Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The "Morrison Sound"

I was on the radio today for a show called "Grumpy Old Grad Students," where these two grad students asked me what it was like to be a trumpet major. It will eventually be streamed, with all my frivolous banter, here.

One question they asked me was what a trumpet player can do to make money. I said symphonies, small little pick-up brass gigs, ceremonial music, church music, funk/rock bands, jazz, solo touring recitals... (just kidding about that last one)

Then the guy asked me if this was a good season to be a trumpet player, because of all the Obama/Clinton/and especially McCain commercials that set a montage of the heroic candidate to the soundtrack of a lone trumpet supported by strings or sonorous brass. They asked me how to get those jobs, and I thought about it, and mentioned that trumpet players adore Tim Morrison, and I made the argument that perhaps Tim Morrison invented the stoic and heroic brass tone as we (and especially non-musicians) know it today. Think about, for instance, the theme to Apollo 13, or the West Wing. Without the rich low brass chords and the lone trumpet with a perfect, beautiful still sound--would these movies/shows have the sort of richness and gravity that
they do.

Perhaps Mr. Manning knows Morrison, since Morrison's classic Boston days coincide.

What's the point? Well, I am just as annoyed as any other "highbrow" musician to play cookie-cutter film music transcriptions in a summer band, and I'll roll my eyes at John Williams like the next person. But here in the main marketplace, there is a brass sound--remember the richness of the tuttis in Jurrasic Park?--that is a touchstone for non-musicians. At the risk of overstating things, these cues--through patriotic commercials, military bands, and film music (all of them to some extent "commercial" in their intent)--point to a cultural relevance of the brass sound in our days of canned electronic beats. You can't replace the resonance of a James Horner score, for instance, by using a synthesizer. People just know, and they crave the real thing.

So next time that John McCain commercial comes on, and the flag waves, no matter what your politics, listen for the brass sound. Like a political message, our product--our sounds--are being subconsciously peddled to a new generation of listeners.

This is a sound that is utterly commercial in its purposes but--in the case of Morrison, the BSO, and the London Symphony, that crop up on several albums that are "commercially" intended--it is a sound with an unimpeachable integrity as brass playing. One can make some money, then, and reach a wide audience without donning a sombrero, or a funny hat and a flugel and a catchy melody, by playing a very simple, very "American" tune very, very well.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Second thought about Tomasi fanfares...

So, it's a Don Juan story? Then perhaps the horrifically difficult horn parts could be a nod to Strauss. I mean, how hard is Don Juan's horn writing? Hard, right? I'm going to go out on a limb and make a suggestion that might rankle Art due to my lack of research on the topic, but Strauss died in 1949. Writing a brass suite based on incidental music for his own version of a Don Juan story, could the whole thing perhaps be approached better as Straussian than as Poulenc or something "lighter and Frencher"? Just throwing that out there.

"Fanfare Liturgiques" came from an opera

Check this out. It's from the Henri Tomasi association in France. This is from the timeline of his life, and suggests that Fanfares is not unlike La Peri...

But can you imagine playing that music (hopefully in the opera it was shorter) and then going back to your opera section parts?!

"1947 – First performance in Monte-Carlo of what will become one of his most famous works. Originally called Fanfares Concertantes, the opus will be played world-wide in its integral form under the name Fanfares Liturgiques. Its four movements, Annonciation, Evangile, Apocalypse and Procession du Vendredi Saint, are part of the opera Don Juan de MaƱara."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Full "Birth of Third Stream" Credits


Birth of the Third Stream--has anyone heard this?

Wow, blogging is now a habit. I have a big paper I'm working on, so this is like an excuse to take a break while technically "working." While I've been looking at pop brass ensembles, there are a number of very sophisticated jazz units that are essential brass ensembles. (I'm thinking, among other groups, of Cerebrus.) Kenny Wheeler in particular uses masses of conical sound in his very rich, warm, quartal compositions. He seems to have come out of the British Brass tradition a bit--he has a very dark flugel/trumpet sound, although I don't think I have his "Music for Small and Large Ensembles" on my computer (which means, I don't know where I burned it to!) There is a track "Sea Lady," that while it features an opening sax solo really typifies a rich brass sound.

