Reharmonizing and Arranging a Song for a Student: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

VanderVander has been studying trumpet with me for a few years now, and due to his family’s busy schedule, had accumulated a lot makeup time.  To try and help him recover some of that lost time, I came up with the idea of having him come over to my home studio, where he could record a couple of songs.  Although Vander’s middle school does not have a jazz band, our own work together revealed that he had a natural talent for improvising melodies, so I thought it would be fun to document some of that creativity on CD. Vander and his family were enthusiastic about the idea, and so we tentatively planned to do something in the spring.

Essential ElementsIn the meantime, during one of his regular lessons I saw the need to try a simple, melodic duet, and yet the only music we had on hand that day was in his old “Essential Elements” book from grade school.  None the less, I found “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”  which seemed to fit the bill perfectly (not to mention its jazz credentials…an African American spiritual, that was also used as the basis of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac”).  Since the song was not technically demanding, we were able to concentrate on sound and phrasing, and Vander rose to the occasion.

Later, as I began making more plans for the recording session, I thought it would be nice to have more than one piece on that final CD.  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” immediately came to mind, but I thought to add a few modifications that would provide Vander with a greater learning experience.  The first idea was to reharmonize the song using chords found in the jazz vocabulary, ones with what I call a higher “hip factor.”  Here the melody’s relation to the melody is a little more complex, where instead of those notes being the root, 3rd, or 5th of the underlying chords, they functioned as the chords’ upper extensions…like the 7th, 9th, 11th or 13th.  Those upper extensions could also be altered (for example#9, b9, #11, etc.).

The idea behind this reharmonization was to expose Vander to a greater harmonic vocabulary, and to have him hear his trumpet voice playing a key role in those more sophisticated chords.  I also wanted to challenge Vander with a less familiar key signature, and so modulated the key from Concert Eb Major to Concert E Major (six sharps for a trumpet player!), beginning at the tune’s second section (Letter B, below).  Then the lesson plan expanded even more, so he could also hear and experience the emotional effect of harmonic modulation not only once, but twice, when the arrangement’s tonal center returned to Concert Eb Major in the song’s third section (Letter C).

There are some important skills that must come into play during the performance of this arrangement.  While the jazz-blues tune we will also be recording has a steady, swing feel, the tempo in “Swing Low…” will be allowed to fluctuate, in a conscious way that will help to serve the music by allowing the phrases to breathe a little more.  We will have to listen to each other more carefully, and know our parts so well that our eyes are not buried in the printed page of music.  We will listen more than we will read…a formula that always promotes better music making.

Finally, just a couple more perks.  I have the arrangement closing with the trumpet using a harmon mute, a favorite of many great jazz players.  Not only does it have a unique sound, but the player must also adjust to its added resistance, weight (mine is a copper bubble mute that weighs even more than the aluminum ones), and intonation (these mutes can play on the sharp side).  Also, I used the notation software Finale’s Jazz font…a different look that some students have not been exposed to (although I just learned that Vander has seen it before).

What follows below are some comments about the reharmonization and arrangement, along with the two pages of the score.  The piano part will be improvised, following the written chord symbols.  A printable PDF of the score is available near the end of this post.

  • There is now a four measure introduction, based on some of the melodic fragments of the melody.  I saw this inclusion as a way of discussing how an arranger works with the song’s themes to expand and strengthen the work’s form.
  • Measures #12 and #20 have quarter notes that are pickups to the next phrase.  These notes were not in the original piece, but serve here to lead into the harmonic modulations.
  • For a slight change in mood, Letter B begins with poco piu mosso (a little more motion, meaning a little faster), has modulated to a new key one half step higher, and has two measures of an ascending chord progression.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot- Score- page 1
    The ascending melody beginning in measure #23 is accompanied by rising chords with their own ascending bass line that continues past the melodic high point.  This combined with the three accented notes in measure #25 create the piece’s climax.
  • The last two beats of measure #26 are played an octave higher than the original melody, to provide a little variety, and to help sustain the climax expressed in the preceding measure.
  • Although measure #30 first cadences in the arrangement’s original key (Concert Eb Major), there is a feeling of modulation as the muted trumpet states the theme a step higher than the key would suggest, thanks to playing on the upper extensions of that chord (#11, 9, Maj 7 and 13), which suggest a Concert F Major 6th chord.
  • Measure #31 has an ascending chord progression for the first 3 1/2 beats, and is combined with last two beats of the melody transposed an octave higher (just as in measure #26), to help provide even more of a lift.
  • The chord in the final measure has actually resolved to a new tonal center a whole step higher (F Major), and yet the muted trumpet is trilling on the #11, which could suggest a key yet another step higher (Concert G Major).  All of these actions support the feeling that the chariot continues to rise…to paraphrase the lyrics; towards the heavens and home.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot- Score- page 2

The score above is shown as two JPEG files, but clicking Swing Low, Sweet Chariot- Score will give you a printable PDF of the entire two page arrangement.

swing_low__sweet_chariot_by_with_wings09Even though they will not have their own recording session, I have other students who will benefit from playing this piece, so thank you Vander, for being the impetus behind the entire project!

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