Arranging for the Young Jazz Combo

Andrew Stonerock

You don’t have to be a seasoned big band arranger to write for jazz combo. Just as the combo format can be less intimidating to student performers — providing great opportunities for interaction and improvisation — it’s also more welcoming to less experienced arrangers. Even if you’ve never arranged for jazz combo before, the following tips can help you be successful and provide more opportunities for your students.

First, find music that students will enjoy playing. Feel free to think beyond typical “jazz standards,” and also consider popular tunes that are more familiar to your students. Secondly, and perhaps most important, secure an accurate lead sheet with the correct melody and chord changes. There are several “fake books” online and in print that contain errors in the melody, chord changes, or both. Find a good recording to use as an authority while determining what is correct. Finally, peruse the lead sheet to make sure it will be appropriate for your ensemble. Some considerations include tempo, complicated melody, complicated chord changes, etc. When deciding how complicated a set of chord changes are, a good general guideline is to analyze the tonal centers. Typically, the more tonal centers that are used, the more difficult the task of improvisation.

Bass Lines

Bass lines in swing usually consist of either walking (4 quarter notes in each measure) or a 2-beat pattern (2 half notes in each measure). In both cases the root of the chord should occur on the first note of each new chord change.Root Bass Chords b

Next, the bass line needs to fill out the rest of the measure. The easiest way to achieve this is in the walking style is to arpeggiate the chord change. In a 2-beat style simply alternate between the root and the 5th of the chord. Notice how both the walking style and the 2-beat style have the 5th of the Cmaj7 on beat 3.

Bass Arpeggios

To add even more interest to the bass line, often times the note immediately preceding a different chord change is either a half-step above or below the root of the next chord change. In the walking bass style, the quarter note immediately preceding a different chord change is used for the half-step motion. In the 2-beat style, an eighth note is added before a different chord change.

Half-Step Bass Lines

Notice the chord change symbols are included in all of the above examples. This is important because students will start to learn to develop their own bass lines by using the guidelines created. While this might be a little scary at first, encourage students to start to see patterns in the bass lines and apply them to other chord changes.

Chord Voicings

The harmonic instruments in a typical jazz combo, piano and guitar, often have opposite strengths and weaknesses. Generally younger pianists can read notes but lack the knowledge to spell chord changes. Conversely, younger guitarists can often read chord changes while not being able to read individual notes. Even though younger guitarists will be able to play several chords, it is unlikely they will know how to play chord extensions or have knowledge of typical jazz guitar voicings. There are several books and websites that deal with this issue. For the purposes of this article, I will focus exclusively on jazz piano voicings.

When a pianist is playing with a bass player in a jazz combo setting, usually “rootless voicings” are used. These piano voicings are exactly as the name implies; chord voicings that reflect the sound of the chord, but do not contain the root of the chord. The reason these voicings are used is because the bass player plays the root of each chord change.

There are a couple of guidelines when writing rootless voicings. First, be sure to always include both the 3rd of the chord and the 7th of the chord. Second, try to include any upper extensions of the chord, particularly if they have any alterations (b9, #11, etc). Finally, when moving between chords, try to move each individual voice as little as possible. Below are some examples of rootless voicings from simple to more complicated. 

Simple Piano Voicings


Intermediate Piano Voicings


Advanced Piano Voicings

At first, these voicings might sound a little thin or odd without the bass. Eventually, students will learn to hear these sounds as normal, especially with the bass added. As with the bass lines, notice the chord changes appearing in the piano voicings. Again, encourage your students to analyze these voicings and use them for different chord changes or other charts.

The rhythm used when comping can be as varied and individualized as musicians themselves. Below are a couple of common rhythms to use when comping.

Rhythmic Comping 1


Rhythmic Comping 2

In general, it’s best to rest more than play, particularly when another musician is improvising. It is also good to vary the rhythm so as not to become monotonous.  

Rhythmic Comping Mixed

Drum Set

Drum set parts for jazz combo are very similar to those in a traditional jazz ensemble. A few distinct differences will help things go more smoothly. First, the drummer is typically going to be reading slash notation. It’s good to include the time feel, tempo, and sometimes the actual rhythmic feel you want the drummer to play. However, because the drummer should be interacting with the other musicians, they should be listening more than reading.

Sweet Wheel

Second, include important rhythms the drummer should accent, just as in a big band.

Pavlov's Waterfall - Sextet

Finally, include the chord changes in the drum part. Although the drummer will not be playing the harmony or improvising using the harmony, it will help them follow the form and represents an opportunity for good ear training.

Ojos de Rojo

Horn Voicings

When voicing for multiple horns, there are several factors to consider: how many players, what is the instrumentation, what are the ranges of the instruments/players, etc. What follows are very general guidelines and a few tips that I have found to be helpful.

KNOW YOUR MUSICIANS! When arranging for a specific group, think about the individual musicians and their strengths and weaknesses. Write brass parts that match the range of the musicians, as well as woodwind parts that match the level of technique of the musicians.  

Know the idiomatic strengths and weaknesses of the instruments themselves. For woodwind players, playing high and then low in quick succession in not terribly difficult; however, it is quite difficult for brass players. It is also good to understand tricks of the different instruments as well (tricky valve combinations for brass, tricky slide position changes for trombone, tricky fingering combinations for woodwinds, etc.)

What sounds good on a computer may not sound good in real life and vice versa. MIDI can play anything put on a page regardless of how complicated, fast, or downright absurd, and it can do it all without breathing or needing to take a break. Unfortunately, students are human with all of the limitations MIDI is lacking. So, make sure that the individual parts make sense and are playable. Learning to listen to MIDI and tell if something is going to sound good in real life is an art unto itself. Most people learn through trial and error over time and develop the ability to discern what will sound good or not sound good by hearing live musicians play their arrangements.

Here are a few tips when voicing chords for horns:

  1. Try to keep the horns in the same tessitura respectively (don’t have the trombone playing really high while the trumpet is in the middle of her range).
  2. Keep the melody in the upper voice, especially if that voice is a louder instrument.
  3. Avoid using roots in the horn voicings unless it is a melody note.
  4. Try to include the 3rd and 7th of chords in the voicing when possible.
  5. In a three horn voicing, the “drop-2” technique can be effective. This means using the top three notes in the piano voicing, “dropping” the middle note down an octave and dividing it into the respective parts.

Drop-2 Voicings

There are several books that discuss jazz arranging and different voicings for horns. Following some guidelines and experimenting will help develop the right sound for jazz combo.

Jazz combo can be a rewarding experience for both the students and the director. While the term “jazz arranging” can sound intimidating, it truly is not. The key is experimenting to discover what works for you and your students. In the end, as long as the students have fun, the experience will be well worth the journey.

Andrew Stonerock BioDr. Andrew Stonerock is the director of jazz studies at Cameron University. He oversees all aspects of the jazz program and directs the jazz ensemble and jazz combos. He is frequently in demand as a saxophonist, woodwind doubler, adjudicator, and clinician. 

In his spare time he enjoys spending time with his family and his dog Basie.

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