Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra Pt. 1 – “Tom Sails Away”

Mists_album_coverI’d like to welcome composer and arranger Jack Cooper to Professorscosco as my first featured guest contributor. I’ve invited Jack to share with you some of his arrangements of Charles Ives’ music from his monumental 2014 release, Mists – Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra. In this post, the first of three dealing directly with Mists, Jack discusses his rich arrangement of the Ives art song “Tom Sails Away”, revealing some of his process, his technique and creative vision, and illuminates some of what enabled him to so successfully adapt Charles Ives’ enigmatic harmony, melody, and difficult form to jazz orchestra–there’s way more to it than simply transcribing a few chords and thickening a melody. In the Ives songs the piano parts are rich, cover a wide tonal and dynamic range. Ives’ harmonic language ranges from elementary traids to almost unapproachable dissonance; the vocal parts are replete with rich narrative and poignant melody. There is no rhythm section, and the pieces are through-composed. How does one begin to adapt this music to jazz instrumentation and language? Read on…

We begin with Jack’s reflective essay, “Why Charles Ives…”, the continue with Prof Sco’s brief analysis of “Tom Sails Away”, from Mists, followed by Jack’s in-depth analysis and commentary. Dig upon it!

“Why Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra”

By Jack Cooper

This is a the first in a series articles about the music of Charles Ives arranged for a Jazz Orchestra and my thoughts on classical and jazz musical composition.  Some other things will get mixed in there too (bear with me…I do have opinions).  Some of this ‘frame work’ I have for you is taken from a dissertation I wrote in 1998/99.  I have edited and updated a lot of this to give more current thoughts since a successful commercial recording now exists and there is a great deal of composition has come from me since that time more than 17 years ago.    First let me get into the jazz concept of why in the world I take on doing big band charts based on Charles Ives music. (read more…)

“Tom Sails Away” by Charles Ives:
“Tom Sails Away” arranged by Jack Cooper from Mists–Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra

ProfessorScoSco listens to the both of the above…

The Original Work (youtube link above): It’s a “song of war” as Ives indicates in the original score (which has actually been on the professor’s piano for more than a few years). The professor immediately notices some great candidates for jazz harmony–but where to start…we have F#minor11, a great start, but quickly we de/evolve into much richer and denser material…but it is tonal, at least to a point…now I’m hearing pretty jazzy Eb tonal center, then back to the F#min…then some play over a pedal–nice stuff that involves a more layered tonality, then some quartal chords, but it’s not all about the chords. In fact the chords seem to be servicing the melodic line–motivic cells, moving…three note descending motifs. There’s a lot of activity on the next two pages, then a surprising ending DOWN a step to Fmin11. Hmmm…let’s see how Jack deals with this.

Jack’s Arrangement (soundcloud link above): Digging it…he’s made a “head” out of the first four or so bars of the piece and moves directly into a solo. The professor really likes how the rhythm of the melodic line reflects the “out of time”, or free time quality of the original. The rest of the Jack’s treatment moves from ensemble passages which are loosely based on Ives’ motifs, to solos, all with moving harmonies that seem to reflect some of the material in the original–let’s let Jack talk about it. And BTW Jack ends his arrangement in F minor…true to form…I think Ives would dig it.



By Jack Cooper

Though “Tom Sails Away” was the last of the adaptations I composed, it works best when performed as the “opening movement” in the set of my three pieces. On the album of eight works “Tom…”  programmed well in the middle after the whole set (8) were written; “Mists” (title track) is the opener for the Planet Arts Records release. Ives partitioned the song into small vignettes or memories which he expressed as individual phrases within the piece.   As memory shifts from detail to detail in “Tom Sails Away,” stylistic shifts in the music illuminate the progression of thought, ultimately creating larger patterns within the seemingly spontaneous flow of ideas.[1]   At the opening and end of the piece there is an interesting use of extended minor harmony to provide an introduction and an ending to the piece.   Of the three pieces, “Tom Sails Away” consumed the most development time.

After listening to Ives’s version several times, I decided to combine the two major characteristics of the piece: the modal passages and the vignettes.   I decided the best way to do this was to think of the piece as a rondo form.   The opening F#-minor passage is the “A” section that returns in the rondo form.   Example 2.1 compares Ives’s overall form to how I adapted it into a modified rondo form.




