Arranging for Jazz Orchestra

Brent Wallarab, co-founder of the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, has been making custom big band arrangements for the American Pianists Awards finals since 2003. We spoke with Brent about his approach to creating unique arrangements that incorporate the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic vocabulary of each finalist. Emphasizing the importance of collaboration with the pianists and balancing the program, he gives us insight into one of the unique aspects of the world’s biggest jazz competition.  


An edited transcript follows:

Lee Clifford, American Pianists Association Director of Marketing

How did you first get involved with the American Pianists Awards?


Brent Wallarab, Arranger, Composer and Professor of Jazz Studies at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

I founded and co-lead the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra with Mark Buselli. We started in 1994, so we're approaching 30 years. We were very active on the jazz scene in Indianapolis from the mid-nineties into the early 2000s. We were everywhere! We were weekly at the Jazz Kitchen. We had our own concert series at the Indiana History Center. We had a huge education initiative and more.

American Pianists Association’s Artistic Director Joel Harrison was aware of us. He would come to see us and enjoy us, and it was his inspired decision to incorporate a big band component to the competition. It’s great because piano players have to play solo, play trio, accompany singers and play for big bands. I think it's just a genius move to put these pianists in various performing experiences for the competition.

Because we were so active, Joel thought that it might be a good fit to have to the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra being one of the performing artists that the soloists played with. He ran it by us and we said, “sure, let's go for it!” Twenty years later we're still working with the American Pianists Awards, and we couldn't be happier about that.



Were custom arrangements part of the process from the beginning?



Yes, they were. The very first time we did it in 2003 the custom arrangements were part of it. And we had never done that before. The APA just said, “We trust you, you do your thing.”

I knew that I wanted to enhance the vocabulary of the finalists. And so when I was planning how I wanted to approach it, I thought the very best thing to do was to listen carefully to each pianist and not just simply write an arrangement for them of their preferred tunes, but to extract some of their harmonic vocabulary, their rhythmic vocabulary, their melodic vocabulary, and incorporated into the written part of the arrangement.

So it sounds like them, the stuff that you hear the band play is often them, and it just helps them feel more comfortable and which is what I want. I want every arrangement to give the pianists their very best shot at playing their very best with the big band. And if they're fighting the rhythmic or harmonic or melodic vocabulary with the band, then they're not going to be comfortable.

I just want it to be beautiful transitions from the written material to the solo material, and I just take it straight from them and it seems to be a formula that works.



I love that! How many different tunes for each pianist do you have to listen to to get that sense?



Well, what I have available to me are the recordings that they send in. And often I'm able to pick a couple of tunes from the recordings that they send in for their initial blind audition, and I'm in on those jury, so I'm able to hear them and I'll make notes. Then when we have selected the five finalists, I have already heard several of their tracks, and I'll have made some notes about which tunes I think really represents them.

The tune choice has to be on different levels. It has to be something that they have a really strong personal point of view, like, Oh, they've taken this tune by Billy Strayhorn, which everyone plays. But this person has a very unique point of view on how they played it solo or how they played it with the trio, and I think that that that is going to represent them very well because of their point of view.

But it also needs to translate to big band really well, so I'm listening and thinking of options for the players. Once the APA gives me the thumbs up to contact the finalists, I already have a few ideas. Some of the piano players over the years, they might not be very decisive at first. They will say, “I don't know; I've never done this before.” And I'll say, “Well, you know what? I heard you play these couple of tunes and you sound great on them. What about this one?” And they're like, “That's great!” They're very happy for me to make that decision.

So I might make suggestions like, “I really dig what you did with the trio on High Fly,” which is a Randy Weston tune that we're doing this time around, or “what you did with Lush Life was really good, but what are some other options?” So I'll discuss it with the pianists.

But I also have to think about the program because we can't do five ballads or five “flag wavers” like they used to say. There has to be a balance. That's why when I work with the pianists, I ask for two or three options, maybe some different styles, some different tempos—three things that they would be comfortable with.

So then they'll send me a few things each, and then once I get an idea, then I'll put together what I think is a good program for a good opener, stuff in the middle, and a good closer. Then I'll ask each finalist, “What do you think? On your list it was Lush Life--would you be okay doing that?” And they're like, Yeah, that sounds great. It's very collaborative. I have to think about the pianist, but I also have to think about the audience and the show. So there's a whole process in just picking the tunes.



Cool, cool. All right. So after you've picked the tunes, how do you start arranging for the orchestra?



After we pick the tunes, I deep dive and listen to those tracks. They'll send me those tracks or the APA will send me the tracks, and I'll listen very intently. Then I'll start making notes like, Oh, I think that this material that he or she played is really fantastic. This chorus of the solo is really great. The way they've arranged the introduction is really great.

