Down a Horn

Sometimes somebody can’t make it to a gig, so the horn arrangements have to change. Maybe there’s warning, maybe not.

I’m working in groups with two to four horns, often with doubling. For a lot of charts, two horns are enough; truth is, doing the arrangements, you start running into parallel lines and perfect intervals. You can do only so much clustering, after all, and two notes is enough to get the point across. In cases where I know one player is specifically likely to be unavailable—doubles on another instrument, or is the addition in the larger configuration of a modular band, or has some sort of life change going on—then from the beginning I’ll make the other instruments stand alone with that one fattening up the sound. That means tonics, sometimes octaves, fifths, fills, etc.

What’s more interesting is being the only horn on charts that normally have a section. Big-band style pops and tight licks are only cool because it’s a group acting as one. Otherwise it’s just me going splat at random times. So in those cases I’m going to do more freestyle, legato, out-of-rhythm variations on what the group would be doing. Where the standard arrangement is the horns doing a punch-and-fall on the downbeat, I’ll do a single legato note, shaped with dynamics, hooking into something the vocal or a rhythm instrument is doing. It’s good to enhance the various cymbals with a horn, like the bass drum meets the bass.

Another thing I can do is interact much more personally and conversationally with the lead vocal, since they’re also one instead of a group. Maybe I harmonize, maybe counterpoint, maybe echoes; these are all techniques that tend to be a bit clumsy if a horn section does them behind a single vocalist, though it’s wonderful antiphony when it’s vocal harmonies vs horn section.  In one song, I played loose, legato triplets in the first two choruses, but for the last chorus and outro the harmony singer picked up her trumpet for a staccato syncopated horn section version of the same motif.

Point is, it’s a lot of freedom. That means more responsibility, but it’s also a chance to try out licks and gestures that I might make into horn section charts later.


Female Trumpet Players

Female trumpet players are uncommon but not rare. Most of my work is in small groups, and I rarely stand next another trumpet; yet the few I did see last year were women.

If I had to pick a “best trumpet player” out there, I’d go with Alison Balsom. She has a technical mastery of the instrument, and she manages to do plenty of brashness and flair without losing precision. The tone is pure, and—the real test—she just makes everything sound easy. Her version of Syrinx is positively ornithopteric.

I admit a personal dislike of style with Tine Thing Helseth—it’s in the way she attacks notes—but I love what she’s doing with TenThing. You can’t do that kind of work without a perfect internal clock. Check out the video of TenThing at Proms. Along those lines, also see the Seraph Brass, an all-female quintet with a rotating roster.

Gunhild Carling is in a class by herself. The proper word is “entertainer” rather than “musician”, but listen to her note-perfect renderings of Louis Armstrong—that is not trivial stuff. The average band player would be happy to have her skill on just one instrument. Cindy Bradley’s jazz work is modern and lush. Saskia Laroo has been doing interesting things with sequencers and EWIs—try her *TED talk.

We heard a lot about Cindy Robinson when she passed away last year, about her groundbreaking career as a session musician and a member of Sly and the Family Stone. She was hardly the first, of course—Clora Bryant and Valaida Snow, for two, played in jazz bands decades earlier.

But if you really want to go back, here’s an account of Olympics in ancient Greece:

“And there was a woman, too, who played on the trumpet, whose name was Aglais, the daughter of Megacles, who, in the first great procession which took place in Alexandria, played a processional piece of music; having a head-dress of false hair on, and a crest upon her head, as Posidippus proves by his epigrams on her. And she, too, could eat twelve litrae of meat and four choenixes of bread, and drink a choenix of wine, at one sitting.”

–Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Deipnosophistae

Trumpet dentistry

When I was a kid I broke my front teeth and got temporary caps. In high school I resisted getting braces because I was afraid they’d set me back, and competition for Allstate was pretty fierce. I don’t really regret that, because even if I’d pursued a career, there would have been time to do braces later when I would have been pursuing virtuosity rather than competition.
But when that convenient time came, when I was otherwise occupied and not playing for a few years, I didn’t have insurance. I finally got my teeth fixed in my forties, and it went badly. The new crowns looked great and were strong enough to play, but I couldn’t get air into the horn. They were too big; they were a wall.
So after looking at the “before” X-rays, and bringing the horn in to the dentist’s office, we fixed it. First, I’d always had a gap between my front teeth. I’ve seen discussions about whether a gap helps with high range, usually ending with the interview from Maynard where he says he got his gap fixed. The dentist looked at the mouthpiece and at how I was playing—she wished that I had see-through mouthpiece and lips—and concluded I needed only a very small gap at the bottom, about 1/8”. It doesn’t matter if the front teeth are closed up closer to the gums because air doesn’t go through there.
The other problem was just that the teeth were too long, so they made contact with the lower lip too easily. That was a simple matter of grinding a bit off the bottom. She explained that it was a really tiny amount, well under a millimeter. We went in stages, shaving a bit and then playing some more notes.
After the initial surgery, I was too sore to play for several days and really couldn’t do much for a couple weeks. So even when we fixed it, I couldn’t make a judgment on finer points of technique. Also, of course, I had to adjust my embouchure, so I practiced etudes for a couple months and finally went back to get a little more taken off and to make the gap a little wider.
I am still missing a few notes off the top of the range, but other than that things work about as well as before I made drastic changes to the landscape of my mouth.

Musical Rhyme

A series of theatre plays (Smoke on the Mountain, Sanders Family Christmas, Mt. Pleasant Homecoming) feature a family of traveling bluegrass musicians. The elder daughter is the only one that doesn’t sing. Instead, she signs, performing ASL of the lyrics (although she has not encountered any deaf people so far). I’ve seen people do this at folk festivals, which are lyric-intensive. It adds a lot, actually; part translation, part interpretive dance.

There is a concept of rhyme in ASL, which has to do with using signs that are visually similar—mirrored, or both follow an upward move but diverge at the end, or both involve the same fingers in different configuration. One example that stuck with me was spelling out the last word of the line with the right hand sweeping out, and the last word of the rhyming line with the left hand.

With a musical instrument, equivalents include things like the same pattern transposed to a different chord, the same rhythm with different movement, inversions and retrogrades, or putting a stinger on the end of the rhyming lines. It’s particularly delicious to repeat the same form, perhaps transposed diatonically, at a point where it sits differently against the chords—the first time it fits perfectly, and the second time it starts in chord but ends a fifth off because the progression is different.

As with most ideas, it’s not necessary to be heavyhanded. Here’s a solo I do over Black Orpheus that is a limerick form, but I don’t square it off like I’ve written here. Slant rhyme gets the point across without wearying the audience, and I move on into the next chorus on the last line instead of completing the limerick. On a recording I would vary it a lot; live, it’s good to be clear, but if someone’s going to listen to it repeatedly it would just be singsong.

Standard Arrangements

A solo cocktail piano player has a bit of freedom when using a fake book. He can get into and out of the piece any way that sounds good, take extra repeats, leave out the bridge, pick any convenient key. In a band, everybody has to know what’s going to happen.
I mentioned before that someone can call out an arrangement in a few seconds with some standard terms. A band that rehearses frequently and has been playing together for a long time will have a custom standard arrangement, and they won’t even need to say anything beyond that. While there isn’t a standard standard that all jams use, usually it’s close enough that I can roll with it.
In the trio, the intro is piano through the head, sax melody on the head, trumpet solo, piano solo, optional sax solo, and one or both horns on the foot. In the quintet, we usually start with the last eight or sixteen bars, have the horns split the head AA / BA or some other sensible way, do solos in order (trumpet, piano, sax, bass, optional fours with drums), horns split the foot the same way or reversed, and do one of our standard endings. In the vocal swing group, intro is either last eight or just solo piano, followed by vocal doing all verses, trumpet solo, vocal on last verse (or full head), end in a rallentando.
Endings are the devil. Sometimes the quintet does a rehearsal of nothing but intros and endings. We have perhaps half a dozen standards endings. In college pep band, the director had hand signals for frequently used pieces (for example, the fight song). So in the quintet, Bill can hold up two fingers, and we know to repeat the 3rd and 4th bars from the end up a step; or hold up three fingers, and we’ll do the Basie stinger.
With that, we can sightread anything off a lead sheet and know we’ll start and end together.

