Say what? While the French horn is not exactly unknown in jazzstep forward players Julius Watkins and John Graas and orchestrators Gil Evans and Miles Davis, amongst othersit's still enough of a novelty to raise at least one of your eyebrows.
But this is by no means a novelty album. It's actually a very beautiful and credible set of covers ("Linmere" is the only original), by turns limpid and muscular, on which Jim Rattigan entirely overcomes the technical challenges of the instrument.
The French horn can sound cumbersome, with a turning circle about the size of a supertanker's, but Rattigan coaxes out elegant, fast flowing lines throughout the set, and produces a lush and chilled tone (with occasional contrasting snatches of raucous vocalisation) for which the word mellifluous might have been invented. In his fleet-fingered hands the instrument sounds like a nimble, muted trombone. And very nice too.
The Wagner tuba, however, which Rattigan plays on an up-tempo (and then doubletimed) reading of Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves," is undeniably a novelty. Designed to architect Albert Speer's, I mean composer Richard Wagner's, specifications, for use in his epic operas, it hasn't previously got any closer to jazz than Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky. It sounds like a slightly deeper-pitched French horn and negotiates the rapid tempo with apparent ease.
Rattigan has picked some class A standards to cover here, and his interpretations of Steve Swallow's "Eiderdown," Billy Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" and "Chelsea Bridge," Monk's "Reflections," and Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus" are gorgeous. Koller, Whitford, and Calderazzo provide virile, inventive support and all three contribute strong solos (there's some great Fender Rhodes/drums dialogue on "Autumn Leaves" and a lovely unaccompanied piano solo on "Chelsea Bridge").
With its playing time of just under 45 minutes, you may be surprised to find yourself wishing Jazz French Horn goes on a little longer.
Personnel: Jim Rattigan, French horn and Wagner tuba; Hans Koller, piano and Fender Rhodes; Dave Whitford, bass; Gene Calderazzo, drums.