Ives, “Tom Sails Away”

                        piano intro.     A          B          C         D         A1

m.m. 1              2-3        4-5        5-15      15-23    24-25


form of Cooper adaptation

            piano intro.     A          B          A2        transition         C         A3

m.m. 1-2                     3-14         15-27       28-36       37-39                         40-59       59-70


            D                     B1                               A4                               A(f min.)             coda

71-93                         94-103                      104-109                    110-115                    116-118


Keeping the importance of jazz improvisation in mind, sections A2, A3, and B1 of my adaptation feature the flugelhorn, guitar, and piano as soloists respectively.   The A, B, C, D, A4, A(transposed) sections and the coda are derived from Ives’s material.   In the normal pattern of a rondo form one might expect the A section to return at measure 94 in order to feature a third soloist.   To vary the sequence and make the form more interesting B1[2] follows D and an A instrumental section follows.   A4 in f#-minor as an instrumental section also serves as a transition to the restatement of the original version of A, now in F-minor, at measure 110.

The use of Ives’s main folk-like, modal theme helps to create continuity in the expanded adaptation.   The descending melodic cadential fourth from F# to C#, and narrow range of the melody help to provide this modal, folk-like quality.   One of the primary concerns I have when composing any piece is to develop compositional interrelationships based on the main theme(s) or chord progressions.   If this can be achieved at various pitch levels and in a variety of rhythmic contexts throughout the piece, these interrelationships can create a strong framework for more abstract or unrelated compositional ideas.   Example 2.2 shows the main theme and various places where that theme is used to create more continuity throughout the first part of my adaptation.



The main theme is first stated by the 1st tenor saxophone and 1st and 2nd trumpets (flugelhorns) in measures 4-6…

Tom Sails Away 2.2 A



Stated by the 1st alto sax and 1st trumpet (flugelhorn) in measures 9-12, the theme is altered and restated in 3/4 to serve as transitional material for the upcoming new tempo.

Tom Sails Away 2.2 BEXAMPLE 2.2 C

The same theme is then used at various pitch levels as transitional material in the restatement of the A section in measures 32-38.Tom Sails Away 2.2 C

When I first heard and looked at “Tom Sails Away,” I knew I wanted to use the piece because of the harmonic and melodic material.   However, I had no idea what rhythmic context would be suitable.   In the jazz idiom there are two basic types of rhythmic contexts: the swing eighth-note emphasizing the delayed second part of the beat, and straight eighth-note emphasizing the exact middle of the beat.   After examining “Tom Sails Away,” I realized that, as Starr expresses, “…other unifying aspects in this…song are the unchanging tempo and the relatively straightforward rhythmic patterns.”[3]

I first attempted to write it in a swing eighth-note context.   At the tempo of quarter-note equals 120, the flow of the piece seemed to be bogging down.   The only way to resolve this problem in a swing context would have been to increase the tempo significantly, that would adversely impact the harmonic rhythm.   It was clear the rhythm of Ives’s piece would not work well in a swing style.   I rethought the rhythmic scheme of “Tom Sails Away,” clapping and singing the original in Montuno and Salsa rhythms.   The piece seemed to have greater forward motion and momentum at that tempo in a Latin, straight eighth-note rhythm, and the harmonic rhythm functioned much better in a syncopated, Latin rhythm environment.   I found the creative process went much faster once I had found the proper rhythmic background.

Due to my Latin treatment of Ives’s music there are some specific pieces of other composers that I revisited.   The main jazz composer that I considered was Gil Evans, particularly his “La Nevada Blues” and “Sunken Treasure.”   Evans has become very influential among jazz composers due to his nontraditional approach to jazz composition.   Though my version of “Tom Sails Away” is broken into a number of seemingly unrelated sections, I found that listening to Gil Evans treatment of modal and Latin material helped to focus my ideas in the piece.

[1] Larry Starr. A Union of Diversities-Style in the Music Of Charles Ives. pp. 72.

[2] This B1   section is an improvised piano solo based on the harmonic material that is stated earlier in B.

[3] Larry Starr. A Union Of Diversities-Style In The Music Of Charles Ives. pp. 76.

About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
This entry was posted in Arranging/Orchestration, Guest Contributors, Jazz Arranging, Jazz Theory, Orchestration, Theory and Harmony, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra Pt. 1 – “Tom Sails Away”

  1. Pingback: Mists: Charles Ives For Jazz Orchestra - Jack Cooper

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