Then then I'll transcribe them. In the past I used to do all the transcriptions. So what does that mean? So that means I'm listening to the recording and then I'm essentially taking musical dictation. I'm writing down the notes, I'm writing down the voicings, I'm writing down the rhythms. I'm taking what they improvised and translating into written music score form. So I actually have the, the, the written representation of what they're playing on the recording.

This is the sixth time I've done this for the APA, and starting last time I've actually turned the transcribing duties over to some of my better students at IU because I've done enough of that! It's really great for them, and I pay them.

I always pick a top piano player down at Indiana University—they are spectacular musicians themselves. They love it because essentially I'm paying them to study and transcribe a world class piano player. So it's a great educational opportunity for them, and they always get a lot out of it.

Then they will send me the transcription and I'll check it to make sure it's accurate, make sure it really represents that. So now I have that initial record of what the pianists actually played.

The next step is I'll go through and listen and read the transcription and I'll start to make notes. You might see there's all kinds of scribbling all over it. And this is me saying, I think that this section would be great for woodwinds, this section would be great for brass, this section leave it solo piano, leave it trio. I'm just marking, making notes of just some orchestration ideas, and I'll scribble things out and come up with other ideas.

So I'm living with it for a long time and imagining it all. By the time I get to this point, I have listened to the tracks so many times that I have it memorized in my ear, and then I'll be making notes. I'll take a walk around the neighborhood and play the track in my head like a recording and image, “okay, what if the trombones play this? Or what if the saxophones play this?” I'm orchestrating it in my head a lot just to kind of get some ideas. Then once I have kind of a roadmap of how I want to approach it, I start to actually write the music, which I still do by hand.

I use a pencil and a piano and score papers. I'm a bit of a Luddite in that in that regard. It's a centuries old techniques of just doing it with paper and pencil and keyboard. I just have these sketch pads and this is where I'm just doing draft after draft after draft, and I'll just scratch things out and go back to the drawing board.

It's where I'm actually orchestrating piano stuff, but I'm also creating new material that complements the arrangement. This is where I work out the voicings. A lot of times, what the pianist plays can't just directly be transferred over to the to the band. Because horns sound different with different voicings. A pianist has a limited number of fingers for voicings, and so you have to revoice things to work with the orchestra. That takes a lot of time to translate the piano vocabulary to the orchestration.

But again, it's nothing new. That’s what Pictures of an Exhibition was. It was a piano piece, and then it was orchestrated into the famous orchestral piece that we know so well. So that's something else that I think is really great, that this is a new and modern version of what composers have been doing for centuries. It's exciting and gratifying and a big part of the legacy of the piano.

Once I have it satisfactorily worked out, I'll do a handwritten final score, which is just an orchestral score where each instrument has their own individual part. This is the final score that I do by hand, and it has to be close to perfect. There will be some mistakes, but I catch those later.

Then once the score is finished, I give it to an engraver or a copyist who will translate the handwritten score into a computer rendering of the score. And from the score, you extract the individual parts.

I always have the copyist do the piano part first because I want to get it to the finalists quickly, and I always send them notes about how the piano part works with the orchestra.

Then in mid-February, the band is going to get together, rehearse everything, and I'll hire a couple of piano players to learn and play the parts. We will record everything and send those recordings to the finalists. They'll have the recording of the actual arrangement with the piano solo over a couple of months, so they'll have plenty of time to become acclimated to it.

I also really try to honor their original version of this stuff because they're already comfortable with it. It's their tempo, it's their licks, it's their essential small arrangement fleshed out. So they're already very familiar with it because it's really just them.



Fascinating! So what happens during finals week in April?



By the time we get there, the band knows the music and the pianist knows the arrangement. They've had the recording, and there are no surprises. That's the nice thing, because we've done so much prep work.

Everybody knows what to expect, which is what you want. I don't want there to be any instances where the band is thrown off by the pianist because I didn't get it right. Or worse than that, the pianist is being thrown off by the band because I didn't get it right. But that's why it's good that we have a year-long process, because it's more than just saying, “write an arrangement for a piano player,” which you can kind of sit down in and do.

It takes a lot of thought, a lot of thinking, a lot of planning, because I do I write a lot of arrangements where I just have freedom to write whatever I want. But with so much at stake, there's just a whole other level of, I think, preparation and thought, because I feel a great deal of responsibility to serve the pianists and make them feel comfortable and give them the best opportunity, at least for the big band portion, to be as successful as they possibly can be.

It takes about a year to do this properly.



Thank you so much for this peek into your process of arranging for jazz orchestra!



Thank you. My pleasure.


Learn more about the finals of the 2023 American Pianists Awards and get tickets!



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