Mortal Limit

We get better by practicing. An average lifespan provides some twenty thousand days without infirmity. So every day you miss, you’ve lowered the ceiling on your peak skill level.
Injuries and illness take days away from you. A healthy paranoia can reduce those. (So can an unhealthy paranoia; do I really need to put my arm in front of my mouth every time I step off a curb?) Naturally, you’ll need your friends and family to stay healthy as well.
Of course, the quality of practice matters. Staying at peak mental and physical condition takes time away from practicing, but it’s essential. So are vacations.
You also need exposure to other players—playing in groups, taking lessons, attending performances. And to really understand art, to have something to say and be able to say it eloquently, you need education and worldly experience.
Personally I’ve decided the world is a huge and complex place, and it would be sad to look back on life to see only one thing. You’ll notice that I’m not playing first chair for the Chicago Symphony.

Degenerate Key Signatures

Debate: Is Bb-Eb-F# a valid key signature?
An informal poll says “No”, though one respondent said anything should be possible in jazz. I have seen it used for the key of G harmonic minor, though certainly not on music from any major publishing house. It may be unfamiliar, but if I can trust that the piece strictly adheres to the scale, I can find it comfortable. There’s something to be said for a clean page, and frankly seeing an accidental that I already know is defined just distracts me.
Mark Levine’s approach to jazz theory uses melodic minor scales frequently. As a kid, I was taught that melodic minor is raised six and seven on the way up, lowered on the way down. This is an oversimplification, since melodies can move up or down in any interval. Levine defines the melodic minor as lowered third, raised six, and raised seven – in other words, a major scale with a minor third.
This leads to an odd set of key signatures. D melodic minor has one sharp—C#. The key of A melodic minor has F# and G# but no C#. G melodic minor has Bb-F#. So far I’ve seen those only in his textbooks.
I have seen illogical mixes such as Bb-C#-G# and, more absurdly, C#-D#-Fx. These were in a 20th-century piece, and they were in place for only a few measures. In the second case, with the double sharp, the music was transitioning to a sharp key; for consistency with the following measures, it was written with sharps instead of flats. Also, I play a transposing instrument, and the score had fewer accidentals. Even accepting those justifications, the key signature for G# Major would have been a lie since it reflected neither the melody scale nor the chords; in any case, since my part happened to use only a few notes of the scale during that period, the publisher simply saved ink and confusion by leaving the rest out.
I spoke with someone who ran a sheet music business on Broadway decades ago. He had a pretty low opinion of a copyist who would use such tactics. Nowadays sheet music software usually makes such things impossible. Still, I think it’s an object lesson that the sheet music is a representation and not the music itself.

Booked for the Evening

Composition in the Metatarsals

Scotty Barnhart advocates transcribing jazz solos in real time because he’s heard too many note renderings that lack the spirit, which is really the point after all. The improviser that sounded so good was to some extent thinking about the notes but in the moment was feeling it in the lips, diaphragm, fingers, ears and eyes. That’s where the music lives.
As I’m learning piano charts from sheet music, it’s pretty obvious which ones were improvised and then written, and which were composed on paper and left for the pianist to master. You can feel it in your tendons. It ultimately lets you see into the composer’s mind, to really get what they were thinking and experiencing while writing.
It also makes it easy to work out fingerings, phrasing, dynamics, and generally the musicality of the piece. Maybe you can learn that by studying sheet music–I had a composition professor who never even listened to the notes he put on the pages–but following in someone’s fingersteps connects you to the piece directly.
I’m learning lessons that I probably wasn’t ready to learn when I was trying to learn them. I find they’re showing up in other areas of performance. I haven’t been writing while pursuing this project, but I’ll bet it informs some of that work too.

Piano Repertoire

So, these are the pieces I’m practicing nowadays:
Moonlight Sonata (just the well-known adagio part)
Ashokan Farewell
Music Box Dancer
Linus & Lucy
Prelude in C (Well-tempered)
Fur Elise
Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 20

Music Box Dancer is giving me problems because the left hand leaps around doing arpeggios across multiple octaves. I don’t think I like the effect. As for Beethoven, I was rusty at reading that many sharps, but it came back. He isn’t afraid to expect players to have large hands 🙂