Gary Urwin: Inside the Mind of an Arranger

Gary Urwin: Inside the Mind of an Arranger
Rob Wood By

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If you're not going to add anything to the jazz idiom, why do the chart?
The arranger of music scores is as important as a crankshaft in an engine. Yet many are destined to live in the shadows. Ralph Carmichael was subsumed by the luster of Stan Kenton. Arranger Paul Riser, who wrote the opening bars to "Dancing in the Street," is a virtual unknown.

And then there is Gary Urwin. Urwin escaped the dilemma of obscurity by, as he says, "modestly giving my name to the orchestra." Fortunately, for him, the Gary Urwin Jazz Orchestra is a first class sound machine with a stellar performer in every chair. What started as a gathering of a group of friends—"just to play my scores"—has evolved into a means of advancing and contributing to the jazz idiom.

Perhaps the same can be said of Urwin himself. Both Arturo Sandoval and Wayne Bergeron value his scores. And Urwin has worked with organizations as various as Pat Longo and His Super Big Band, The John Flick Southern California Jazz Company, gigs with the University of Nevada, Reno, and this November with the Toledo, Ohio, Jazz Orchestra.

What goes on in the humming frost of Urwin's tidy mind? What goes on behind the gray locks of this acclaimed arbiter of tempo, harmony, solos, and horn sections?

Well, Gary Urwin is an eclectic reader. It's true. And, he takes that as a compliment.

On his book shelf you'll find the rare and powerful text of Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander. You'll also find J. K. Rowling's delightfully addictive Harry Potter fantasies. Although very different, Urwin honors them both as fellow artists.

"They give you ideas. Imagine being as wildly creative as the Harry Potter books! These authors are artists, too. Just in a different way. They use words. Arrangers use notes."

Words and music. They are closely related. Urwin's artistic trajectory closely resembles that of the poet Wallace Stevens. Like Stevens, Urwin matriculated at a prestigious school. (Oberlin College). Like Stevens, Urwin is a practicing lawyer. Like Stevens, he employs both rigor and brilliance in his work. (Musically, anyway. Can't speak for his briefs.) And like Stevens, he's interested in "perspectives." In fact, that was the name of his first album back in 2000.

That album featured new arrangements of compositions by Jerome Kern, Freddie Hubbard, and Paquito D'Rivera—as well as some originals by Urwin. And it is eclectic: a little cha-cha, a little funk, and some high-stepping straight ahead jazz. He offers a new perspective on each standard, a conscious effort to keep it from sounding predictable. And that's pretty much his M.O. always.

"I think the music always has to sing. Yes, my charts are a little edgy. But there are people who get further away from the melody than I do. I'm kind of in the middle. Not off-the-wall radical. The music has to be fun to listen to. It has to swing. And it still has to be recognizable. That's what I'm trying to accomplish."

That's true of all his albums (See especially Kindred Spirits 2006, A Beautiful Friendship 2014), as well as his concert work. Audiences especially enjoy his dabbling with the "Theme from Chinatown." They listen to a lot of inputs: His knowledge of classical forms, an advanced voicing of chords, and his enduring willingness to work with unusual big band instruments: piccolo, harps, cellos, oboes and English horns—whatever is on hand.

But! he says, not with the goal of making a harp sound like a guitar, or fashioning some ersatz sound from cellos and oboes. "You must always make the part idiomatic to the instrument. This isn't just to make the music sound different. The harp, for instance: you've got to make it sound like a harp and make it add something, instead of just throwing in a harp."

So what's next for a creative arranger moving from "auspicious" debut to contemplative mid-career? The band's next album will be dedicated to Bill Watrous, a virtuoso on the trombone, who worked for years with Urwin before his death this past summer. Urwin, himself a trumpeter, plays dexterously with the nuance and subtleties possible in the horn section. So this should be good.

After that, Urwin says his goal is: "Constant improvement. I'll never want to move backward. I'm going to keep moving forward, but within the confines of what swings. We're all writing to advance the idiom. But there's an edge you can fall off. How adventuresome do you want to be? There are certain jazz compositions that have been too outside or off the edge. You can't write things just for the sake of being different. On the other hand, if you're not going to add anything to the idiom, why do the chart? If you're not going to add anything to the literature, why do it?"

Always... it's a matter of perspective.

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