22 April 2013


Which of these two types of trumpet (or cornet) player do you prefer?

PLAYER A: He produces screaming 32-bar solos or even 64-bar solos [32 x 2], sometimes raucous, using lots of notes, especially high ones, often pulsating, but with not much feeling apart from sheer energy, and with little attention to the subtleties of the music.

Norman Thatcher
PLAYER B : He concentrates on the effects of the ensemble, contributing subtly, imaginatively and with soul to the harmonic progressions and - if taking a solo at all - he keeps it short and achieves effects through harmony, tone, surprising phrasing - without any exhibitionism. Have a listen to the late Norman Thatcher playing in this manner. And of course Ken Colyer was famous for setting the standard in this type of playing. That's what I would call soulful and musical trumpet playing:
Click here.

When I was beginning to study traditional jazz trumpet playing 27 years ago, I attended a tasteful concert given in Norwich by the band run by the late great clarinetist Chris Blount (who incidentally may also be heard playing beautifully with Norman in the video above). Throughout the first half, I closely watched the trumpeter (Bill Dickens) who played the perfect lead in this band where good melodies and neat teamwork were always principal features.

I noticed that, although he produced some very pleasing solo choruses, he never played a note above the F at the top of the stave. I mentioned this to Bill during the interval. 'No need to,' he said.

And since 2010 we have been able to enjoy on YouTube the playing of young Shaye Cohn, who sets an example to the whole trad jazz world of how to play a brass instrument tastefully. I have watched her in more than 150 videos and never caught her attempting the screaming, raucous pointless high-note flashy type of solo.
What Shaye offers is soul. Her tone, her bluesy phrasing, her bending of notes, her emphasis on teamwork and ensemble are second to none. Some of her best and cleverest playing occurs where you hardly notice it - in the background while accompanying the singer or decorating the lead or solo being taken by another member of the band. She's particularly clever at incorporating the sixth, the flattened third and seventh and the ninths of chords into her subtle runs.

Take for example, a video of Memphis Shake - a routine performance by Tuba Skinny standards. Just concentrate on every note Shaye plays. Notice how she works hard throughout, with amazing variations on the melody, but always as part of a team - bringing out the best in colleagues and in the band as a whole.
Click here to view it.
Or look at a more recent performance of Dallas Rag. Energetic, and including a few high A flats and As, but never mere exhibitionism. Isn't that so much more musical than those screaming solos?
Click here to view it.

Reader Sam Wood has sent me this comment:

Hello Ivan,
There is a way to deal with screaming trumpeters.  Near the end of their second screaming 32-bar chorus, just shout "Great, do another!"  Usually their lip can't manage another 32 screaming bars and the third chorus falls somewhere between anti-climax and disaster.  Sometimes they take a hint from this experience.
Works best with over-enthusiastic sitters-in.  Doesn't work so well when the trumpet player is the band leader.
If this problem occurs with a modern-style tenor sax player (it is always a tenor player) the only solution is to retire to the bar.  You will have time for a pint.