Solo Tubes : A post by Dave Douglas at Destination: out

June 30th, 2009

photo by Bruno Bollaert

We at D:O are incredibly honored to be able to present the following guest post from composer, trumpeter, blogger, label magnate, and all-around brass advocate Dave Douglas. If you like what you read and hear here, be sure to check out Dave’s own wonderful recent work. Enjoy.

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It’s an unusual breed, the solo trumpet recording. Surprisingly, the music is not really for specialists (not that there are many specialists anyway). More to the point, so much of the music goes beyond specifically instrumental interests. Though it is extremely demanding physically, the challenge is really compositional.

The demands are akin to an event like the Iron Man, a 2-mile swim, 120-mile bike, 26-mile run. It requires lots of different skills, enormous reserves of stamina, and a basic belief in one’s ability to pull it off. Preparation is never-ending. Persistence is indispensable, as well as a compulsive desire to see it through. It’s a commitment.

In addition, it requires a point of view. After all that’s been done with these instruments, solo pieces can’t be achieved with chops alone. Solo trumpeting is different from solo piano, for example, because all you’ve got is a metal tube, air, and three valves. Any counterpoint has to be an illusion. It takes a lot of ingenuity to create harmony from a single line. All of the tracks here attack these problems in one way or another.

There is one advantage to the trumpet: because a vibrating lip creates the main body of sound, there is infinite variety to the timbral and textural resources. Though two people may play the same horn, no two people have the same lip. That’s what makes each of these tracks come alive with the creator’s intention.

These are some favorites, limiting it to acoustic – horn only – and leaving out many greats. The short list of missing links would be Luciano Berio’s Sequenza X, Natsuke Tamura, Kenny Wheeler, Axel Doerner, Peter Evans, Mauricio Kagel’s Atem, and Lucia Dluogszewski’s Space Is A Diamond. Feel free to enlighten as to others.

D:O agreed to bend from their usual out-of-print rule, but we did get permission from all the musicians whose work is in print. Thanks to Jeff and Jeff for doing what they do here.

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Aye, aye!

Lester Bowie
African Children
Horo : 1978

With “Captain Courageous” Lester Bowie creates a solo that seems both off-the-cuff-relaxed and extremely well conceived from a formal perspective. It was most likely conceived intuitively (although what, really, IS intuition but deeply developed perception?). This is a solo not so much about extended technique, though there is that, as about pleasure and narrative. The flutter-tonguing intro, mysteriously arising and ear-friendly, is immediately followed by a “Here I Am!” set of pedal tones below the normal range of the horn.

(Trumpeters are usually crest-fallen to find out that most listeners think pedal tones sound like flatulence. Ditto, annoyingly, screeching air-blowing effects – to the non-trumpeter – often sound like kissing. It’s akin to the poor drummer who uses small bell percussion and the band responds by playing “Jingle Bells.” “Dashing through the snow….” Enough! Let our sounds be simply sounds!)

(Fortunately trumpeters are rarely deterred by what people think. And there’s nothing like the sound of a gracefully executed pedal tone.)

The first “real” notes in “Captain Courageous” are all smeared by half-valving. Bluesy, sing-songy, but marred, like the pope in a Francis Bacon painting. This is followed by a series of airy wind effects, followed finally by cleanly executed almost martial trumpet calls.

Two things unite all this: Lester’s ability to take his time as it unfolds, and the very personal complexity in his tone. Musicians are often afraid of silence, and even sans fear the usual response to silence is to quickly do something to fill it up. Hear the absence of sound as equal in weight to the presence of sound, and it’s clear that this piece makes perfect use of both. That is one of the hallmarks of Lester’s playing, demonstrated well here: a general comfortableness with sound and lack of sound. It’s what makes the pacing so remarkable. It’s one of the elements that make Lester so identifiable. Because of his awareness of emptiness and his willful use of it, the notes he does play are sculpted in relief. His unusual technical treatment of every note is that much more meaningful.

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Toshinori Kondo
Fuigo from a Different Dimension
Bellows : 1979

Toshinori Kondo made a great solo record in the mid-seventies called Fuigo from a Different Dimension. This is one of the first tapes John Zorn passed along when we first started working together, and it’s unlike anything else out there. Composed almost entirely of special effects and unusual use of the instrument, Kondo creates compositions full of density and variety, with astounding twists and turns of texture and timbre. He even manages to use pedal tones without sounding scatological…

Kondo also uses the magnificent sound of the room he’s in as a foil. The whole recording has the same natural resonance, giving the mind’s eye a picture of a human being in a room with a horn and a microphone, some mutes and gubbins. Aside from the innovative extended techniques on the trumpet itself, Kondo weaves a fully conceived compositional tale in this piece, a natural progression from one event to the next. He presages a lot of trumpet sounds that later found prominent use by other players.

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Gaburo's score/poem for Mouth Piece - CLICK TO ENLARGE

Kenneth Gaburo
New Music for Trumpet
Orion : 1972
buy @ Amazon

Jack Logan, trumpet.

“Mouth-Piece: Sextet for Solo Trumpet,” by Kenneth Gaburo, is a composition performed here by Jack Logan. It’s one of those pieces where multiple stories are being told at the same time, like a simultaneous expression of parallel story lines. The playing is simply extraordinary, constantly morphing and developing one timbral idea after another. See score, above. This is one of the most controlled (in a good way) explorations of sound for brass that’s been heard on record. Thanks to trumpeter Rich Johnson for research assistance.

