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.

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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.

Taps

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of Taps, and all that is covered at http://taps150.org.

Today I played for a WWII veteran’s funeral.  I met the honor guard, and when it was time, they went in and folded the flag and I played.  I got the notice via http://www.buglesacrossamerica.org, a civilian volunteer organization.
I have a few things to say about that.  First, Taps is free for a veteran – you don’t pay money for military honors – and inappropriate for a civilian.  Second, it is the position of BAA that a live bugler is preferable to a recording, but it is also the position of BAA that it is inappropriate to argue the point if the honor guard planned to use a recording.

It’s tough to play Taps.  There are 24 notes, and today I didn’t miss any of them, but the tone wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked.  Funeral homes tend to be a bit dry, and it can be tough on the embouchure sometimes.  Plus, of course, sometimes you get choked up.

Keeping the Distance

Takedown and loadout usually aren’t the most fun part of the gig.  We finished fairly early, but it was still dark out, and there was no parking near the loading area.  I drew the short straw and waited with the instruments while the others got the cars.

People walking by made me nervous, so I set up the keyboard and started playing.  It wasn’t plugged in.  There was no sound to attract passers-by, and yet some stopped to listen.  Some even nodded and smiled, pretending, as if they were ashamed to admit they couldn’t hear the music.

Nobody bothered me.  I should’ve put out a tip jar.

Phrasing

Might do “How Brightly Shines Yon Star of Morn” as an offertory (or might do a Purcell voluntary).  “Brightly” is all about phrasing.

I have a copy with pencil marks from one of my private teachers years ago.  They’re good marks, and they’re about what I would tell a student of that age, but they aren’t what I’d play now.  Mostly I’d draw bigger lines, because I’m thinking in terms of overall arc rather than individual phrases.  It being baroque, it’s divided nicely into eight bar sections, so it’s fair to consider only that context.

Many teachers advise using the human voice or singers as a model for phrasing.  There are singers who used trumpet players as a model for phrasing.  I say there’s a time and a place for vocal stylings on the horn, and I’m fond of female jazz singers for those times.  This is a formal style, however, and it requires something more formal–but not strict and limiting.

For this piece, I try to draw phrases like a dancer.  Individual moves are distinct and yet flow into each other.  There are punctuations, but there’s also a suppleness.  Mostly I’m envisioning arm movements, gestures that end in a hand articulation, and slow pirouettes.

As for rests, that is when the dancer folds into a kneeling or crouching or sitting position and holds still, the spotlight elsewhere.  Here the analogy is no longer metaphorical for the trumpet player.  Perhaps the most important part of rests, in this interpretation of the piece, is breathing.  If you never left the music, your entrance will be effective.

 

Lights

I’ve heard and lived my share of gig war stories, but this was a new one on me–they let the audience control the lights.  Never expected a rave swing dance.  It was particularly difficult to take down the stage afterward while being plunged into darkness at random intervals.

Easter

I’m so happy to enter a season where I see light when I arise.

Warming up the piccolo for Easter–Hallelujah Chorus as usual, and some sort of voluntary.  For the Hallelujah, in the part where I’m in unison with the voices, I like bell tones.  My goal is to add color but not cover up the voices.  It’s a bit tough since the key to understanding words is the consonants, and that’s right where I’m making noise.  One thing I can do is use the same syllable–kuh-tonguing on “King of Kings”, etc.–but that only goes so far.  Generally I follow the rule of “if you aren’t moving, back off”.  I think I’ll do more of an attack on the long note before the five descending notes that are really the only reason they hire a trumpet.  Usually I sneak in so that the audience can’t be sure exactly where the note started, growing from nothing.  This year I’m going to do a forte-piano, accenting for an entire legato beat and then dropping back before crescendoing to the descending line.  That will be more dramatic, and there’s nothing going on for that first beat anyway…