As many of the regular readers of this site already know, I love jazz arranging!
As jazz pianists, it’s important that you learn how to take a basic lead sheet of a song (just chords and melody) and bring it to life. It’s literally a requirement for the style.
That’s why I’m constantly going through jazz standards and reinventing them. It’s such a necessary skill to have that I make it a regular part of my practice routine.
The more life you can get out of basic fake book the more expressive you can be! That’s why a good jazz piano lesson is also often times a lesson in jazz arranging.
Jazz Arranging Lesson
Many of you have discovered my site through my Youtube jazz piano sample videos and my courses (thank you Youtube!).
Even though I’m a content producer, I spend also spend a lot of time myself trying to explore what other musicians are doing online.
I’m forever a student of music! Never stop learning!
One of my favorite musicians on Youtube is a young man by the name of Jacob Collier. His jazz arrangements are some of the most innovative, creative, and sophisticated arrangements online. What a talent!
He’s received praise from people like Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Quincy Jones have attested to.
The scary part is that he’s only 19 years old. Don’t let his age fool you though. Jacob is a MONSTER jazz musician.
Check out Jacob’s beautiful jazz arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry About A Thing”. (The whole thing is awesome but 1:38 is just so cool)
Recently, I had the pleasure to sit down and talk to Jacob Collier about how he arranges, what he practices, his advice for musicians, and much more.
He was kind enough to share his knowledge with us. So, lets get started learning from Jacob!
SN: You have some of the most original and creative arrangements of jazz tunes online today. How do you come up with your arrangements? What’s your process?
JC: Thank you very much! First off, I choose which song I’m going to arrange – I try to look for a song that is simple in essence, and which also I love, or have grown up with.
Having chosen a song, I begin by giving it a bit of thought away from the piano/computer – outdoors if I can. I try and imagine what the whole sound might eventually sound like, as opposed to trying to work out very specific events.
Although occasionally, if I’m lucky, an idea might pop into my head for one specific chord or rhythmic idea or bass line or something like that.
Once I’ve experimented a little and the bare bones are in mind, I just jump right in! For the vocal arrangements, I arrange on paper first, and then I record the arrangement, part by part.
For non- or partial-vocal arrangements, there’s more scope for different instrumental sounds, which I find incredibly exciting to explore.
For instrumental stuff, I normally don’t write anything down on paper, and will leap straight into trying out recording some things. I tend to start with one section, or one instrument, then I follow my ears and my imagination as it flows.
SN: It seems like every time you post a new video you’re playing a new instrument that we haven’t seen you play before. How many instruments do you actually play? How have you been able to learn so many different instruments?
JC: I’m not quite sure! I was born into a world of continuous music-making, and surrounded by a house full of music and a family of musicians from my earliest years, and there were always instruments around the house to explore.
Here’s an original composition where Jacob plays every single instrument on the video.
I have always been incredibly fascinated by both rhythm and harmony, and have been drawn to instruments with those in the foreground.
Naturally the piano has always been a good place to go for harmonic exploration, but I’ve always loved to explore what the voice can do for harmony – all the colours you can get.
With rhythm, I’ve always had a thing about making rhythms on everything – table tops, pots and pans, my lap, drums if I can find them, other people…everything.
I’ve always enjoyed crossing rhythms over each other – like playing 4 and 7 simultaneously in different hands, or 5 and 8; or 3, 4 and 5.
Rhythm is a different sort of tension and release from harmony, but the two do have a lot in common!
As far as harmony is concerned, I’ve created a few different systems for understating it and making it ‘Jacob’ – and I love to bring these ideas to life with a whole lot of different sounds… the piano, my voice, guitars, orchestras if I can find them. It’s always been for fun!
Although I’ve haven’t had many formal lessons on anything other than voice, I’ve had the opportunity to make music with some truly wonderful musicians – and have always followed what I love and what inspires me… Otherwise it wouldn’t be me.
SN: What’s the response been like since you started posting your videos online? Has your life changed at all or have you had any new opportunities you didn’t have before?
JC: It’s been completely overwhelming! It’s such a crazy thing to wake up the morning after you put a video up and discover it’s gained thousands upon thousands of views overnight.
I doubt it’s truly hit me yet. I feel so blessed, and blown away, to have received kind words from many of my all-time musical heroes, such as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Quincy Jones.
Ultimately, I’m not sure where all of it will lead me, but it sure is a crazy time of my life. The most important thing I feel is never to stop making music for the love of it, and to go wherever it is that that leads me.
SN: It’s cool to see a young musician your age interested in jazz. How did you get into jazz? Do you listen to more contemporary music too? Who are some of your favorite musicians?
JC: As a teenager (though I am still a teenager) it was always harmony that truly fascinated me – and rhythm.
I was incredibly blessed as a boy to have the incredible opportunity of singing the role of ‘Miles’ in Benjamin Britten’s opera ‘The Turn Of The Screw’, in three separate productions around Europe.
The harmony that Britten explores is utterly out-of-this-world, and I was profoundly inspired.
In my mid teens, as I began to explore improvisation in more depth, I also began to explore Jazz.