But I wanted to call your attention to this album, that I've never heard but have wanted to. Perhaps prof. Manning, being from Boston, has a line on it? It's a Gunther Schuller/Miles Davis/Dmitri Mitropolous (whoa!) collaboration entitled "The Birth of the Third Stream" . The music is by Mingus, the great classical jazz pianist John Lewis, trombone virtuoso J. J. Johnson, harmonic theorist George Russell, two tunes by Schuller (one of those "tunes" being a four movement symphony for brass and percussion), and two tunes by Jimmy Giuffre, who wrote for Woody Herman and was a leading arranger of "cool jazz."

Alot of albums like this fill in with anonymous studio players. Let me make some lists. These are just the highlights. Remember, aside from being a know-it-all jazz scholar, Schuller was then (1956) also a know-it-all horn player in the Met. opera orchestra and he brought some friends along for the ride, as well as the top call jazz players.

Rhythm section: pianist Bill Evans, bassists Milt Hinton and Charles Mingus
Tuba: Bill Barber (a top-call east coast studio player)
Trumpets: Joe Alessi (Sr.), Mel Broiles, a young Art Farmer, lead great Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, and, of course, Miles as featured soloist.
Trombones: J.J. and Kai, Urbie Green, New York Phil great Gordon Pulis
The entire improvising French Horn world of the 1950s turned out (except, curiously, Julius Watkins--what was he doing?) and the highlights are James Buffington, Schuller himself, classical pedagogue Joseph Singer, Ray Alonge, and Arthur Sussman
Baritone horns are performed throughout by: John Swallow and Ronald Ricketts. Don't know who they are, but they have funny names.

I tend to react negatively to many Schuller things (like some of his books) because he can sometimes seem a little too forceful in overstating his role, and in describing things in yes-or-no terms. But like Wynton Marsalis, you may be able to dislike his playing, or his writing, or his speaking but one can't deny or discount that both (or either) have been tireless advocates of musical and historical education, and providing institutional places for the best musicians to convene and perform.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hugh Masekela

I have mentioned in other posts Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter/flugelhornist who was instrumental in developing world music and also a powerful witness for black South Africans during the Apartheid era. "Apartheid" means separateness in Afrikaans, the native South African language, and a policy of segregation between four races was enforced by an oppressive white colonial government. Imagine if the Jim Crow laws were official policy for all of America, from the 1940s and into the 1990s. (It has few if any defenders now, but many governments turned a blind eye due to lucrative products that came out of South Africa.) Many people read the lyrical, moving book "Cry the Beloved Country" in high school or early college. It's a great summer read, by Alan Paton.

Masekela, who went into exile in America in 1960, says in the liner notes to his 1963 album Grrr that in South Africa, jazz and joyful "freedom songs" were forbidden. Playing in clubs, he had to hide and evade authorities who enforced mandatory black curfews. Going out to secret clubs was exhilirating, and also meant alot. Nowadays when we go to the Mill or the Sanctuary (bars in Iowa City that offer live music), we give up TV watching or paper-writing or practice time. Imagine needing to let loose and sing and dance so badly that you would risk sure punishment. Masekela also says that it was such a dramatic experience to be in these clubs, pulsing with life (all of these people, even the musicians, had day jobs as servants) that they would play 8 hours straight with few breaks, until the chops almost fell apart (those are his words).

Hear Masekela talk about music under apartheid here. It's quite dramatic, and he fashioned himself as an eloquent, dignified social critic even through the 90s.

Grrr has the sound of hard-bop in it. Though there is a saxophone, there are seldom any sax solos. A trombone is typically the lead voice with Masekela filling in the harmonies beneath him, which makes for a thicker sound perhaps reminiscent of Art Blakey and gives a funky depth to the voicing. The rhythm resembles a straight-eighth boogaloo (early funk), but with accent patterns that aren't obtrusive but, when you pay attention to them, are very hard to figure out.
A tuba pops in when you least expect it, on a few tunes, casting the music in a New Orleans light. The music is very tertian but has lots of voicings in fourths (you have to hear it to see what I'm saying, and I'll play it for my classmates Wednesday), and the frequent trombone and trumpet solos are very powerful, muscular, and in the pocket. They leave it all out on the tracks. Unfortunately, records from the sessions were not saved so we don't know who the tubist or trombonist are.

