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Advice for Playing Duet Arrangements



Jazz Guitar Today talks to performers Trey Wright and Laura Coyle about the challenges of playing in a guitar/voice duo.

JGT: You have chosen to take on probably the most demanding role for a jazz guitarist.  You are the sole accompanist for a vocalist whose chosen repertoire is steeped in tradition. (What were you thinking?)

Trey Wright: Well, when you put it that way, I’m not sure what I was thinking!  Actually, for me it was a unique challenge to reinvent myself as a performer and try something new.  For many years, I had grown tired of the pressures and demands of being a bandleader.  I wanted someone to share the responsibilities with and wanted to simplify my life as a performer.  I had known Laura for many years and always enjoyed the gigs we were on together and felt that we were a good match musically.  Laura has a beautiful voice that I thought would work well in this setting and I felt my guitar work would complement her voice.  Furthermore, we are both wired similarly and our personalities are a good fit.  Laura is extremely organized and we work well rehearsing and planning together.  As I’ve learned over the years, this is such an important aspect of a group’s success.  I’ve always thrived being  part of a group versus pursuing freelance work and my collaboration with Laura has been both rewarding and very challenging musically.

Duo Arrangements LIVE
Laura and Trey – Morgan Concert Hall, KSU – Photo credit Brian Weaver

JGT: What can you tell us about the challenges and the differences between being a member of a combo, a solo, chord melody, player and your role with Laura Coyle as an accompanist and featured soloist?

Trey Wright: Playing duo with a vocalist requires wearing multiple hats – you are essentially the chord player, bassist, drummer and primary instrumental melodic instrument.  This can be overwhelming at times, but also rewarding when it all comes together!  Performing in the duo with Laura has helped me to work on my time feel and accompanying skills.  In many ways, this collaboration has helped me reconnect with the guitar in an intimate way that reminds me of my days learning guitar in high school.  I always loved chords and was fascinated with how they could be voice led on the guitar.  For me the hardest part of performing duo is switching gears from accompanying to soloing.  This is something I am still struggling with that continues to get better with time and practice. 

Although we are both inspired by the classic guitar and vocal duos of the past, especially Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald and Tuck and Patti, we are finding our own voice in this format.  I realize that I will never be the next Joe Pass or Tuck Andress, and that is ok!  I continue to find inspiration in their work but I also bring my own minimalistic approach that I developed over the years performing with my trio and quartet.  Furthermore, I have always enjoyed composing and arranging and this group has allowed me to apply these skills to a new instrumentation.  We are also influenced by a wide range of music including the jazz tradition, Brazilian Bossa Nova and Samba, folk music, country music, singer-songwriters including Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and modern groups including Radiohead.  Our diverse influences and emphasis on arrangement helps us to create a unique sound within this format.   

JGT: When working out arrangements, do you collaborate on things like chord voicing for vocal considerations? Are things like harmonic space taken into conscious account or do things develop more organically? 

Trey Wright: Yes, we work collaboratively on all of our arrangements.  One of the strengths of our duo is that we are developing a unique sound together and are able to take standards and reinterpret them in our own way.   Laura has a great ear and is very responsive to reharmonization and different approaches to harmony.  Although we rehearse often, many of our best arrangements started by taking chances during live performances.  The duo format lends itself towards spontaneity, and often I will experiment with the harmony, form, or feel of a song during a gig.  I jokingly call these moments “trust falls” and they are often the spark for new approaches to our repertoire. I love the freedom of this instrumentation and I find it is much harder to take these risks in other performing situations.  

Our goal, in addition to performing original music, is to perform songs from the jazz standard canon in new ways that invites our audience to experience these songs from a different perspective.  Some of our arrangements are worked out and some of them vary from night to night. 

Duo Arrangements by Laura and Trey 

JGT: When listening to you and Laura play as a duo, the voice and guitar both take on a more impactful role as rhythm instruments.  Without bass and drums, you are the rhythm section. Can you speak a little as to how you address this?

Trey Wright: Performing without a bassist or drummer can be challenging, but the guitar is inherently a rhythmic instrument and lends itself to a wide variety of approaches to rhythm.  My job in the duo is to fill out the rhythm so that the listener doesn’t miss these other instruments.  Laura and I play a wide range of music which allows me to apply different techniques including walking bass lines and chords, quarter note strumming, Bossa Nova and Samba patterns, New Orleans street beats and shuffle patterns.  The texture of each song in our set varies widely.  Occasionally, a song requires the use of a loop pedal but we try to keep this to a minimum.   Laura adds a lot to the rhythmic texture to the group – she has incredible timing and has recently started to play percussion on some of the songs which adds another layer of rhythm to the mix.  

Duo Arrangements LIVE 2
Laura Coyle with Trey – Photo credit Brian Weaver

Laura Coyle offers advice from the vocalist perspective:

JGT: Your voice is your instrument.  The obvious role of singing the melody and conveying the lyric is only the beginning.  Being that there are only two of you, you have a much greater role contributing to the sonic fabric of the tone.  The timbre of what comes from the stage as well as the rhythmic considerations for phrasing is a huge challenge.  Please tell us about how you address the duo compared to a traditional trio or quartet and even “big band”?

Laura: Probably the most outward difference is that our volume as a guitar and vocal duo is a lot lower than a traditional quartet, and especially a big band. It’s one of the things I love about playing as a duo, but it has it’s own challenges. After Trey and I played one of our early concerts, I went back and listened to the recording and I heard tension in my voice. It seemed counterintuitive that in a beautiful, quiet concert hall with a single guitar and an attentive audience I would be straining to sing.

I got back into voice lessons after that and quickly realized I had an old habit of pushing my voice and using more volume and intensity than was needed. What’s lovely about playing in a duo is that a vocalist can really use the whole dynamic range in their voice. I worked with my coach on finding lightness and effortlessness and developing a softer part of my voice that I had never really used. It’s exciting to discover new qualities and abilities in my voice, and also a little daunting the amount of time and repetition it takes for these new habits to become part of your muscle memory.

One of the most satisfying things I’ve discovered about performing in the duo with Trey is that we really have the sonic space to play with tone and dynamics and intensity. I don’t think I’ve ever done as much singing in unison with another instrument and because you can hear everything so clearly I try to mold my voice to fit the guitar sound. I love the contrast of my voice being out front with the lyrics of the song and then pulling back into our sound to blend in with the guitar. Trey switches from nylon string, to jazz guitar, to acoustic guitar, so there are diverse and beautiful tonalities to play with.

There is also room to be creative rhythmically. We play in varying styles and tempos and we change up our sound from song to song. In this small setting you can’t call on another instrument to bring interest, so each song requires something different from each of us. I keep practicing and listening, wanting to bring that effortless principle I learned in voice lessons to my phrasing and rhythm. Playing in a duo with a guitarist has challenged me to reach for whatever I can bring out in my voice and musical ability. It can leave you feeling so exposed with nothing to hide behind, but the creative freedom in this collaboration is incredibly inspiring.

About Trey Wright and Laura Coyle

Over the past decade, guitarist Trey Wright and vocalist Laura Coyle have established themselves as first-call musicians on the the Atlanta jazz scene. They joined forces in 2017 to form the Laura Coyle and Trey Wright Duo. 

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