Hey Jazz Group!
David raised a great question on the Arranging Ellington project page: how should we balance the intent of the composer with our own voice?
This is one of the central questions that every arranger must ask every time they adapt an existing piece of music. What are the essential elements that make the piece unique, and where is there room to add, remove, or transform compositional elements?
Share your process with us! Respond to this discussion to share your thinking with the rest of us in the jazz group.
Which piece are you working on? What do you consider to be its essence? How are you planning on changing it to reflect your personal musical style?
I think this is especially hard for me with Ellington, because once I see how he has arranged his own piece, I think "well, I can't come up with anything better than that!"
I certainly understand that feeling — I think I speak for a lot of composers when I say that often times when we think we've come up with a hip new idea, it turns out that Duke wrote a hipper version of the same thing 70 years ago!
That said, if I may, I think one way out of that trap can be, as I suggested in my "Ellington Effect" post, to compare the many different permutations of a single Ellington work, both those recorded by him and those recorded by others.
One of the things that makes Ellington unique as a composer is that he did not believe in a single, canonical interpretation of his own work — he wasn't afraid to radically re-imagine a piece like "Mood Indigo," or to invite his longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, to do the same. (The epic, 15-minute version of "Mood Indigo" from the Masterpieces by Ellington album is actually Strayhorn's.)
The bottom line is that Duke never felt unduly constrained by what he had originally written, and neither should you. By listening to several different interpretations of the same piece, you will no doubt begin to get some ideas about how you might bring your own creativity to bear!
I've been working on a very free-form arrangement of Almighty God; I've gone into the process in detail in a blog post: http://musicalexchange.carnegiehall.org/profiles/blogs/arranging-el...
I agree with the idea of essential elements, and I think it can be extended very far in preserving a piece throughout the arranging process. Not only are there direct musical elements, but there's style, context, and conceptual aspects to any work. In making my arrangement, that was what made me want to work against what I saw as the central concepts of the Sacred Concert music, and move to a freer music. At a certain point we have to ask ourselves: by arranging and reinterpreting older, renowned works, are we working with the ideas of jazz, or simply shuffling around with names? I don't think the two are mutually exclusive, but it's easy to get locked into the shadow of a master. Ellington, in particular, illuminated so much about jazz: the nature of the individual in the collective, the integration of the swing microphrase in the largest of forms, the role of melody and color, and the creative genius in relation to racially complex (aka messed up) 20th-century America.
I agree with Michael; there's no way we can match him on his own ground. But we can certainly have a conversation with him. That conversation can stretch across all kinds of surface-level musical differences; down to each of our "voices" saying something. He said something, and we in our 21st-century, internet-enabled, post-civil rights, polyglot place, am trying to respond.