Jazz seemed to be a wonderful bringing together of so many things that I loved: harmony, rhythm, improvisation, energy, and overall a sense of fun.
From there I discovered some of the music which has utterly changed my life – such as the music of Acapella Vocal Jazz/Gospel group Take 6, who I was lucky enough to meet last year.
I’ve always loved the sound of voices, and to discover the sound of 6 glorious voices singing such outrageous harmony was heaven for me, and game changing, when I realised I could try the same thing myself.
Today I listen to absolutely everything I can get me hands on – be it jazz, folk, classical, electronic, gospel, renaissance, hip-hip, dubstep, soul, songs. Anything that feels good.
I find I’m not particularly drawn to putting things into categories – that it can be rather limiting. I listen to a bit of everything!
SN: What do you feel are the most important things for an aspiring jazz musician to spend their time practicing?
JC: Work out what you love, and practice that. Whatever it is that you’re drawn towards, whatever the genre, work out why it makes you feel good, and pursue the understanding of it.
Never be afraid to stay with one idea for a long period of time, to really absorb it and explore all of its corners.
Musically speaking, on the piano, I’ve always found it incredibly useful to transfer things into all 12 keys, such as a chord voicing, or a sequence, or a piece of melody, or a song.
Each key has a different sonority and character, and it’s important to get to know them all.
My continuous harmonic and rhythmic quests, and my constant striving for further developing my rhythmic and harmonic independence and understanding, has always been central to my musical world.
As a developing musician, one of the most valuable resources for me has been to record myself, using Logic, or even just a mobile phone – singing, playing, layering harmonies or grooves on top of one another, to continually experiment and try things out.
Listening to yourself play and create is something you can learn so much from.
Related Lesson: How To Learn From Recording Yourself
Another thing I’ve found is that sometimes listening to music with open ears and an active mind can be more useful than struggling at your instrument.
It gives your mind a chance to rest, and to absorb music at an experiential level, which helps to build a framework of understanding of how certain things make you feel, which you can refer to alongside your theoretical framework. The two go hand in hand.
SN: What’s the London jazz scene like?
JC: I feel very blessed to be living at the centre of such a thriving hub of musical activity, both in the Jazz world and in other worlds too.
There are always places you can go to meet people and hear fresh sounds! It’s wonderful.
SN: You clearly have worked incredibly hard on the details of your craft. In your opinion, what separates a good musician from a great musician?
JC: I’ve always felt that music is about feeling. I’d put that before technical accomplishment or theoretical understanding. The amount that you can communicate with harmonic (and rhythmic) tension and release has been so thrilling for me.
I’ve spent far more days exploring harmonic and rhythmic sounds and feeling the effect of them moving between each other, than working on perfecting a technique.
The more you explore, the more you’ll hear – and therefore the more you will improve as a technician, as your hands find new areas to explore on the instrument.
That said, it can be incredibly rewarding to lay down a foundation of technique, because it works the other way around as well.
The more you are capable of playing, the more you will become capable of hearing.
Related Lesson: 3 Uncommon Tips For Practicing Jazz Piano Technique
For me, the greatest musicians are those who reach you at an emotional level – those who have so deep an understanding of sound on their instrument that they can use it to pull at your imagination and lift your emotions.
There are a lot of young musicians today, who are incredibly accomplished technicians, but who maybe lack a strong emotional connection with the music.
For me, the latter has always been the more important thing, and I think it’s the most universal.
Your emotional framework for music is a very personal thing, and, whether you’re a listener, composer or improviser, it is something that you can continue to explore throughout your life.
You simply become more and more enriched, the more you hear and the more you learn.
SN: What are you currently spending your time practicing? How many hours a day do you practice?
JC: I’ve never been strict about my practice routine. Sometimes I go a couple of weeks without playing very much, and then suddenly feel inspired to play every hour of the day, for a couple of days.
My life is quite full at the moment, what with studying Jazz Piano at the Royal Academy of Music, and also working towards an album with Universal. There is so much to be excited for, and thankful for!
I tend to practice whenever I can, because for me it’s always something I want to do, never something that I feel obliged to do… it’s a treat!
Recently I’ve been trying to play through at least one Bach chorale every day – they’re so glorious, and the voice-leading is so completely amazing. Also it’s good sightreading practice – I’m not so good at reading music.
Related Lesson: 5 Classical Pieces That Helped Me Become A Better Jazz Musician
SN: If you could give two pieces of advice for the audience here on what they should do to help grow their skill level, what would they be?
JC: 1) Find what you love and do it in every area of life, not just with music. If you find something that inspires you, try to work out why it does, and whether there’s something you can take from it that you can apply to your own life, or art.
If you find something that inspires you, stay with it and see it through right to the end.
2) Be fearless. It’s the best thing you can do. Give yourself the gift of being yourself . Feel how that feels, and create with that…whatever it is, it’s you.
SN: Jacob, thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. It’s truly been an honor! The www.freejazzlessons.com community thanks you as well!
*** To hear more of Jacob’s excellent fantastic music check out his website www.jacobcollier.co.uk *****