I have always been fascinated by color mixtures in compositions, arrangements or even just in the sound of a small group. There is a certain quality of a classic bebop sextet, for example. With trumpet, saxophone and trombone in the front line, there are a number of nice color mixtures possible such as alto and trumpet, tenor and trombone or trumpet and trombone. The quintet normally would have trumpet and saxophone as the horns and, if they read from the same Bb part, the result is a great octave sound that has been the signature of many groups. It’s interesting that it came about mainly as a matter of convenience but it remains a good horn sound. The same would be true of a vocal group which could sound very colorful in harmony but always sounds fine when all sing in unison!
When I was active writing big band charts, I loved to experiment with color mixtures of three or four instruments in unison on the melody or counter melodies. It’s kind of like painting though. If you mix two many colors together, it becomes black. So it seems, in music, that there is a limit to how many sounds you can blend together. Also, range is a factor to keep in mind. Any instrument in its extreme low or high register will be more intense and may not blend as well. So a trombone mixed with alto will be more intense than trumpet and alto because less of the trombone and alto ranges overlap.
Some color mixture unisons that I like:
Trumpet, soprano sax and guitar
Flute, piano and guitar
Trombone in cup mute, bass clarinet and guitar
Acoustic bass, bass trombone and guitar
Do you notice the repeated mention of guitar? Guitar has a wide range and the ability to alter tone quality to blend nicely with many instruments. I’m a big fan!
In recent years, I have been performing a lot with a quartet involving alto sax, piano, bass and drums. Often either the piano or the alto may play the melody alone. But I like the color mixture of alto and piano in unison and play many heads that way. This creates a challenge for the alto player to play in tune with the piano that might be a problem with some instruments. The other problem is that the piano doesn’t have the sustain of a wind instrument. Nevertheless, it is a unique color that at least introduces some semblance of orchestration into the band.
This fall I hope to add guitar to the group for our next tour. As my earlier comments might hint at, the guitar adds many possibilities for a variety of orchestration. The unisons of guitar and piano, guitar and alto, guitar and bass should be obvious. George Shearing had a unique and readily identifiable sound with his signature piano, vibes and guitar sound. So with the new quintet, we can allude to that even though the alto will be different in the mix.
One of the things that appeals to me about a group with guitar in it is that I can lay out sometimes to change the orchestration. Since both guitar and piano are comping instruments, either one can lay out to change up the sound. As much as I like to play, I get tired of hearing piano all the time. It seems the arranger in me needs relief from one chord instrument playing continually. By the same token, a good guitar player understands the need to lay out sometimes. In fact, it may be important for both piano and guitar to lay out and let the soloist play with only bass and drums. By the same token, there are times when a savvy drummer or bass player will lay out. There are many precedents for this. Clark Terry often liked to play with just the bass player in a duo setting for a while. John Coltrane often played with just Elvin Jones and no bass.
Although I like to accompany bass solos, it is one of the hardest instruments to comp for with out covering it up. So sometimes piano or guitar may both lay out and let the bass player solo with accompaniment from the drums only. Traditionally, people take fours or eights with the drummer or let him play the form alone. Those are fine traditions but I like to comp for a drum solo sometimes. Also, a drummer may like for the bass to walk the changes during his solo, providing another form of accompaniment.
Orchestration is an important aspect of a small group as well as a big band. Though I like to play in a trio, I really don’t prefer it. The instrumentation is monotonous regardless of how good the music is! So doing things like having the bass player play the melody can be engaging to the audience. Assuming the quality of the music being played is high, a variety of styles, keys, meters, tempos and orchestration all add to the effectiveness of the musical statement.