By Kris Berg
Composer/Arranger/Bassist/Educator

Arranging can involve complex issues such as re-harmonization, counterpoint, horn voicings and so on, “formatting” a tune involves simply taking the time to imagine what a tune will sound like when it is actually performed. Think of it as washing and detailing your car—certainly not a new paint job and a custom interior, but nonetheless, it makes it look better in the driveway. Many student jazz combo performances can be greatly enhanced with a little bit of formatting.

I suggest approaching the concept of formatting by imagining that you are in the audience watching your student combo perform. Think about the details of the presentation while the tune(s) are being played. What do you think the audience wants to see and hear from the performance?

  • Here are a few questions to ponder:
  • What style is the tune?
  • Is the style accurately performed?
  • How fast or slow is the tempo?
  • Can the group handle the tempo?
  • How many soloists?
  • Too many, too few soloists?
  • In what solo order?
  • Are the rhythm section players working as a unit?
  • Is there an introduction to the tune?
  • Is there an ending?
  • Is there development?

These are all simple questions to answer and will involve very little time.

Here are some things to consider:

Style/tempo: These are big priorities as it affects most of the remaining decisions you will make. Both style and tempo are great ways to change things up. Try playing a tune much faster or slowing it down. Alternate styles or grooves as in a tune similar to what typically occurs in “On Green Dolphin Street” or change the style completely. Try changing the meter. Play with it—step out of the box!

Introduction: Typically vamping the first four bars, the first two chords or depending on the tune, a I-VI-II-V cycle may be a good intro. But why not change things up? Maybe eight bars of drums as an intro or a solo before the melody. Sometimes, no intro is a good intro too!

Orchestration: An easy way to bring color to your performance is to experiment with sounds. Try a solo horn on the melody, and then try different combinations of melody instruments. Try various brass mutes. Add guitar or piano to the horns or have them solo by themselves. You might even try bass on the melody!

Melody style: This is very important to the style of your performance. Often real book or fake book lead sheets are notated in a simple style and usually don’t really swing as written. I strongly suggest a simple change of a few notes to upbeats at the beginning or ending of phrases can do wonders for the feel. FYI, listening to jazz recordings is THE BEST way to get ideas.

Order of soloists: Too often groups fall into the common sequence of first horn solo, second/third horn solo, piano solo, then trade fours with the drummer—that is so predictable. Switch things around like by asking the bass player to solo first and then have that lead into a horn solo with just the bass playing a solo walking bass line as the accompaniment. Just having the piano or guitar solo between the two horn solos will change the sound of the group enough to make the presentation more interesting.

Rhythm section: Changing the sound of these instruments can produce big benefits to the performance. Behind melodies try having the rhythm section start with a two-feel and then full swing in four for the solos. Try some stop-time figures a la “Autumn Leaves.” How about omitting piano and/or drums behind the melody or try having everyone play the melody with drums keeping time? The interaction in the rhythm section behind solos is also critical.  Avoid having guitar and piano comp at the same time—it usually sounds cluttered. Have the player alternate behind soloists. Try dropping either guitar or piano out during the second solo of a tune or perhaps no piano or no drums. I strongly suggest directing the drummer to alternate ride cymbals for each solo because it will produce nice color changes.

Ending: Bop tunes typically end with a short hit on the last note—simple but effective. A slight ritard and a fermata on the last chord can also be effective. Perhaps have the group play the last four or eight bars three times before the ending. Try holding out the last three chords and have short cadenzas on each. There are many, many possibilities.

Listening to great jazz recordings is THE BEST way to learn jazz and certainly to explore ideas that you can adapt for your group. Here are a few of my favorite jazz artists and their groups:Horace Silver, Bobby Watson, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Conrad Herwig and Clifford Brown.

Remember, it’s about effecting what the audience hears when the group performs. Don’t ever forget that music is ultimately entertainment. Changing things up will certainly make things more enjoyable for your listener and I am sure, more enjoyable for the performers. I guarantee that just a little bit of time spent formatting will produce some big results for your small group or jazz ensemble!

Kris Berg is available for clinics, guest appearances and commissions and can be reached at

kberg@collin.edu or by searching “Kris Berg Jazz” on Facebook.

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