Increasingly Masekela turned to funk and "world music" and away from the tight brass band sound. In 1968, he scored a number one mega-hit for his ultra-catchy (some may say annoying song) Grazin' in the Grass. I can't find an online listing of the original, but here's a bad recording of it from 2000. He can still play. The tune starts at about 1:15 in the track. There is a joyful if over-produced album with Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela from the 1970s that sort of sums up where he went, trying to broaden his audience in order to gain a larger platform for his social critique (also, to make some $!).

Come Swing With Me

Come on, get your mind out of the gutter.

Ever since junior high, I've been a huge Sinatra fan. You won't be surprised to know I got picked on and had frequent nosebleeds.

But enough about my childhood. Sinatra has three style periods: the first came during World War II when he was a matinee idol (swooned over by young "bobby-soxers") and it is generally acknowledged that his voice was purest and smoothest in this period. But he got his start as the featured vocalist first in the big band of legendary soloist and Benny Goodman bandmember Harry James. He really matured, though, working in the late 30s and early 40s with trombonist Tommy Dorsey's band. In fact, Sinatra credits Dorsey with consciously teaching him how to breathe and phrase effortlessly and seamlessly. (Listen on some of Sinatra's classic recordings--you'll be hard pressed to find a section where he interrupts a melody to breathe.)

Then after a few years in the early 50s where his voice suffered and he recorded with barking dogs and other novelties, he joined the roster at Capitol records and made a string of classic "concept albums," each with a theme and an extended mood. He worked with three arrangers, principally: Gordon Jenkins, who typically wrote bitter stark ballad arrangements with strings, Billy May, an ex-trumpet player who wrote hard-swinging, very bright and brassy uptempo charts in addition to more lush and rich ballads with large orchestras, and Nelson Riddle, who mastered the art of the midtempo single as well as turning in some of the saddest ballad arrangements and swinginest burners. Riddle was a trombone player, and so many of the seemingly smooth arrangements have absurdly meaty bass 'bone parts if you know what to listen for. (The Sinatra/Riddle hit masterpiece "I've Got You Under My Skin" has a very notable, powerful trombone soli that leads to the climax.)

In the early 60s, Sinatra founded his own label, Reprise Records. This is just like Herb Alpert's founding of A & M, only Sinatra was already a big star. It allowed him to explore other projects, take total control of revenue, repertoire, and distribution, and finally to sell the label to a conglomerate for bookoo bucks.

He still owed Capitol several albums, and one of his final was a Billy May collaboration called "Come Swing With Me." (Their previous two collaborations, better albums overall, were "Come Fly with Me" and "Come Dance With Me"--btw, a few tracks were "ghost arranged.") It features not one but two all-brass big bands. In place of saxophones, there are french horns. One big band is in each channel and often beat for beat and phrase will alternate from one channel to the next. The guns are blazing, but the group also plays enormously soft and
the horns are effective blazing and also playing very soft lines. My only complaint is that sometime the 'bones are buried in the mix. He sounds hoarse the whole session, probably from singing over 40+ brass musicians!

This is before the age of overdub tricks, and what's amazing is the uniformity of style, where a whole big band matches a whole big band note for note, beat for beat.

At the same time he was working on this, Sinatra was recording a Dorsey tribute, and in two years (1963) he would record "Sinatra and Swingin' Brass." Though it includes saxes, it is indeed brassy, and some might say disgusting. It is arranged by Neil Hefti, a classic Basie arranger, but by then Hefti's day job was writing music for the Batman! series.




My point? The sound of brass was cool, it was swingin', it was the bachelor pad sound. And in walked Herb Alpert, right around this time.