© 2001 James Walker
(Recently, on thevibe.net message board, the subject of vibraphone performance in a big band context was raised. This month's lesson is an expansion on my particpation in that thread.)
Very few of the big band charts used by high school, college, and university big bands, include parts for a vibraphonist. This places a burden on anyone wishing to perform on vibes with their school's band - unlike the other members of the band, a vibraphonist must create his or her own part for each arrangement. This month's lesson will address some of the issues facing these vibraphonists.
Thinking Like An Arranger
The most important step in this process is to approach the situation like an arranger - find some way to make the new vibraphone part fit in and compliment the existing arrangement. Take your cue from the guitar and piano parts; sometimes, these parts are very precise, while other times they leave a great deal to the interpretation of the players.
There are some basic options available when creating a new part:
Often, the band director will simply present his vibraphonist with a photocopy of the guitar or piano part, but it would be better to seek out the score - one can draw from the horn sections as well as the rhythm section in creating a vibes part.
Ensemble Figures (melody): One can lift the melody from the brass or saxophones. If the part is originally written for a single instrument, then you will likely want to leave that melody to that player (to allow him/her to interpret it freely, if that is the director's wish); if an entire section is playing the melody (either unison or voiced), then it is more likely that adding the vibes will work. Pick your spots - background figures behind soloists, "shout" choruses, and even sax soli sections can benefit from the addition of the vibes.
Ensemble Figures (voiced): Compare the piano and guitar parts to the different horn sections (trumpet, trombone, saxophones), in those places where the rhythm section and horns are playing similar figures. Some composers will write out voicings for the rhythm section players, to match what they have written for the horns. If this is the case, then take the same care to make sure that your voicings show the same respect for the arranger's work. If the guitar and piano parts consist solely of slash notation and chord symbols, then you can take more liberties in using your own voicings.
Adapting Guitar and Piano Voicings
If you decide to adapt the arranger's written-out voicings to the vibraphone, consider the following when making your decisions:
Comping Behind Soloists
A rhythm section with three chordal instruments - piano, guitar, and vibraphone - can get crowded very quickly, musically speaking, if all three wish to comp behind soloists. There are some ways to make this work, however:
Adapting Parts From The Horns
It is also possible to cull vibraphone parts from the voicings assigned to the horn sections. It is a common technique for arrangers to use the same basic four-note voicings simultaneously, adapting them to the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sections. Four-mallet vibes players can do the same. If these voicings do not lend themselves well to the vibes (for whatever reason - the speed of the parts, the range of the vibraphone, etc.), then one can always simply appropriate the single-line melody from the horn section(s).
Some ensemble voicings can be taken directly from the horns. This example shows a phrase written for four saxophones (alto/alto/tenor/tenor), which - if the tempo allows - works nicely on the vibes. (Note that this example is not transposed - all parts are written as they sound. More on transpositions in a moment.)
Just as with piano voicings, it is posslble to appropriate a series of voicings from a horn section, but make it fit the vibes better by altering the voicing. Here is a phrase written for four trumpets, followed by a corresponding vibes part, using the "drop-two" technique to open up the voicings for the vibes. (Here as well, the parts are not transposed.)
Remember, most of the horns in a big band are transposing instruments, meaning that the written pitch is not the same as the sounding pitch. Here are the transpositions for instruments commonly used in big band arrangements:
Keep in mind the final goal: to create a part for the vibraphone which will suit the original arrangement well. It is always risky to add something new to an arranger's work, so one must respect the original work as much as possible while still creating an opportunity to use the vibraphone in a big band context. Consult with your band's conductor, to make sure that his/her musical vision is being served as well. Finally, study recorded examples of the vibraphone used with a big band, including recordings by Milt Jackson, Terry Gibbs, Gary Burton, and others.
(This page and all the materials within copyright ©2001 James Walker, All Rights Reserved. No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)
(click the "lessons" icon to return to the index of lessons at malletjazz.com)