Dear reader, please don’t turn away in disgust. This is not an entry from the Diary of a Smutty Adolescent but my love and appreciation for the amalgam of wind and brass players that gives your favourite pop or rock songs that extra bit of oomph.
Brass section, horns, call it what you want. It can be anything from a trumpet/saxophone duo to a big band of four or five trumpets, three or four trombones and a five piece saxophone section (two altos, two tenors and a baritone for all those fellow anoraks out there.)
My first experience of hearing a big band live was when I used to sneak out for my lunch break on a Saturday when I worked in a music shop and witness the George McGowan Big Band in a small Glasgow venue called Shadows. The band, all 15 or 16 of them took up about half of the bar and the punters the rest. When George and the lads were at full pelt the sound they made almost pinned you against the back wall. And that was with no amplification. It certainly stirred something in this novice sax wannabe.
I did get the opportunity to play in a ‘section’ with a trumpeter all through the late seventies in a funk/soul band and more recently with a trombonist in a jazz combo.
My big band work has been sporadic and wrought with anxiety. I filled in on baritone sax at a school music camp that my wife ran and that was fun. A decade earlier I was asked if I could play 2nd tenor for the Strathclyde University Big Band for an up and coming gig. I agreed as long as they could get the sheet music to me so I could practice. My sight reading has always been a bit rusty. A week went by and no music was forthcoming. I was getting a bit nervous as the gig was a few days away. Eventually the music appeared – on the bus going to the gig ! Nauseous with both trying to read on a moving vehicle and from the blind panic I was in, it took every fibre of my being not to puke over my father’s borrowed dinner jacket !
I muddled through the gig, playing quietly and missing out certain sections in the hope the other 4 saxes could carry me through. The last number came and I relaxed a bit only to discover each member of the band was being pointed to by the conductor. Everyone was to be highlighted with an 8 bar solo ! I gave what was the musical equivalent of an incomprehensible mumble barely straying from the route note. I got through it though. Nobody pointed and laughed at me but I did have to return my dad’s DJ resembling a sponge !
I’ll leave it to the professionals. My flute teacher depped or deputised in bands for a living. He recalled one venue where the band were set up on tiered concrete steps. He had a quick change from baritone sax to piccolo. Unfortunately in his haste he hadn’t returned the bari to it’s stand properly and had to watch it unceremoniously bounce down the steps. Ouch !
Australian trumpeter James Morrison on greeting his fellow dozen horn players for a tour by the Philip Morris All Stars exclaimed Do you realise you are putting two synthesizer players out of work ? Sadly ironic on several levels considering it took the sponsorship of the tobacco industry to put a big band on the road.
But what about the songs we remember from the seventies I hear you ask. Let’s go back a bit further to the sixties when the JB Horns were helping James Brown strut his stuff. They would later appear as the Horny Horns with Parliament. Then there’s Kool & The Gang and Earth,Wind & Fire with their catchy fanfares. Going down the more jazz/funk route were the Brecker Bros.
A song I really liked from an artist I’m a bit indifferent about is Honky Cat by Elton John. I love how the baritone sax scoops up from the bottom. I was convinced it was my old buddies Tower of Power providing the ballsy brass but it turns out they were French session players. Never forget the humble session player be it Muscle Shoals or the Funk Brothers of Motown.
Power did provide some classics like What Is Hip? and Squib Cakes. They were certainly horns for hire and were the icing on the cake for that Little Feat classic Spanish Moon.
But the two all time classics must be must be Chicago’s 1970 hit 25 or 6 to 4. (Whatever that may mean. Gran’s favourite bingo numbers perhaps) Long before they churned out syrupy love songs Chicago could really rock. Power chords intro then BLAM full brass attack. And what’s with the crazy chords and the winding down at the end.
The second classic must be the 1968 Blood, Sweat & Tears locomotion Spinning Wheel coming right at ya ! We’ve got merry-go-rounds and folk songs amidst the grittiest of bare knuckle brass. It certainly put songwriter and lead vocalist David Clayton-Thomas on the map.
So don’t be hard on horns (!) It just might get you going !!