Arranging Ellington: Interview with Bill Dobbins

Attention Arranging Ellington participants: the December 15 deadline to submit your arrangements is almost upon us. If you have any questions, please ask them in the Work in Progress thread and I'll be happy to respond.


In the meanwhile, our series of interviews continues with out next guest, Bill Dobbins.


Bill Dobbins is a pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, and educator. From 1994 through 2002, Dobbins was principal director of the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany. He currently heads the Jazz Composition and Arranging Program at the Eastman School of Music. As a pianist he has performed with classical orchestras and chamber ensembles under the direction of Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss, and Louis Lane, and has performed and recorded with such jazz artists as Clark Terry, Al Cohn, Red Mitchell, Phil Woods, Bill Goodwin, Dave Liebman, Kevin Mahogany, Paquito D’Rivera, Peter Erskine, and John Goldsby.




DJA: I wanted to ask you about something you wrote in the preface to Jazz Arranging and Composing: A Linear Approach — this is something which has stuck with me ever since I first encountered the book:

"I always wondered why Ellington's music sounded so much more colorful than that of most other jazz composers. Of course the warm and personal sounds of the musicians themselves was an important factor. After painstakingly transcribing some of this music, however, I began to notice that there were very few doublings of the same pitches and that one or more of the parts under the melody often moved in an independent manner. More importantly, this independent movement was simply a means of giving each instrument a good line."


So I wanted to ask you if you had a favorite example from Ellington's body of work that illustrates this type of independent, linear motion?


BD: Well, one of the first one that comes to mind is the first four bars of "Mood Indigo."


DJA: That is exactly the passage I analyzed for my first blog post for this project!


BD: Ha! Well, this is a little different, but one of the other things I like a lot is the very end of "Concerto for Cootie," where the solo trumpet sounds the tonic note F, and then the saxes come in with a Gb7 chord, with the Fb right next to the F.


I keep going back to the idea that the only rule in music is that "if it sounds good, it's good music, and if it doesn't, then it's the other kind," as Ellington always used to say. A lot of jazz theory books that have come out relatively recently — let alone the stuff that people were writing in the sixties and seventies — have all these rules, which I don't really believe in. You know, "you can't use a major seventh on a dominant chord," and "no minor ninth intervals," and all that kind of stuff. So "Concerto for Cootie" is just a great example of a Gb7 chord with F natural in the melody that not only sounds great, but then when it resolves to F6, it makes that F6 sound great too. And that's actually another thing I've heard a lot of people say, that 6th chords are these old-fashioned chords, nobody really uses those anymore. But it's like the old cliché, it's not what you do, it's how you do it.


One of the other things that also strikes me about Ellington's music is the huge range between the most dissonant sound in the piece and the most consonant sound, and his ability to take basic chords that we've heard a million times and make them sound almost like we're hearing them for the first time.


DJA: Right. And that tremendous range in Ellington's music between consonance and dissonance is enabled by his use of, frequently, simple triads.


BD: Yeah! That goes right up to things as late as the New Orleans Suite


DJA: Which is fantastic.


BD: Another thing that I realized about Ellington's music, the more I got into it, is that because he was always writing things that sounded as modern as anything that anybody else was doing, but he also kept performing pieces that were written as early as the the late twenties, he really had the only jazz orchestra in the history of the music where, when you heard them in concert, you heard the whole history of jazz.


DJA: That's a really good point.


BD: It's so great because it's in an organic way. He didn't have to do concert repertoire by a whole range of composers who were only writing this or only writing that… his own music had such a stylistic range to it that it encompassed it all.


DJA: I know you've done a lot of transcribing of Ellington from the recordings, but I'm told you also spent some time with the original Ellington manuscripts in the Smithsonian.


BD: Oh yeah. I had the opportunity to play in the National Jazz Ensemble, this repertory big band that [bassist] Chuck Israels had in New York in the late seventies and early eighties. The [Smithsonian Ellington Collection] archive hadn't been assembled then, so Dave Berger and Alan Campbell and a number of other people and myself, we were doing the best we could trying to transcribe some of the pieces. Then years later, when I heard the Smithsonian had this archive center, with all of these Ellington manuscript scores, my wife and I went down to DC, and I spent about three days at the archives and photocopied thousands of pages of stuff! It was great to go back to some of the pieces we tried to transcribe and see what we missed, and what we got wrong. It was a real revelation.


DJA: Do you remember some of the things that surprised you when you consulted the manuscripts?


BD: Let's see… well, like, some of the stuff from Such Sweet Thunder, there's a place in one of the sonnets that I thought was only four saxophones and a solo trombone. But in some spots there was actually another saxophone in there. In the recording, it was kind of off-mic, or it wasn't quite the same in the mix, so it was easy to miss. Then another thing, in "Sonnet for Caesar," some of the really wild chords that are happening between the clarinet solo line and what's happening in the background… there were just a number of those where I had one note or another wrong. Another thing too is the orchestration: hearing a note as a trombone instead of a saxophone when there are mixed orchestrations happening. That kind of thing.


I came to the conclusion after that that that any music, no matter how perfectly it's recorded and mixed… if it's chromatically complex, or uses the sections and instruments of the ensemble in any except the most standard ways, that at least 10 to 15 percent of any transcription is just going to be guessing. If you can't get to the scores, I guess that's preferable to not having it re-created at all, but the opportunity to have the scores, or at least ninety-eight percent of what the original information was… that's just invaluable.


DJA: Do you know if there are any plans afoot to make those Ellington manuscripts more widely available? Like in some kind of critical or study score edition?


BD: I don't know of any plan, although I think it'd be great if someone would consider it!


