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Three-Horn Writing for the Jazz Sextet

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingMarch 2016 • April 8, 2016

by Pete McGuinness

The three-horn front line in jazz small groups has had many historical triumphs. Famous groups such as the many Art Blakey Jazz Messengers, Benny Golson and The Jazztet, and the Horace Silver “Cape Verdean Blues” LP ensemble come to mind. The various composer-arrangers of these and other important sextets found ways of making the three-horn frontline sound balanced and unified, using horns of different ranges and timbres. They also found ways to make the relatively small size of only three horns sound both “small” and  “big” as needed. Trying to make three instruments from different fixed ranges and timbres (most commonly trumpet, tenor sax, trombone) blend and balance well, while also dealing with a frequent lack of one or more important chord tone in a voicing can be a tricky art.


Most jazz sextets carry a chordal instrument, helping to bulk-up chord tones generally. With only three horns, there are often times when it is rare to be able to express both the 3rd and 7th in a voicing. The chordal instrument can be used to either comp the changes or  play tutti with the horns to provide those missing chord tones not found in the horns. In the chordal instrument in tutti situations, writing the full chord name above the rhythmic figures should be enough to provide the basic chord tones possibly missing for a horn voicing (mainly the 3rd and 7th/6th as needed). This especially works well with the “UST” (upper-structure triad) horn voicing, which can create a powerful poly-chordal sound when combined with the chordal instrument’s more basic harmonic support. The piano or guitar can be three-horn arranger’s best friend!

Writing for this jazz sextet front line requires a different perspective than writing for two or four horns (which have their own concerns). A simple place to start is to consider the use of unison and octaves. Using this technique can mask the small number of horns, saving the impact of even only a three-note voicing. Timed well, the impact can be strong. For octaves, I generally prefer to write the lead line alone and have the other two voices in unison in the lower octave. When moving to three separate notes, one of the keys is the range each instrument is scored. Remember, a trombone (voice #3) is really a “big trumpet”, sounding exactly one octave lower. So if say a “medium-high” note is scored for trumpet, that same note may sound VERY high for the bone and can compete with the lead/melody for attention. All the horns are generally set in respective ranges to vocalists – soprano (trumpet), alto (alto sax, flugelhorn), tenor (tenor sax/trombone), baritone/bass (bari sax, bass clarinet). Knowing this will affect how tight or wide a voicing can be based on what instruments are being scored and range of lead. See example #1 below for the relative ranges. Note how limited the tutti/unis range.

The voicings (“interval structures”) for the sextet horns can be quite varied, keeping in mind the various ranges/levels of intensity of each horn. Scoring for say three trumpets is a very different situation, as they are all in the soprano range. If you look at the example #2 “Sextet/Three-Horn Voicings” below, you’ll see many commonly used structures. These are of course not all the possibilities, but will give an aspiring arranger some effective tools right away. Be careful with the final choice “Drop-2” – if the lead is not high enough, the bottom voice may end up in a low/muddy range (aka breaking “lower interval limits”). Gary Lindsay’s text Jazz Arranging Techniques addresses this subject very well.


Looking at the various 3-part structures can seem confusing. One easy way to look at voicing choice is to ask how high is the lead (trumpet) and how will that affect the section balance/blend of notes. A simple rule: the higher – the wider you can go. the lower- the tighter you should go. Using either unison or octaves can help solve a lead range issue too. There may be times when a variety of structures will do the job: a triad vs. 4ths, close vs. triad, cluster vs. close. At a certain point, it becomes a matter of taste.  Look at Example #3 – “This Is For Wayne”. It is short tribute to a masterful sextet piece “This Is For Albert” by Wayne Shorter for Art Blakey in the early ‘60’s. The voicings and passing tone harmonizations here are very close to what Wayne did in his own arrangement’s first eight bars. Compare the voicing types used and the general range of the lead. You may even find some nice voice-leading in the inner parts depending on which group of voicings is selected to harmonize a line (see measure 7). Note the use of octaves for the first four bars, setting up the drama of fully-voiced horns in m. 5. Note also how the dynamics relate to both texture (octaves = “thin” vs. voicings = “full”) and range/intensity of the lead.


Of course, there is no substitute for listening to great recordings of classic jazz sextets for inspiration and ideas. Some of those artists were mentioned at the top of this article, and there are many others throughout history to be inspired by. There are of course other techniques that can be used with three horns (solo vs. two-part support, three-part counterpoint, passing tone harmonization choices, etc.). This article was only meant to give the novice arranger a starting point. I hope these well-worn techniques will be of use and will help solve some of the challenges of arranging for horns in the typical jazz sextet.

Pete McGuinness is the professor of jazz arranging at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Since 1987, he has been an active New York City area jazz artist – trombonist, three-time Grammy-nominated composer-arranger, award-winning jazz vocalist. Pete appears on over 50 jazz albums as a sideman and has released four recordings as a leader. He also leads his own quartet and a big band, The Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra, which has appeared on numerous occasions at such venues as The Blue Note, Iridium, The Jazz Gallery, and other NYC jazz clubs.

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