By Laila Biali
I love creating original music, but there's much joy and growth to be gained in arranging other songwriters' tunes as well. That’s especially the case when the repertoire is considered "classic" and has been covered countless times by different artists. Unlike an original song where you build from scratch (though you may use elements that are "pre-fabricated" as part of your process), with an arrangement the essential raw materials are already in place. Those elements are the pieces that would have copyright protection and could be published officially by registered creators – in songwriting, the lyrics and melody. Consider them the foundation and exterior walls. Even with that structure firmly in place, there is plenty of room for play from instrumentation and register to the overall style, tempo, underlying rhythms and of course the harmony.
With so many options at one’s fingertips, where to begin? There are no “right” or “wrong” approaches, just myriad ways to add your own artistic stamp, ideally without compromising the integrity of the original version. And even then there are varying opinions as to what is “sacred” and should be left untouched vs. what can be shifted. Determine what you believe should be kept and then have a ball experimenting with the textures, colors and shapes you find most compelling.
For me, the lyrics are what have the greatest influence on the initial direction of an arrangement. Take, for example, the jazz standard by Joseph Kosma, “Autumn Leaves.” The English lyrics by Johnny Mercer reads as follows: “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold.” Just that first phrase – “the falling leaves” – is evocative enough to stir my arranger’s imagination. How could I create a musical atmosphere that would paint a picture of leaves falling and swirling in the listener’s mind, to elucidate lyrics that convey autumn so beautifully? Here’s where the instructional phrase “write what you know” also extends to arranging techniques. I have a robust background in classical piano and have always loved the impressionistic composers. My vision for Autumn Leaves was the perfect opportunity to “paint in watercolour” at the piano; Debussy meets Jazz. Rather than box myself into using traditional “jazz vocabulary” on a traditional jazz song, I invited the sound of impressionist classical music to add something personal and unique, yet still consistent with the message of the song. Similarly, you can and should draw from your own strongest influences and unique vocabulary when arranging. Play to your strengths and let your strengths guide the arranging process.
If you find yourself feeling stuck on what to change, consider that arranging a song doesn’t always have to be about adding new and different ideas. Sometimes it’s just as effective to strip things down. One of the most successful moments in our live show is when George Koller and I deliver Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington’s ballad The Nearness of You as a duo – just bass and voice. The starkness of the melody against a single bass line allows the ear to fill in what it’s not hearing. There are wonderful implications in all that space, and also plenty of room to bend and stretch both the melody and harmony in ways that wouldn’t be possible with other instruments in the mix.
Whether you play an instrument, sing, or do both, try out a song’s melody in several keys and registers. You’d be surprised how different one key or register can feel from another, even just a semitone away. This alone might prompt a fresh approach. Have fun trying out varying styles and tempos, even those that may feel like a mismatch at first blush. Take a ballad and add some pep; or conversely, transform a burner into something slow and languid. Nothing is precious in the lab of creation and experimentation. Your best ideas will ultimately crystallize and rise above the others, so take your time. But if you’re like me and you need a fixed deadline to propel you forward, try arranging within a limited period of time. For some, the right amount of pressure can act as a catalyst. Regardless, trust the process and have fun with it!
Multi award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter, pianist and CBC Music national radio host, Laila Biali, has headlined festivals and venues spanning five continents from New York City's Carnegie Hall to Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts, and supported international icon Sting. While Laila continues to earn high honours in the jazz world, her signature sound transcends genre as she "masterfully mixes jazz and pop, bringing virtuosity and unpredictability to songs that are concise and catchy" (Washington Post). Her latest release, Your Requests (2023), showcases personal arrangements of jazz classics requested by her fans.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.