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Digging Upon “The Contemporary Arranger”

Sebesky Contemporary ArrangerI know I’m a tad obsessive about jazz arranging. Why else would I sit around in my free time and read textbooks.

I picked one up the other day, Don Sebesky’s “The Contemporary Arranger”. I had it in school; my edition from the 80’s is still out “on loan” to someone, I have no idea to whom…so I bought the latest edition from the 1990’s…it’s shocking how the music jumps off the page. The first page has a little excerpt and talks about economy in orchestration, and the little example blows me away–worth the price of the whole volume.

Who writes for contemporary ensemble with economy and creativity these days? I know a bunch, but the majority of composers are what I call “stripers” – they paint the parts like stripes on the score, each colored line stands out, but the overall effect is a ton of color, with no economy. In my composition blog I talk about top-down writing and a different kind of economy; I guess it’s all a reaction to what I perceive as an ignorance of colorful, creative and economic arranging brought on by tracking on computer. Layering samples on Pro Tools or Logic produces music that’s multi-layered, but not economic and for the most part, and mostly not interesting.

Anyway, for all you geeks out there, here’s a link to the Sebesky book. There are great audio examples. He distills years of studio work into a still-relevant and powerful work. For a textbook.

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  • Jeff Driskill on

    So funny. I was just looking at my copy the other day and thinking what an indispensable book it is. I hope I can get him to sign it some day.

  • Scott Healy on

    I talked to him once backstage about his book. I said that I remember the musical examples, and I sang one to him (at the time they were pressed on vinyl). He looked at me like I was nuts.

  • Henry Johnson on

    Hi Scott,
    I found your blog because I too am a big fan of Don Sebesky’s work and was looking for those sound files that came with the book. I really love your arranging and compositions too! I went and downloaded Hudson City from iTunes after hearing and seeing you on YouTube. I’m really enjoying it. I’m looking forward to picking up some ideas from your recording.

    Henry Johnson

    • Scott Healy on

      Thanks Henry. Don’s book showed me the different ways to voice an ensemble, I’d encourage you to jump to that section and see the many ways to voice horns. If you can digest and remember these techniques, it will really make your writing sound. I use them everyday, mixing close with spread, jumping to unisons, etc. You’ll hear these on my recordings. This old-school way of writing can set us free, especially if you’re used to writing at the computer from a keyboard. Think of the voicing and what you want before you play anything, write the top line and the bass line first, then fill in. The spread of the instruments can follow the contour of the line, use contrary motion, inner lines, etc. Man, I couldn’t live without this info! Keep up the good work.

  • Jack Cooper on

    Now in my 17th year of using this book, about to teach my arranging class this morning. Nice commentary Scott, I will try to refer my students to this. It is a the go to book of me if I need to double check something I am not quite clear on remembering.


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