Blog: Arrangers (Mike Sturgis: Head of Education)

Mr. Goyle by Stefan Redtenbacher: Click the image to hear the song!

It could be argued that the unsung hero of any successful musical performance is the person (or persons) who have arranged the music. No matter how good a song or the performance is, its arrangement is critical to the listener fully connecting with it. With some bands, an arrangement is often a collaborative process, requiring countless hours in a rehearsal room jamming, experimenting, compromising, cajoling or even shouting! Patience and a thick skin are often required to come up with anything worthwhile, and in many cases it’s the one who has written the song (or who has the biggest mouth) that has the most influence.

But what happens when it simply isn’t possible, practical or viable to gather everyone in the room who will be performing the arrangement to comment on its content? Or the composer of the song can’t be consulted for whatever reason? At these times, you need a person who can sit quietly on their own and conceptualise an arrangement that optimises what an ensemble can offer – orchestration, harmony, dynamics, structure and many other factors are to be considered. It’s a huge responsibility that requires the vision of an artist, the strategic nous of general and (at times) the persuasiveness of good salesman. Good arrangers see the bigger picture and understand how to bring a song to life, giving it their own unique interpretation as they do so.

I’ve had the pleasure to play so many great arrangements over the years and sometimes (to my shame) I can take them for granted. A great arrangement will galvanise an otherwise disparate group of musicians into a unified force that produces something almost transcendent – it’s like a miracle when you think about it! For that reason, I wanted to take the time to focus on the work of two amazing arrangers who make these “mini-miracles” happen on a regular basis. They do this not by relying on their existing talent or resting on their previous accomplishments. Instead, they continue to push the envelope with a tenacious commitment to improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains.

Dan Bonsanti leading The 14 Jazz Orchestra

Dan Bonsanti is currently leading his own band The 14 Jazz Orchestra. His career has spanned five decades, beginning with The Atlantean Driftwood Band (which featured bass legend Jaco Pastorius). Dan went on to do further work with Jaco (and his collaborator Larry Warrilow) and was influenced by their method of using unusual combinations of instruments and avoiding (when possible) the traditional "section writing" often heard in large ensembles. That approach has been continually refined and crafted by Dan over the years and is now exemplified in his work with The 14. To that end, he says this:

One of the great advantages of recording one's work is the opportunity to self-evaluate. I felt my arranging in the debut album was much too cluttered, overwritten. So one of goals for our second album, The Future Ain't What It Used To Be, was to create more space while increasing the variety of colours and timbres. I'm continuing on that path with my current work, emphasizing more combinations of woodwinds and brass mutes, and continuing to use the guitar as an ensemble instrument. My experience with recording the debut album made the tune selection, recording, and mixing processes much easier and more efficient in planning things out in advance. The available data with regards to radio spins and streaming gave me an in-depth view of the band's audience including which types of tunes attracted the greatest number of listeners. Since audiences were no longer purchasing CD's, but preferring to stream individual songs, I abandoned the album concept of the past and chose to produce tracks individually, not thematically, for a wide assortment of both consistent and occasional jazz listeners. At the same time, I reserved a couple of tracks to arrange specifically for the purpose of self-growth.”

Stefan Redtenbacher

The second arranger I would like to mention with similar super-powers is Stefan Redtenbacher. In addition to being a world-class bass player, his work as a composer, arranger and bandleader is well-known. He has released a number of albums under his own name over the past 25 years that incorporate a wide variety of instrumentalists and vocalists, creating a sound that is often diverse but still uniquely his own. Of his own journey composing and arranging he says this:

 "Even though the bass is my main instrument, I wouldn’t consider my music to be ‘bass-centric’! Over time, my focus has been on different instruments and combinations. As I continue to grow as a writer/arranger I think I’m starting to get a better handle on the overall picture and can be more deliberate with the multitude of choices.

 The musicians I’ve worked with have a large part to play as far as influence is concerned. Viewing the bass as a contextual instrument greatly affects what I’m going to do on bass and also what I am writing. When I’m writing for a specific ensemble I’m trying to write for the specific players - imagining what they would do with my ideas. The audience at a live venue also influences my writing; when there are musical moments to which the audience seems to have a particularly strong reaction, I may try to capture this in my writing. I often write new pieces after exciting concerts as I like to capture that energy.

 What all of the latest Funkestra records (“Big Funk Band”, “The Hang”, “The String Sessions” and “The Masterlink Sessions”) have in common is that there is strong “branching out”’ occurring which includes even more varied collaborative work with musicians and artists from different genres, although all related."

Mike Sturgis (Drums) and Mike Outram (Guitar) performing with Redtenbacher's Funkestra

To summarise, what these two great musicians seem to have in common (and we can all learn from) is their unwavering commitment to the process of creating their work, acquiring the sort of atomic habits that enable them to make small but significant gains over a prolonged period of time. Their identity and habits have a reciprocal relationship that create a cycle of refinement and continuous improvement that produces work of the highest quality.

Looking forward to hearing more amazing music from both of these legends!

Mike Sturgis

August 26th, 2019