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INTERVIEW: A Lesson on Arranging with Yoshie Nakayama

Trombonist and arranger Yoshie Nakayama

Creation of music takes a lot of work from a lot of different people. Take a look at the booklet of your favorite CD (we know you still have one somewhere) and you’ll find the names of session players, songwriters, recording engineers, and producers who all lent a hand in making the album. Forgive the cliché, but it really does take a village to create music we know and love, whether that music is T-Swift’s 1989 or Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell.

An accomplished behind-the-scenes musical mind includes Yoshie Nakayama, a trombonist and arranger who has worked with talents like Jacob Collier and Brazil’s Milton Nascimento. Beginning her musical training at age three, she went on to obtain her undergraduate degree and enter the working world only to decide that something didn’t “feel right,” about working a day job. Her intuition prompted her to move to the USA from her native Japan, and since arriving she’s performed with some of the biggest names in the business, including Joyce Moreno, George Garzone, and John Patitucci.

Recently, Nakayama worked with Alejandro Sanz and performed in his band for Univision’s “RiseUP AS ONE” festival celebrating diversity. “I was hired as the music producer for the band… it was one of the most unforgettable shows of my life” she said of the experience. Working with a 17-time Latin Grammy winner was taxing, but Nakayama credits the experience with being a great look into the kind of work ethic needed to meet the intense demands of the performance world.

One of Nakayama’s greatest strengths is arranging, a music making process people typically haven’t heard of or don’t quite understand. According to the Oxford dictionary, to arrange a piece of music is to “adapt it for performance with instruments or voices other than those originally specified”. Yoshie’s grasp on arranging started around 2000. Her interest in acapella singing served as the perfect spark, considering that the style inherently requires creative use of human voices to make up for the lack of other instrumentation.

To get a better grasp on what exactly arranging is, let’s look at Marilyn Manson’s take on The Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of These)”. If you were to take away every instrument in each version with the exception of Annie Lennox and Manson’s vocals, you’d probably recognize the song as the same in both instances. In fact, with the exception of vocal timbres, the melody and lyrics are identical. This is where arranging can drastically affect the final product — whereas the original track makes use of synthesizers and drum machines,  Manson’s version uses exclusively crunchy electric guitars and acoustic rock drums. Tempo is yet another aspect of the song that arrangement dictates, with Manson’s version clocking in at nearly 55 beats per minute slower than the original.

While the instruments change and the parts they play are different, it’s important to note that the chord progressions outlined by the different instruments are actually the same in both songs. Sometimes, arrangers can provide a different take on harmony (check out Yoshie’s version of the classic “Blackbird” to see just how crazy harmonies can get),  but like Manson’s “Sweet Dreams”, an arranger’s job is to keep the core of a song intact. According to Nakayama, “arranging is giving another life to an original composition. Instrumentation, groove, key, length, these are all elements that I need to focus on as an arranger”. She points to orchestration (selecting which instruments will be featured on a track) as one of the more important points to focus on when arranging. She also cites Jacob Collier as an example of an innovative arranger in today’s musical landscape.

Yoshie continues to lend her creativity to a variety of projects as a composer and arranger by applying modern techniques to well known tunes. She’s looking to further her ever-expanding skillset as a musician, and is in perfect position to do so. Look out for her work in the remainder of 2017 and beyond.

by G. Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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