On Making Charts

I was in the studio the other day adding some keyboards tracks to a pre-recorded trio of drums, bass, and guitar. The engineer has a really nice setup. Cords are a bit tangled here and there, as you can see in the photo, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. One feature of the studio I like is that instead of using music stands for the sheet music, he uses video monitors connected to a network. Really cool! 

The musicians on the recording have been playing together for quite some time. They take familiar Christian tunes and turn them into jazzy instrumentals. A horn or guitar will play the melody. The engineer is also the arranger. The trio has ‘on the fly’ creative license to arrange as desired. That’s what creative freedom is all about, right? However, it would be very helpful to a musician, in this case...me, who will be adding parts to an existing tune to create at least a basic roadmap of the arrangement. 

One tune in particular, which I wasn’t familiar with, took an additional 45 minutes for the engineer and I to get a handle on where it was going. I won’t get into all the details of the interchange. Let’s just say, some folks will try to justify and rationalize their lack of preparation. That can be a long conversation in and of itself. But it eventually got resolved.

Here’s the deal. I was working from one of those charts with chords above the lyrics. I call them “church charts” because it's the only place I see charts like these. You know the ones, the musician is following the lyrics to know when to change chords, basically working twice as hard to follow it. Except in this situation, there was no vocalist and no written melody line! After all, these were Christian tunes, so I guess it follows that the same format for making charts be employed in this situation in spite of them being instrumentals. I don't get it, but I guess I don't have to. Anyway, when we got to the trio’s Extended Vamp, the tune went off on another tangent that wasn't noted on the chart on the monitor screen! This vamp contained single note licks and such. The engineer was simultaneously giving ideas and direction for the keyboard parts he was hearing while I'm trying to figure out what the notes and chords were. I don't care who you are, you can't just throw stuff in randomly and have it make musical sense. It helps to know where it's going so that improvisation sounds arranged. It has to fit musically within the structure of the tune. Below is the an image of the chart with lyrics blurred. 

It was actually a real simple tune. Most church tunes are because they have to be easy for a congregation to follow. But in the studio, time efficiency is very important, especially as it relates to money. In this case, the engineer owns the studio free and clear. He was on a budget regarding what he was going to pay me, but it took more of my time because of the lack of preparation on his part! I could’ve been in and out of there a lot sooner had the chord progression and arrangement been mapped out. Or at least with diagonal lines above the chords to indicate when to change chords.

“Church charts” are a pet peeve of mine. Manuscript paper has a specific purpose. Music/chords are written in ‘measures’ for a reason: they measure rhythmic values, duration, etc. Manuscript paper would have been more appropriate since lyrics weren't involved. It doesn’t take much time to scratch out a chord roadmap. In addition, song form can be more easily visualized with the use of manuscript paper. Or even scratched out on legal pad paper, like this:

As you can see, nothing difficult whatsoever. The song form was important here, not the lyrics. The "Extended Vamp" of this tune was in another zone altogether and will not be presented here. That's what took time to analyze. Once that was done and put into song form as above, it made the recording and idea generating processes a lot easier. 

Lesson for today: prepare as many details ahead of time before going into the studio, especially charts. It makes for a much smoother workflow. 


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