Big Band Jazz Composition with Tim Davies
September 22, 2016 | by Scott Yoho
Tim Davies is no stranger to readers of the Finale blog. He is a prolific Hollywood orchestrator and conductor working in film, television, and gaming. In addition to 2013’s blockbuster Frozen, recent film credits alone include Muppets Most Wanted, Minions, Ant-Man, The Peanuts Movie, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and many more. Tim is also a very active composer, drummer, and bandleader. This month he’s released a new big band CD titled The Expensive Train Set.
We talked to Tim about the CD, his workflow, Finale tips, and much more.
The title of the new CD is “The Expensive Train Set.” Can you talk about that a little?
Many years ago someone at a show said that having a big band is like having a train set. Each involves many hours of work and preparation, and neither is ever finished. They are niche things, costly, and neither will ever make you any money.
Finale-prepared music appears on the cover of your new CD, right?
Yes, I am writing notes on one of my drum parts. All of the tracks, in fact everything I have ever written for big band, has been done in Finale.
The new album features both an LA band and a band from Melbourne, however on one tune both bands are playing together. How did that work?
In 1998, before I left Melbourne, I formed a band, and I have been back and played with them many times since. Apart from my going away concert, however, I have never recorded with them, and I thought it was time. Then the idea of bringing both bands together came to me.
It would have been nice to have everyone together, but I did not quite have the budget! I actually recorded my drums in LA, then went to Melbourne and recorded that band, then came back and recorded the LA band. We put together things like that all the time in film and game scores, so I knew what the pitfalls of working like that can be and how to avoid them.
Can you first talk about your compositional workflow – including the stuff you do BEFORE you fire up Finale?
Every piece starts with a doodle on the piano or the drums. If I am on the drums I will come up with a groove and sing, mumble, hum, or groan the other parts. If I am on the piano, I pretty much do the same as I can’t actually play! Then I go to Finale.
I work with a staff set showing two saxes, two trumpets, two trombones, and the rhythm section staves. I block it in like that, then once I have the form I go to full score and explode out the parts. I also jump between the two staff sets a lot and as my writing has gotten more textural and orchestrated, I have had to do more with all the staves showing. Having a big screen helps!
I have a basic playback setup in Plogue. I don’t host instruments in Finale, as I am opening and closing so many files in a day that waiting for sounds to load would kill me, so I leave them open in the background. I don’t use Human Playback; I want the most basic and nasty playback so I can hear all the notes.
You do have to have a good sense of what will work in the real world though, as jazz dissonance can sound pretty rough played back by samples. I am also not a fan of having excessive information in my scores, and if you are going to rely on human playback you need to put in lots of dynamics and articulations, things that real players don’t need. I use Linked Parts for the parts, and just have one score that contains everything.
Can you describe your workflow in creating these arrangements?
Again, I doodle, sing, hum and groan a lot when I write. I come up with an idea, put than in then play it back and I then sing the next part. That is how I do everything.
I am very particular about form. Every piece has to take you on a journey. I usually let it unfurl organically, but I do have my tricks. I often prefer to through-compose than to keep repeating the form, as in the traditional way of writing a big band chart. So I come up with new riffs, or use some motif, or just sing something that feels natural to me.
How does the way you work on your big band charts differ from your process when working on TV and film?
The way I use finale is the same. However when I am writing for my band, it is whatever I want, while when I am working on a film, my job is to make someone else look good. But I find all of my skills come in handy in both worlds and they do influence each other. A lot of the ideas I have come up with while working with orchestras have found their way into my band music.
On my first listen of Conceivilization it occurred to me that aspects of the piece felt very orchestral. Can you talk some more about that aspect of your band arrangements?
Most of my pieces are programmatic; I want to take the listener on a journey, tell a story, or paint a picture. It is hard to do that if you keep repeating the same thing over and over, so I often deviate from standard big band forms, through composing and developing ideas, like you might do in concert music.
I find that once I have a good story, the music writes itself; I know where I have to take it. I like building to a climax, that part where the band goes to 11 and the lead trumpet hits the stratosphere. That was the sound that I heard as a child – that I fell in love with – and you hear it a lot in my music.
Big Band Influences
When you think specifically of your big band writing, who are some of your influences?
My main influence and the reason I wanted to do this was an Australian big band called the Daly Wilson Big Band. I found a cassette of them when I was about 12 and decided that is what I was going to do. That band was co-led and co-arranged by the drummer too. They had a particular style, very full on, and on top of the beat.
When I was first in Los Angeles I spent several years assisting John Clayton and the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestras. His style and the band’s was nothing like Daly Wilson, but still had a huge impact on me. John is an amazing writer and his voicings are very cool. I would get a sketch from him at 2:00 am, orchestrate and copy it, and they would play it at 10:00 am.
I would see these voicings and wonder what the hell they would sound like and then within a few hours, I was hearing it with a great band. You can’t pay for that education, and I was lucky enough to get paid for it. I also like the textures of Gil Evans and the forms and orchestration of Oliver Nelson. My favorite album is Quincy Jones’ The Quintessence.
