to Mike Barone’s big band arrangements is like sampling a rich dessert, one that’s so full of flavors you wish it would never end.
In this case, the “flavors” are textures or sonorities – the way Mike makes the music sound.
People who cook know that there are no margins for errors when it comes to making desserts, everything has to be apportioned just right.
So it is with everything that Mike writes for his big band – everything just “lays” so right – proportionally.
With Mike it’s the little things. Using the Grand Central chart as an example:
- the band coming back in behind the tenor soloists at 0.57 seconds and 1:30 minutes;
- following the tenor solos with one of his own in the form voiced in unison for the entire band beginning at 1:50;
- the idea for the simultaneous tenor sax solos beginning at 2:21 minutes;
- ushering in the tenor sax cadenzas with three fanfare chords at 4:14 minutes.
And all of this – and more - is going on, and this is just in one of Mike’s arrangement!
Because of Mike mastery of big band arranging, I find it almost impossible to listen to any of his CDs at one sitting: there’s simply so much going on and so much to absorb that I have to stop and savor one chart before moving to the next one.
But then, the richness of what’s on offer in Mike’s creations makes it very easy to take pleasure in them at a slower pace.
Treat yourself to a sampling of music by Mike’s big band; I think you’ll find the experience of being in the presence of a master arranger to be a very rewarding one, indeed.
All of Mike’s CD’s are available on his website including one that was made in performance at Donte’s Jazz club in 1968 which offers a “then and now” some perspective on Mike’s writing.