Summer Listening: A Tale of Three Trumpets

After a bit of a break from blogs, gigs and work,  three albums in particular have continually been finding their way onto lounging about listening through iPod playlists, or into car CD player on  journeys and hiding from the sun afternoons. Is it BeStillcoincidence that trumpet players are central to each of them? Perhaps, but it did send me back to something I read a few years ago which intrigued, amused and has stayed with me. More of that in a moment.   First up is Be Still from the Dave Douglas Quintet. The leader’s trumpet features centrally, but it’s the repertoire, arranging and ensemble on this album  that is transporting on every play.  A collection of hymns folk songs, there are borrowings of melodies from traditional tunes, themes from Sibelius and Vaughan Williams alongside originals. The atmosphere is reflective and celebratory with melancholy and loss not far below the surface. It’s a triumph from the the first mesmeric figure on Linda Oh’s bass and clear toned phrases from Aoife O’Donovan on the opening title track ‘Be Still’ to the the soaring phrases of Douglas’ somagneticlo on ‘Whither must I Wander’ on the last track. In between there’s plenty of energy and an organic group feel on collective improvisations like ‘Middle March’, a dedication to Paul Motian. In more overtly jazzy territory is Terence Blanchard’s Magnetic.  Once again, it’s the writing and group dynamic that seem to give this a album a special feel. The material is mainly Blanchard originals but with all his youthful band getting writing credits. Bass player Joshua Crumbly’s ‘Jacobs Ladder’ evokes an impassioned, standout solo from tenorman Brice Winston as the attractive melody over an even pulse builds, and Winston’s flowing lines emphasise the shifting harmony. Blanchard’s Hallucinations, a spooky atmospheric themes is vehicle that shows what an emotional storm the leader can whip up with a keening sound and squalls of notes. It’s a consummate contemporary jazz album that has been demanding repeated listens (even with a few, to my ears, slightly unnecessary  electronic excursions for the trumpet).  And completing the trio is the Julia Hulsmann Quartet’s album In Full View the trumpet supplied by Tom Arthur to complement the leader’s regular piano trio. What a little treasure this has turned out to be. The tunes mostly build from repeated phrases or looped chord sequences some with stately melodic themes, others more lively with interlocking figures between bass, trumpet and piano. The atmosphere is thoughtful and the ECM label signature sparseness is there, but the blending and interplay of Hulsmann’s piano and Arthur’s trumpet is exquisite whether on a written theme or in improvised passages. It makes for tension, interest and a quiet, austere beauty.  And there is a connecting thread for these three albums.  There is some magic created between musicians in sympathy with each other that is more  present and affecting than the sum ofIn Full View individual performances. Another other thread is those three trumpets.

A chapter in an anthology edited by an American academic and writer Krin Gabbard (Gabbard, K., 1995. Representing jazz, Duke University Press Books) has provided me with a quick categorisation of trumpeters that’s seems to have stood the test of time. The chapter has the eye catching title ‘Signifyin (g) the Phallus:“ Mo’Better Blues” and Representations of the Jazz Trumpet’.  In the midst of a very scholarly discussion, is the observation that the playing of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie for example, stand in sharp contrast to,  say, Miles Davis’s sound at its most fragile and vulnerable. He describes them as Phallic and non-Phallic (or post- Phallic).  I’m sure I’ve missed some of the subtlety of his argument and have grossly simplified the idea over the years but it does work surprisingly well. The tone, phrasing and expression of any trumpeter has me instantly deciding are they phallic/ non phallic?  Of  course the same person can move between one or the other in the same set or even tune, and the gender of the musician is not particularly relevant, but usually they stay on one side or the other.  And what of my three trumpeters? Well I would say they all ‘use the trumpet to reveal emotional depth, introspection even vulnerability’ as Gabbard puts it, notwithstanding some swagger and occasional bursts of brash blaring tone.

On the basis then of an eclectic repertoire, the magic of world class ensembles interacting, great writing and arranging  and beautiful non-phallic trumpet playing here are three albums that repay repeated listens. Now, back to the beach…

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