From an engraving/copying point of view, do you approach big band charts differently than, say, charts for a TV show?
I approach it all pretty much the same. In both cases you don’t get a lot of rehearsal time. So it must be laid out clearly so players do not get lost. In a session we do a few things differently: numbers on every bar, no rehearsal letters, and we avoid consolidating rests. Instead we break them up a lot so it is easy to find your place if we stop and start. This also gives us a place to write in any new music we may wish to add.
For the band, I use lots of rehearsal letters and if it is a solo for 32 bars, they can have that as a single rest!
I do approach fonts differently. For film and TV work, a generic look is best. Also we pass files around among many people so we want to make sure the fonts are going to be standard so it looks the same. For my big band stuff, I have a look I have developed over the years. I use Swing font for text, Jazz for note heads and even one from the other program for titles. Why not! I have also customized all of the line, slur, and tie thicknesses and arcs.
In your big band writing, do you have some signature arranging techniques that you’d be willing to share with us?
More of an orchestration trick than arranging, but I love to repeat notes and have people play them at different times, maybe slip to the side every now and then. It is all over my music. If you look at bar 157 in Conceivilization you can see it in action. Then in 205 I do it again but start to add other notes and develop line.
Check out this scrolling playback video of a reduced Concievillization score:
What about in Finale – are there Finale tricks that you can share that are more specific to big band writing?
The most useful thing for me is working with staff sets. As previously mentioned, I have a reduced set I work with to sketch in ideas, and then I use plugins to explode it out.
Have a comic or outrageous Finale or big band story you can share?
Not so much comic but I can tell you about the hardest job I ever had to do. One thing that I did a lot for John Clayton was takedowns. And these were not for just anyone, they were often to be surprises for the actual composer or arranger. When John was director of Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl he would have a lot of guests, so I did takedowns for Neal Hefti, Quincy, and Johnny Mandel, but the hardest one was Take 6.
John wanted to add the band to them so he gave me a cassette of them. There were not cool computer programs to help slow down and loop or filter, it was just me and a tape deck. Usually when you do a takedown, you get the top, the bottom, and what else you can hear in the middle, and then use your arranging skills to reassemble what you can’t hear.
For example, I know there will be four trumpet parts in that chord, but I can only hear three, so I use my knowledge as an arranger to fill in the missing part. But Take 6 is six parts of vocal jazz and they don’t write out their stuff like a big band arranger would. They work it out so it does not follow the same rules. There is also something about the voice and how they blend that makes it really hard to pick out.
So I did my best and gave it to John and he added the band.
For some reason, Take 6 could not make it to the rehearsal the day before the show. Usually if there was something to change, you could fix it and then have it ready for the sound check the next day, but not this time. The first time we would hear it and see if I got it all right was the sound check on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl!
It was the most nervous I have ever been. But it went fine and I am still working!
Your daughter is how old now? Can you describe the effect that parenthood has had on your music?
Sarah is 8 now. For my previous album I had a four-movement trilogy based on some of my more interesting or recurring dreams and nightmares. (I had finished the three movements and then had a really crazy dream that I just had to write a piece for, hence the four-movement trilogy.) This time I had a few commissions and was wondering what I would write about. Every new dad composer seems to write a really sweet and mushy tune for their new baby. I had resisted, but then a commission came in for a ballad and I thought it was meant to be.
So I wrote the most mushy, ‘nice’ tune I could, then as the piece goes on it gets more Tim-ified, and I ended up with the piece called Sarahbande. I still needed a way to tie it all together, and then I realized that to make a baby you need two people, and so I thought instead of one solo followed by another, something I am not that keen on, I could just have two of them at the same time, a kind of duet. So the first three movements have two soloists at a time and the fourth, The Expensive Train Set (and Epic Sarahnade) is for two whole big bands!
View a scrolling playback video of the Sarabande reduced score:
What are some of the projects that you’ve done as your “day job” that have been competing for your time working on the new CD?
Quite a few! It took me over 3.5 years to finish the album. I have been conducting and or orchestrating a lot of movies, games, and TV shows; things like Frozen, Ant-Man, Minions, Empire, Book of Life, Trolls, CHiPs and La La Land. I am also scoring a TV show called Trollhunters that will come out on Netflix in December.
What’s coming next for the two bands?
I hope to do some gigs soon. A trip back to Australia too.
What’s coming next for you?
I am currently spending most of my time writing the music for Trollhunters. Not sure if I will end up with more composing gigs after it comes out. This is my first project on my own. I had never sought out composing gigs, but this one was offered to me so why not!
I am also working on preparing the scores from the album for release. I have been making reductions and scrolling videos. Eventually I hope to have them for the whole album for people to study. You can see a few here.
I like to thank Tim for taking the time to share his thoughts with us, for excellent scrolling score videos, and for the great music. I’m looking forward to the release of Trollhunters in December and hope to check in with Tim at that time to get a glimpse of a day in the life of a TV composer.