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Ron Simmonds

Chords in Fourths


Example 1 represents a thirteen bar passage that could be used as an intro to a fast number, around 240 beats to a bar. It was lifted from the intro to Maynard Ferguson's Caravan recording. You may have heard that and thought Wow! How can I do that? Here's how.
You have no idea, right? As far as you can make out the notes could be voiced with any chords. In fact, listening to the recording, you hear a pedal tone running through the first eight bars. This is the clue. With pedal tones you can put almost anything on top, as long as it's far enough away. There has to be room for the overtones of the pedal to sing out.
Best above the pedal are plain triads. Example 2 shows how the passage could be scored for a three-piece front line of trumpet, tenor and trombone. Each of the instruments is in a grateful register, i.e. no one is blowing in his extreme up-per or lower reaches. This allows close harmony for the three winds. If the second tone were to be dropped an octave it would not only destroy the harmonic struc-ture, but also create unwanted octave unisons with the bass tones.
The first bar, played at speed, is percussive, so much so that the harmony is difficult to make out. It is only in bar 2 that the full beauty of this type of scoring begins to be heard.
The final bar is written as a dotted quarter-note to ensure that the players give it full value. If it had been written as a quarter-note only it would probably be played too short.
Example 3 is one way of writing the same passage for a full-sized big band. The harmony is still in fourths. The basic configuration of the first chord is C, G, D, A, E, going from top to bottom, but the intervals have been spread out to make a better brass picture. Note in bar 1 that the E on third trumpet forms a power cluster with fourth trumpet and first trombone. You should experiment with these chords: try the E at the bottom and move the inner tones around. While still using the basic tones each voicing will sound completely different. This is one of the great advantages of using chords in fourths.
The passage up to bar 6 is straightforward. Then comes the surprise. This is one of the situations where you find you are already making a great deal of noise, but arrive at a dramatic conclusion to a very dramatic intro, and wish to make even more. How to do it?
The penultimate chord is a plain D7(#9). I say plain because it would be quite in order to load the chord with filler tones, raised and lowered fifths, elev-enths, and so on. I want to keep the basic sound of the raised ninth, so I've achieved that by only including the unaltered ninth, played by second alto and first trombone. Note the thirteenth on third trumpet. Observe also that the raised ninth is played on three instruments, the unaltered ninth on two, and the third doubled on two sonorous instruments: tenor and trombone in the lower register. The raised ninth must be stronger than any other double.
The lead alto doubles the lead trumpet throughout. This is a useful thing to do, as long as the line remains within the alto saxophone range. It's good to re-member that on stage performances brass and saxes are often separated. Not all members of the audience can be seated centrally. Those furthest from the brass will now still be able to hear the top line.
To boost the trumpets the saxes could also be voiced an octave higher. In that case the dissonance between altos one and two in the penultimate chord would have to be altered. Way up at the top of their range this would sound pretty fear-some. Alto players being what they are they would probably enjoy that.
Baritone and bass trombone are doubled throughout. Normally either one of them should handle bass tones alone, but here we have drama, and both of them in unison, if they are in tune, can share the glory.
The final bar of the example is a straight unison, doubled over three oc-taves. Make it four or five if you wish. This is a useful trick. Remember this: in a consonant passage a dissonance stands out; in a dissonant passage a consonant stands out. In a conglomerated, ding-busting, rooty-tooty, Dantean, hounds-from-hell passage a unison stands out clear and brilliant, as cold as an icicle from the cave of the Ice Queen.