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Arve Henriksen
Rune Grammofon : 2001
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Arve Henriksen often plays without a mouthpiece, making this track a perfect counterpoint to the Gaburo. Arve does a lot of work with electronics, but in the case of “Beauty of Bamboos,” the electronics are only a means of capturing the very delicate sounds he coaxes from the horn. This incredibly imaginative player has for years been dreaming up new contexts for the trumpet and inventing new ways of getting sound out of it. Basically what Henriksen is doing here is using the small lead pipe as a mouthpiece, playing with a much smaller part of the lip, and thereby getting a much buzzier, airy tone almost like a shakuhachi. (This is what I think he’s doing, though I could be wrong…). This sound, as well as a precisely controlled manipulation of the valves, creates a serenely concentrated melodic meditation.

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Bill Dixon
November 1981
Soul Note : 1982
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Bill Dixon’s “Webern” is a classic of the genre. It’s a highly distilled constellation of gestures that range from the very highest to the very lowest notes on the horn. The dynamics are also arrayed along extremes, in a constant state of organic evolution. Much like in Webern’s miniatures, Dixon says what he has to say within the first ten seconds, develops the ideas quickly, wraps up, and gets out. It couldn’t be any more clearly executed or perfectly complete. Again the technical challenges of the trumpet, daunting as they are, are subservient to the human expression in this piece of music.

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Greg Kelley
Meniscus : 2000

“Untitled” is the first track on Greg Kelley’s groundbreaking solo trumpet record, Trumpet, recorded in spring 2000. It’s rare you can say someone is creating a radical new way of playing. This is one of those times. Greg’s record really hit with some force, and summed up the work that a few trumpeters around the world have been developing for the past decade or so. Kelley literally reinvents the sound of the horn with pieces like this one, where he covers the front end of the horn with a metal plate, variously exposing and occluding different frequency vibrations with the grinding metal. He’s also developed circular breathing to the point where the listener is forced to reconsider whether it’s still a wind instrument. This track is an absolute winner. Great for parties, too.

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Nate Wooley

Nate Wooley
I Know You By My Wounds
no label : rec. 2004

Nate Wooley is another groundbreaker. Again, as a reminder, this piece is entirely acoustic. No electronic manipulation. Not that there would be anything wrong with electronic manipulation, but in hearing “Yukio Mishima” it’s hard to figure out exactly how he’s getting this done without it. Nate redefines what it means to make a solo trumpet recording. There’s an enigma here. Knowing the force and passion it takes to perform a piece like this rams up against the mysteriously dispassionate demeanor of the materials. Wooley manages to simultaneously torture us with sonic whiplash, but do it in a state of preternatural calm. Most definitely enhanced trumpet techniques.

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Rob Mazurek
Silver Spines
Delmark : 2002
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“Love, For (Slight Burst In Beginning),” by cornetist Rob Mazurek, comes from his Silver Spines recordings, many of which use electronics in addition to the horn. This track finds Rob dismantling the tubes and submerging some of them in (what one can only assume is) water. The result is a warmly rounded set of tones that fit beautifully with the other sounds he gets on the album. “Valves tubes out” is a surprisingly rich sound that Rob uses to maximum effect here. In an entirely acoustic context, Mazurek hearkens to the electronic world by using a “prepared” instrument. This solo is in keeping with his constant search for new sound sources.

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Baikida Carroll
The Spoken Word
hat HUT : 1979

For many years a close colleague of Lester Bowie, Baikida Carroll has long been a leader in the expressive, passionate, preacherly trumpet playing lineage. His 1974 solo on Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.” alone puts him in the pantheon of the greats. This track comes from his solo record, The Spoken Word. “Third Image” starts with a burst of chromatic line playing and rhythmic ferocity. This sounds like a written “head” in the traditional sense, but it’s a theme with a lot of meat on the bones: lots of material to grab on to. Baikida stays faithful in developing those initial ideas for the better part of fifteen minutes. There is a focus to that development that is unique to Baikida. While allowing for a free-flowing, improvised and conversational feeling, the lines keep coming back to variations of the initial image. As far away as he gets timbrally, Baikida keeps referring to his themes in a naturally developing way.

Of all the tracks here, this is one where one could talk about links to other modern trumpeters, like Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Charles Tolliver, Nat Adderley, Jimmy Owens, Ted Daniel, or Don Ayler. And yet, one thing you could say about Baikida is that his committed sense of development, like expanding ripples in a pool, is what makes the sound all his own. It’s probably the thing that makes him one of the great composers on the scene, and may have led him into all of the work he currently does in writing for the theater.

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Taken piece by piece, any of these tracks could be ideological ammunition. But as a group they are disordered enough to give equal time to a Babel of voices. The only way to really understand the current environment is to take them all in on equal standing. Solo trumpeting may be an arcane and ascetic activity, but its very nakedness casts the variety of the music in stark relief.

It’s an archaic idea, this playing of brass instruments. Blow into a metal tube; create a frequency by buzzing the lips. Manipulate the sound. Repeat.

It’s not going to stop.

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