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I am currently arranging a big-band piece to be played by my college big band (4 trumpets; 3 trombones + 1 bass trombone; 2 alto & 2 tenor saxes + 1 bari sax; rhythm section). I'm working on a solo section which is a repeat of a previous chorus but without the chorus melody. Instead I will have one of the instruments solo over it. This will be a pretty intense section texturally and all instruments will be playing throughout; it is supposed to be the climax of the piece.

The candidates I have in mind for the solo are: one of the trumpets; one of the alto or tenor saxes; lead trombone. What would be the pros and cons of choosing each of these over the other options, not just for the piece I'm doing but in general? I'd like an answer both in terms of each instrument's potential as a solo option and the relative loss to the arrangement by removing it from the background.

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  • What about dueling trumpets, trading off? Dec 7, 2021 at 21:58
  • The chorus is only 8 bars long so I suspect it's not enough space to fit that. Would be a cool idea though in a longer section.
    – yerman
    Dec 7, 2021 at 22:14
  • I'd choose something that can cut through the dense orchestration. One idea: soprano sax! Dec 8, 2021 at 2:28
  • Guitar would be a good idea: you can have it as loud as you need it.
    – PiedPiper
    Dec 8, 2021 at 13:11

3 Answers 3

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Assuming you have equally skilled soloists in all those chairs then there really are no pros or cons for selecting one over the other. It is up to you as arranger to decide which instrument will best serve your vision and complement the intense texture at that point. Ask yourself which instrument would fit best against the texture you have in mind there. As for the loss of a voice, you’re working with a 4+4+5 big band, there are plenty of voices to work with. The least you would end up with is 3 voices in one of the sections for 8 bars.

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You say there was a previous iteration of the chorus section? Who took the melody then? That player will obviously be available to play the solo.

But any of the instruments (well, maybe not the baritone sax) is quite capable of riding over a final chorus. I'd be thinking which player rather than which instrument. Who's your strongest soloist?

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  • In the previous chorus the melody was shared by saxes and trumpets. I'm leaning towards trumpet for the solo. Unfortunately I'm not familiar with the band who will be playing it so I can't say who the stronger player would be.
    – yerman
    Dec 7, 2021 at 22:13
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Picking out which instrument takes the solo is less a question of pros and cons and more a question of arrangement. Quite simply, I think you already know everything you need to make this decision, you're simply having a hard time picking from several good options!

As with any other time you're picking which instrument gets the lead line, selecting who plays a solo is a matter of instrumentation. If you have a clear idea of the texture you want, then give the melody to the instrument that handles it the best just as with any other melody. The fact that it's improvised is an unimportant detail in terms of deciding on tone color.

I don't think I'm going to say anything revolutionary here, but here are my first thoughts about each of your options, especially in the context of a high-energy piece:

  • A trumpet solo can be high-pitched and easily cut through the rest of the band. You can have the lower and middle registers doing all kinds of crazy things in the trombones and saxes without burying the trumpet.
  • A trombone solo will need more space. The trombone and sax sections both tend to occupy middle registers, and the high registers of trumpets can draw attention away from the soloist. So it's more difficult to write backing parts to a trombone solo. That said, you can give bright stabs throughout the chorus, injecting punchy energy in a way that trumpet solo is too overpowering to allow for. It's a different kind of aggressive energy!
  • Saxes can cover just about any range you want depending on which kind of sax you give the solo to. But saxes are capable of a very different kind of energy than brass. Brass instruments are most typically heard in orchestral and stately settings, so even in a swingin' big band piece, they have an air of formality to them. In contrast, saxes are much more closely associated with dance and commercial music than orchestral traditions, so they can either go Sexy Saxman-wailing or draw out a more emotional and delicate woodwind sound. Both can be powerful and open up different textural options than brass.

Again, you already know all of this. If you can't decide because all your options seem good, that's great! That means you can't mess it up ;)


One option you haven't mentioned is to write out the full chorus with no solo part notated, but include directions to the band that someone should take the solo during that section. Whoever solos will simply improvise instead of playing what's written, and the rest of their section can sit out to give them space or pencil in a part that matches one of the other sections. Think of how bands use a Real Book lead sheet for both straight playing and improv.

In other words, you'd be outsourcing this arrangement decision to the band! This can feel lazy since it's avoiding making the decision yourself, but it also allows the band to consider their own unique sound and the strengths of their players in a way you can't. So while it's not necessary to handle it this way, it's not wrong to, either.

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