Approaches to Music Arranging

Q: How do you go about making your song arrangements? Do you have a plan from the beginning for the different instruments, or do you let the other musicians fill in the gaps based on their experience/ideas? I imagine that the distance between what you intend to create vs. what you actually create is much larger when other musicians are involved. How do you handle that?

A: My simple answer is to play with musicians that you trust with your music.

Personally, I’m somewhat of a one-trick pony, compositionally speaking. I don’t have the writing chops to write for any genre or musical situation. I can only really write for my band. However, in the studio, and working on music written by someone else, I always seem to know what the song wants. When it comes to my own music, I seem less sure until I’ve heard it played by the band. At that point, I can determine what works and what doesn’t.

Typically, I write for myself and my drummer, Reinhardt Melz. Reinhardt is many things on the drums but, what I love is his time-feel (or pocket) and his command of Afro-Cuban music and odd-time signatures. Knowing that he can go anywhere with me is a huge weight off of my shoulders, as I tend to write some very groovy stuff, but often it comes out of me in 15/8 and time signatures like that. I don’t know why, it’s not intentional, it’s just what comes naturally to me. I’m all about the pocket and I often feel the emphasis in different places than many other musicians. Because of this, I will only work with a small number of people in Portland, OR (where I live) when it comes to my music.

I fully encourage the musicians I work with to make suggestions and interpret the music as they feel it. If something doesn’t feel right to me, I’ll ask to try a few different things until I hear something that I like, but I like to let the guys do their thing in the context of my thing.

I invite the same sort of feedback from the band as it relates to my playing, the composition and the arranging too.

I know many composers who are dictatorial and know exactly what they want and where. I admire that, but I also often find the chemistry is better if it’s a democracy. Of course, in any democracy, all members are considered equal, but some are more “equal” than others!

My uncle (jazz drummer Peter Erskine) told me long ago when talking about composing music that he’s found the most success with his material when he keeps it fairly simple but hires the baddest cats around to play it. When you have stellar musicians standing next to you, it’s a wonderful thing because now you can simply relax and put your trust in the group as a whole.

That’s my rule of thumb: the better the band is, the more I can let go musically and put my trust in the group to make the music really happen.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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