Orchestration for Saxophones
by Paul R. Coats
In Part 2 three part horn section writing was discussed. The technique of "drop two", or dropping the middle voice one octave, to spread out the voices, was used. With four horns, this can be taken one step further by using the technique of "drop two, drop four".
There are several reasons for spreading out the voices. First, the saxophone is very rich in harmonics. In fact, the fundamental and first two overtones are all very nearly the same strength. When several of the larger saxophones are harmonized closely in their low register a muddy sound can result. The strong, rich harmonics clash and jumble together. So, I advise that when you harmonize a tenor and baritone sax in their low registers, to keep them at least a perfect fourth, or more, apart. However, close clustering of notes higher up can give a very homogenized effect.
So, let's look at a few examples. First, here is a four part horn section having two trumpets and two saxes, alto and tenor. The horns are in a tight harmonic punch, then split to octave-unison (along with the electric bass), with saxes on the lower line.
Note that in Example 1, the "drop two" was already employed, dropping the seventh of the Bb7th chord, the Ab, down to the lowest voice. This tight chord structure will sound not just bright, but shrill. The top two trumpet voices are very high, and the lower two voices are in the upper part of the saxophones' upper register. Let's open this chord some more via "drop two-drop four":
Now, let's transpose this for the horns and look at the final parts.
"Drop two", or "drop two-drop four" need not be followed slavishly. It is only a simplifying technique to aid the arranger. Other inversions and voicings of chords may also be used as desired by the arranger.
Each horn is now in a strong register, the sound will be a solid horn section punch. Notice that I left the first trumpet out of the unison-octave bass line. His chops need all the rest they can get, and he would add nothing by playing at this point.
The real secret to a powerful R&B or Swing band horn section is the baritone sax. Listen to Doc Kupka's bari sax supporting the Tower Of Power horn section. When putting your horn section together, place a high priority on having a bari sax among them. The baritone sax has a powerful low register, with rich overtones that will fill up the bottom and middle of chords. The bari also has a smooth high register, and can fill many of the roles of the tenor sax.
Let us now look at writing the same licks as in Example 3 for a horn section comprised of trumpet, alto, tenor, and bari saxes. It is advantageous to use the bari sax on the root of the chord. But since the trumpet is playing the root of this Bb7 chord, and the bari is anchoring the bottom with the same note, something will have to be left out. In this case, we need the third of the chord to identify it to the ear as major. We need the funky 7th to color the chord. The rich overtones of the bari sax will supply the fifth (the third harmonic of the bari's concert Bb is F)… so we will leave out the fifth and re-voice the chord as in Example 4.
And here are the final parts:
Notice that the alto sax is now one octave higher on the unison-octave bass line, replacing the second trumpet from Example 2. In this same bass line, the bari sax is one octave below the tenor sax, providing a full three octave spread. The trumpet still gives the high brassy brilliance to the horn section punch, the alto and tenor fill the middle of the chord with their color notes, and the bari sax provides a deep, resonant bottom to the chord.
Along with some funky B-3 organ, guitar, electric bass, and drums, James Brown would feel good with this horn section backing him up.
Orchestration for Saxophones
- Part 2
- Part 4