Playing with Horns

As part of our Playing with Others theme, most of us are discussing the first time we jammed with one or two friends in the basement. Let me take a moment to describe the joys of playing with a 4-piece horn section, which creates a band of at least 7 musicians (and 9 or 10 in my case).

When I was in high school and college, I thought that Chicago and The Guess Who and Blood Sweat & Tears were among the best rock bands around. I loved their horns (trumpets, saxes, trombones), and learned to listen carefully to figure out how many types of horns were being used. I learned how to play the brass parts on piano. Many Motown groups used brass to spice up a dance tune. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” has that great horn riff, with the bass chasing it all the way. Even the Rolling Stones use horns on “Bitch” and the Who have used horns almost since their inception, mostly because John Entwhistle was a terrific French Horn player as well as an exceptionally talented bassist. Sax solos have long been a part of Rock’n’Roll, but I’m talking about the complete section.

So one of my dreams has always been to play with a full horn section. And I have done it twice, so far. Those of you that track our family adventures know that we organize and perform in our middle school talent show. Our kids have always played their saxes (or clarinet or flute) in these shows, but usually they were as solo instruments. Laura sings with one of the boys, I play bass and run the rehearsals.

For my son’s eighth grade year, I decided to see if I could pull together a horn section and produce a reasonable product. First, I recruited other eighth graders from the Jazz Band: my son on tenor sax, his friends on alto, trumpet and trombone. The important thing here is that they all can play pretty well, they can read music, and they get along with each other reasonably well.

The Jazz Band teacher told me where I could find the charts he uses, and I bought the charts for Get Ready and I Got You ($40 for each song, in case you’re interested). This is more expensive than standard sheet music, but it’s more complicated too. These charts have numbered measures and labeled sections, and they are arranged in horn-friendly keys.

Our third song was the blues ballad True Love by Pat Benatar (with the Room Full of Blues horn section), which I couldn’t find anywhere. I asked one of the guys at the local music school, and for $100, he wrote it for us. The song is pretty easy to transcribe, but he knew how to arrange the horns to build chords and harmonies correctly, so it was worth it.

I gave everyone a CD with the three songs, so they had an idea of what we were playing, but the keys were slightly different.

Now I have a couple of serious impediments to being a big-band leader; first I can’t play any horn, and second, I can’t sing (so I can’t fake the horn parts). However, I have lots of experience jamming, and I’ve learned how to teach band dynamics.

So at our first rehearsal I passed out copies of the charts (never give out the originals!), and we got started. Over the years, the way we play Get Ready has morphed from the original recording. So I tell the kids: “OK, we start at measure 33, play through 40, and then go to the verse starting in measure 9.” Needless to say, they looked at me strangely. But they played it, and it sounded fine.

As we got organized for True Love, I was explaining to our young drummer that I really needed her to keep the time true, as I would be focusing on my fretless bass line. We started playing, and I concentrated on my fingering and slides. Suddenly, this power chord grew behind me – the horns were playing the opening crescendo perfectly. I literally stopped playing and turned around. They all looked at me bewildered. “Sorry, but I wasn’t expecting that, and it was wonderful.”

We rehearsed three times, organizing solos and making sure our outros were tight. The night of the show, the kids did a great job, and we received praise from everyone. For the kids, it may have been just another gig, but for me it was a magical performance.

Four years later, my daughter is in eighth grade, and I decide to do it again. I followed the same routine, buying the chart for Just You ‘n’ Me, and having a different person create a full section chart for Moondance. I recycled Get Ready and we were off. I won’t bore you with the details, as there were many similarities, and some individual differences. In the end, we pulled it off, and the horns sounded great!

Pause for a moment of parental bragging: Our daughter Jacqui mainly plays alto sax, but she also plays the flute and clarinet. She played clarinet for the soprano sax solo in Just You ‘n’ Me, and played the “lead flute” on Moondance, switching to sax for her solo. Some of her classmates knew she played the other instruments, but they’d never actually seen her switch off in the middle of a song.

So if you’ve ever thought about playing with horns, I’m here to tell you that it can be done, and done well.

Here is a small video snippet from Just You and Me. The first part shows the harmony with vocals, and the second part show a pretty good soli-riff.

Places to buy horn charts: