by Chuck Reider, Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra
Join the Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) 7/30 at the Hawkins Amphitheater in Bartley Ranch or 8/2 at Sand Harbor as a part of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival’s Monday night series to hear us perform the music of Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF). There you can pick up our brand-new CD "Spirits" featuring the music of EWF. It is the culmination of great recording sessions and studio polishing over the course of nine months. EWF’s music expresses hope, inspiration, and joy. The perfect elixir to re-engage with the world. Many of these songs you will know (and sing along) others might be new to your ears. Come to the concerts, sing along to your favorites, and pick up a CD.
Some tracks are very much like the original recording while others are new interpretations. For this article, I would like to feature the arrangers of all the tracks. The art of big band arranging requires creativity, technical skills to write parts for the full big band (this case eighteen pieces), patience (lots of work!), and being able to decide what stays from the original recording and what new material to add. Taking a piece recorded by seven to ten musicians to eighteen means lots of new material! Orchestration is another consideration. Here is an example, suppose a synthesizer or guitar on the original recording plays an important musical line. Should the arranger keep it with a synthesizer for the arrangement or assign it to the trumpets? Orchestration is the art of assigning notes to instruments to create color and effect. Only a handful of big band arrangers like Nelson Riddle, Sammy Nestico, and Quincy Jones became widely recognized. In the classical world Maurice Ravel was a master. Before I introduce you to the big band arrangers, I must acknowledge Lori Johnson who arranged all the vocal parts at times duplicating the recording and at others adding a bit of her own "voice".
RJO trumpeter and composer Julien Knowles arranged four of the eleven pieces; "In the Stone", "After the Love Has Gone", "Reasons", and "Spirit". Each arrangement he captured the feel and groove of the original recording, but using the art of orchestration, he created a much richer palette of sound. A wonderful example is the introduction to "Spirit", the last piece of the album. The original recording starts with synthesizer and electric piano. Knowles took that "lick", extended it and had the trombones and woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, and bass clarinet) double the acoustic piano. Absolutely beautiful. He knows when to add original horn parts such as a saxophone line to highlight the band and not get in the way of the vocals. In "After the Love" he uses a pyramid of horns for great effect. Think of a single melodic line that is split between eight instruments each with staggered entrances. Very tricky for the horns to perform as their entrances have to be absolutely accurate or the result will be an unpleasant blur! "Reasons" I encouraged Knowles to think a bit out of the box. He felt the original feel and groove were too iconic to change but instead he added a completely new introduction and ending again for wonderful effect. FYI, shortly after performing with us for these concerts Knowles is moving to Los Angeles to study at the prestigious Hancock Institute (yes Herbie Hancock). Delayed one year because of COVID. We wish him well.
Hans Halt arranged "Imagination" and "That’s The Way of the World", and I have had the pleasure of working with him since the 1980’s. He is a gifted bassist, pianist, arranger who teaches big band arranging at UNR, and is a member of UNR’s jazz faculty combo "The Collective". The RJO has performed many of his original arrangements and "Brazilian Dreams" can be found on our "Jazz Alive" album recorded live at the Nugget. Halt decided to stay close to the original recordings with the rhythm section. It is an art in itself to duplicate and notate the original drum and bass parts for example. He used the horns to support the vocals by orchestrating them to richen the harmony. The saxophones double the voices on occasion and at the end he slowly adds the horns to the chorus for a great build up to the ending. As with "Imagination" Halt created the orchestration for "That’s the Way of the World" by choosing which horn section should support the vocals and which to play a prominent string part (no strings for us) that was on the original recording.
I arranged five pieces; Shining Star, Getaway, Ponta de Areia/Zanzibar, Pride, and September. Since "Shining Star" opens the album I kept the rhythm section true to the original recording, used most of the original horn lines but added additional original horn lines to make the horns more prominent. "Getaway" is very similar to the original but I included some of my own horn material. Because this is a vocal heavy album I wanted to give some room to the band to solo so I did add a bass and guitar solo that you won’t hear in the original. The next tune "Ponta de Areia/Zanzibar" is an instrumental medley of two tunes EWF recorded but did not compose. Ponta de Areia was composed by Milton Nascimento. I first heard this song on Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer album recorded in the seventies and decided to pay tribute to Shorter by using his rhythm section arrangement and adding the horn sections to enhance melody and provide backgrounds. Composed by Edu Lobo, Zanzibar is an original arrangement of mine. I liked EWF’s feel, but the solo sections were too repetitious and so I added my own chord progressions and horn background. I hope you like it, is fun to change things up! For "Pride" I decided to create a whole new rhythm groove under the tune and added an introduction not on the original recording.
There are so many great elements to our album "Spirits" you need to check them out. One thing to listen for is the spatial placement of all the singers and instruments. Engineer Mike Eardley and I spent a lot of studio time making sure you can hear every part. The horns for example, trombones a bit to the left, trumpets in the center and the saxes to the right. Each has a space in the mix.
Now to reward our readers who made it this far. The RJO is creating a video where you all can participate! It is the band and singers performing "September" but at the end we want you all to send a video of you singing the chorus. As I said at the top, the music of EWF is a great way to re-enter the world after COVID.