Another thing I thought of when we were talking about making ordinary sounds fresh, there's a place just about six or seven bars before the end of "Sonnet for Caesar," where the clarinet comes to the end of the phrase, and there's this little trombone interlude. And after all the weird chromaticism and dissonances that happen before that, on the downbeat of the next bar the trombones land on this Eb9 chord — F, Db, G natural — and it's almost like hearing a 9th chord for the first time, because it's in such an unusual context!


DJA: That's one of those great moments in Ellington's music where something really clear emerges from the depths! It's always incredibly timed.


I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the significance of the sacred concerts to Duke's body of work? The first Concert of Sacred Music in '65, that's of course mostly adaptations of preexisting music, with a few new things. But then its success led to the opportunity for Duke to create a significant new suite of music written expressly for the Second Sacred Concert in '68. That's his first major project following Billy Strayhorn's death, and it's really a very unusual piece of writing — especially the opening of "Supreme Being"! But there are all kinds compositional and structural techniques in that work that I haven't heard a lot of in earlier Ellington music.


BD: I think of all the pieces that I've heard, the Second Sacred Concert definitely has the broadest stylistic range. The dissonance and extreme chromaticism you hear in "Supreme Being" and "The Biggest and Busiest Intersection"… from that to something much more basic, like "It's Freedom," to something small like "T.G.T.T." where not only the angular melody, but what happens harmonically in the piece too, is much more adventurous and has a much broader range than even something as big as "It's Freedom."


DJA: "T.G.T.T." strikes me as almost Strayhornian, in a way.


BD: Yeah! But I think it's also a good example of the fact that the stuff that was on the European or impressionistic side, that you hear a lot in Strayhorn's music… when Strayhorn came into the organization, it was almost more that he was giving further encouragement to this tendency that Ellington already had. Because there are some things that Ellington had written that definitely sound more on the impressionistic side that were written before Strayhorn ever became involved in the organization.


DJA: Right, although it seems likely that was a product of parallel evolution… as far as I can tell, unlike Strayhorn, Duke never made a serious study of impressionistic harmony. He seems to have integrated those sounds in a more intuitive way.


BD: I think that's the interesting part. Maybe it relates more to differences in personality, rather than there being such a contrast in the way they used that stuff. Strayhorn represents more of the formally educated, analytical kind of person, and Ellington more the intuitive kind. 


In terms of other jazz composers, you could say that Clare Fischer, or Bob Brookmeyer, or even Gil Evans, for that matter, with all the time he that he spent at the public library going through scores, you could say that their way of writing was at least to a certain extent analytical, and their influences were to some degree conscious. They really liked contemporary classical music, and you can see where it played a role in the evolution of their own stuff.


But another jazz composer who represents the more intuitive aspect is Bill Holman. Because with Holman — I actually had the opportunity a couple of years ago to go out and spend a week with him. I recorded about fifteen hours of conversations with him that I'm transcribing now, I'm getting ready to get a book together…


DJA: Oh, great!


BD: And talking to him about his own musical development, it all came through casual listening! Or sometimes not so casual listening — like when he was really young, hearing all the big bands on the radio and trying as much as he could to figure out some of the stuff on the upright piano that was in the house. But he never actually got to the point of trying to transcribe things note for note. Let alone trying to purchase any scores of classical composers!


The only exception was a very general thing: Holman was doing that Contemporary Concepts record for Stan Kenton, and he was in a hotel somewhere for a week or ten days, and he was supposed to come up with a couple of charts on "What's New," and (I think) "Stella By Starlight." So Lee Konitz and a couple of the guys in Kenton's band, they'd gone down to a music store with him, and he picked up a copy of the score for one of the Bartók string quartets. And when he opened it up and started looking around, one of the things he noticed was this place where there was a pyramid, with each of the strings sustaining a note, and the remaining one playing a melody on top of that. And he just took that general texture — not, you know, anything about the actual chord — and that was where he got the idea for the opening of "What's New."


I asked him several times, you know — he listened to classical music — but I asked him, was there ever any time when he took the pieces that he liked and really tried to figure things out, and he just said "No, unfortunately I never really had the motivation or the patience to sit down and do that!" [laughs] It sounds very similar to Ellington, in a way.


DJA: It's funny how different minds process that type of material different ways!


So with regard to these two pieces that the participants in this project are arranging — "Come Sunday," which became one of Duke's most-recorded tunes (especially after the Mahalia Jackson recording), and "Almighty God," which is a relatively obscure piece in the Ellington catalogue — I'm wondering (A) whether you have any thoughts about either of these tunes, and (B) whether you have any particular advice for these young arrangers as they work on this material?


BD: It is true that the more different versions of something that you listen to, the more difficult it might be to come up with something that still reflects the essence of the original, but does it in a more personal way. But what I try to advise my own students is that if you're arranging somebody else's music, go back to the original, the earliest source of it. So for "Come Sunday," go back to the 1943 Carnegie Hall recording, or the1944 RCA studio recording that has some of the excerpts from Black, Brown and Beige. First find out what the essence of the original piece is, so that you don't inadvertently miss some really evocative or really strong aspect of it — something that might also help to make an arrangement of it strong, without just repeating it in a literal way.


DJA: Right, but fully appreciating all of the the intricate details of the original.


BD: Yeah. And even one of the things that I noticed in so many arrangements that Strayhorn did of standard tunes — and it's the same thing with arrangers like Holman and Brookmeyer and Fischer — is that they often retain the essential harmonic landmarks of the original. But they find such personal ways of decorating those, or getting from one to the other, even stretching out harmonic rhythms, interpolating interludes, or whatever. But that sometimes sounds even more fresh than when people just substitute chords that happen to fit the melody, but don't make such a believable harmonic progression.


Certainly I'd suggest that people at least try to understand as clearly as possible what the original was, and retain in some fashion anything that might be a musical strength that's in the original, but still decorate or color it in your own way.

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