Creating charts for small jazz ensembles is an art form. Balancing information on a page can mean the difference between a smooth performance and a train wreck.
This is a detailed case study of why—and how—I spent two days reworking a chart. Maybe it will come in handy the next time you’re arranging a song.
Problem: I never perform “Belief” because the chart needs too much explanation.
Challenge: Simplify a complex 5-page arrangement down to an easy-to-follow 3-page lead sheet.
The original charts communicated details—specific piano voicings, bass lines—for the recording session. The upside is I got exactly what I wanted on the recording. The downside is those recording charts don’t lend themselves to an easy read on a gig. Especially without rehearsal.
The 5-page score has lots of redundant information and is too hard to deal with on a gig. The bass part lacks the melody and the piano part is somewhere between the two.
This gets complicated from both an organizational and performance standpoint. If the bass player and drummer are reading the bass part, they don’t see the melody. This makes it difficult to (re)locate themselves at a glance.
Solution: a concert lead sheet.
I prefer concert lead sheets whenever possible. They’re the most efficient way to communicate all the information to each band member. The downside is they often result in overwhelming multi-page charts.
(I rarely ‘read’ my own tunes on gigs, so they’re referential for me. If I’m playing someone else’s compositions, it’s nice to have a Bb part.)
The biggest pros to a single lead sheet are:
- Each player sees the melody. (Allows good drummers to interact better than reading empty measures with occasional rhythmic hits.)
- The entire band navigates from the same page. (No “Let’s take it again from letter ‘F’…umm, that’s measure 47 on your part.”)
- One chart to duplicate and bring to gigs (no ‘parts’ to manage).
The biggest cons are:
- Everyone must be able to read (sight-transpose) from concert key.
- It can be difficult to incorporate all the details. (Voicings, rhythmic hits, that little line you want the guitarist to play.)
- Charts can grow to unmanageable page lengths.
Step 1: get an overview of the situation
The biggest challenge was the form. The tune follows pop song form—verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solos, verse, chorus, ending—instead of a traditional jazz scheme like 12, 16, or 32 bars. This presents a couple hurdles from an arrangement standpoint.
- Write everything out? (Result: long, redundant chart.)
- Condense as much as possible? (Result: confusing repeats [“Is this 4 x’s or 2 x’s on the DS?”])
To help see what was going on, I wrote each section on an index card and laid them on the floor. This allowed me to play with their position and find the optimal grouping. Much faster than moving sections around on staff paper or in a notation program.
Once I could visualize the chunks, I could plan a better roadmap.
Step 2: weigh repeats vs. space
There are several parts in this song where 2 or 4 measure phrases repeat several times. Using repeats would save space. But I had to weigh how much extra mental stress that adds for a player reading the chart.
In the end, I chose more duplicate sections and fewer repeats. This eliminates questions like “Do we take the first ending on the repeat?”
Step 3: choose a layout
A basic, one staff layout works for a lead sheet with only a melody and chords. But what about when you have specific voicings or bass lines? If you remove those parts, it might be a shadow of the composition you created.
My solution was a 2-staff piano layout.
This is my go-to form, but there’s a caveat: you end up with twice the page length.
My compromise was to compose the chart then hide the empty staves at the end. This allowed me to put in rhythmic figures, voicings and bass lines where necessary. Hiding empty measures removed excess space that bloats page count.
Step 4: separate solo section or not?
I go back and forth on this. If possible I go with a lead sheet that’s clear enough to solo over. But when the arrangement gets complex, a section of solo changes removes questions about the solo form. This puts players at ease, especially when sight-reading the chart.
Step 5: test and tweak
Once the tune is input into the notation program it’s time to fine tune the layout. I print and look for problems, as well as listen to the software play it down.
It always comes back to balance. Too little information means you’re less likely to get the results you imagined. Too much and you risk stifling the originality that brings tunes to life. (Trust me, I’ve done this too often.)
The final result gives (I hope) a clear shape that is self-explanatory. A few important things help make it more clear:
- Identification this is a lead sheet (upper left corner, first page)
- Feel (In this case the reference track in the subtitle)
- Highlighted time signature changes and crucial repeats
- The single measure of piano voicings communicates the sound I’m looking for, without telling the player what to play in every measure.
A lot of work, for sure. But the end result is a clear, 3-page chart that conveys everything I need it to and no more.
I hope this is helpful, or at least interesting. There are dozens of ways to skin this cat. This is just to give you a glimpse into my thought process. Takeaway: The effort you put into the design of your music has a direct result on the quality of its performance.