This semester in jazz arranging, I'm learning the basics of big band writing; in fact, the primary project for the whole semester is a single big band chart. The project is broken down logically into smaller assignments by chorus: for example, one week I might have to bring in the lead line for the head chorus, and the next week I'd follow it up with the melody for my sax soli. I like the approach; I think my brain is hard-wired to think of complex wholes in terms of small building blocks.

Sometimes, however, I find myself using too many different kinds of blocks. Each week my lab instructor has given me the same advice: "don't write everything you know all at once." Case in point: my original head chorus started with a simple unison small group melody, but expanded to harmony and then counterpoint within two or three bars. By the end of the first 32 bars, it had built itself up into one hot mess.

My lab instructor gave me the usual advice: "don't write everything you know;" in this case, he meant that using too many different textures in a single 32-bar chorus could be a bit overwhelming, taking away from the cohesion of the section and leaving you nowhere to go for the rest of the chart. Instead, he suggested, why not start the small group in three-part harmony and then have one instrument wander off into counterpoint occasionally throughout the chorus? So that's what I did, and the end result is a lot better.

I think this is sort of a common problem among artists in new mediums; we get so excited about the new expressive tools at our disposal that we forget simplicity. We also forget that the observer of the art will not pay it nearly as much attention as we did when we were making it; and so something that seems repetitive or over-simplified from the artist's standpoint may actually be just right in the eye (ear?) of the beholder.

This is not, of course, to say that complexity is to be avoided at all costs …it's just that it might be a good idea to build up to it instead of introducing it all at once.

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