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Two-Trumpet Cacophony

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This article was first published at All About Jazz in February 2002.

Miles had it figured out: never record with another trumpeter in a small group setting—it just don't work. Or was it his ego? Two, three, and multi-trumpet small group ensembles represent an obscure configuration in modern jazz. This position contrasts sharply with the notoriety and abundance of two-tenor saxophone lineups: Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis' "Tough Tenors" act of the early '60s immediately comes to mind; Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, and Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt illustrate a couple of other famous tenor pairings; yada, yada, yada. But two + trumpet recordings remain little known. Despite this marginal status, the two-trumpet format exhibits distinct characteristics and a clue to its relative lack of success.

Multi-trumpet small groups are by no means unheard of in jazz. Recordings prior to the mid '50s exist. But with the advent of hard bop, a spate of two-trumpet albums appears—musicians and producers recognized the novelty of the format. Hank Mobley enlisted trumpet icons Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan for his 1956 session, variously known as the Hank Mobley Sextet or Hank Mobley with Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan. The Prestige label paired Idrees Sulieman and Webster Young in 1957 on Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors. The multi-trumpet arrangement evidently held a huge appeal for Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard and Clark Terry for the 1980 release, The Trumpet Summit Meets the Oscar Peterson Big Four, and the outtakes it spawned, The Alternate Blues. And just last year, Hugh Ragin convened a cadre of contemporary trumpeters for his quintuple horn extravaganza, Fanfare & Fiesta. So no dearth of recordings sporting the format exist, but none of these albums enjoys classic status either—no Desert Island Picks here—or even wide recognition.

Listening to these discs, some features of the multi-trumpet group become apparent. From an instrumental standpoint, the sessions with strictly two trumpets harness a saxophone to round out the front line. Mobley on tenor negotiates the activity between Byrd and Morgan on The Hank Mobley Sextet; altoist Jackie McLean graces 2 Trumpets; and John Coltrane and Bobby Jaspar represent the two tenors on Interplay. Saxophone mediation disappears on the albums with three or more trumpets.

In the liner notes to his album, Hank Mobley explains that utilizing a two-trumpet arrangement dictates specific musical features: "It gave us a limited range, and it was a challenge to make the writing interesting. We used a certain amount of closed voicing, some unison lines, some double thirds; I think the ensembles got a good blend." On virtually every song, Byrd, Morgan and Mobley state and reprise entire melodies in unison. The other recordings lend credence to Mobley's paradigm. Except for the avant-garde, group improvisation tunes on the Hugh Ragin disc (which eschew firm melodic structure) the songs on these albums exhibit unison playing by the trumpets to establish and reprise the theme. "Anatomy" on Interplay applies an exciting technique: rather than all horns blowing in continuous unison, Sulieman and Young play the melody first, then the saxophones, and then all four horns together. The title track of Fanfare & Fiesta displays the musical potential that unisons can reach. Hugh Ragin, James Zollar, Omar Kabir, Dontae Winslow and Clark Terry play the tricky lines of the melody in perfect synchronization so that their five trumpets croon as one multi-layered voice.

The multi-trumpet format suffers an inherent stricture: a frontline consisting expressly of two or more b-flat horns circumscribes the music's breadth. The challenge for the musicians becomes teasing out a distinct voice from each trumpet in order to create a satisfying listening experience. The horn players attempt to achieve this differentiation during the solos. The most elegant results occur when the trumpets play in opposite styles. "Barrel of Funk" on The Hank Mobley Sextet offers the best example. After the theme, Donald Byrd takes the lead blowing cool and sparing, choosing to hover in the middle registers—he has something to say, but does so concisely. Here, his sound reminds the listener of Miles or Art Farmer. In contrast, Lee Morgan explodes with his signature, brash and fiery style, half-valving and trilling in the upper registers. The juxtaposition of chill Byrd and hot Morgan cooks. Webster Young and Idrees Sulieman realize contrast-via-style to a lesser extent on Interplay's "Anatomy." Young takes the first solo, floating in the middle registers and judiciously spacing his bundles of notes. Sulieman opts to play in a higher register than Young and economizes less, emitting a continuous flow of multi-note bursts.

Few tunes on these recordings succeed in creating distinction in improvisational sound exclusively through playing style—even for these trumpet virtuosos the order is tall! As a consequence, a number of the sessions resort to props. "Chicken Wings" on The Trumpet Summit employs two types of mutes. Dizzy Gillespie initiates the extemporization on trumpet outfitted with traditional mute. The muffled notes of his horn contrast with the incisive clarion of Freddie Hubbard's open trumpet that follows. Clark Terry augments his trumpet with plunger mute and generates warblings that distance his voice yet from the previous two soloists. One man on flugelhorn adds another element of flexibility. "Wrap Up Your Troubles in Dreams" on The Alternate Blues illustrates the possibilities: the restrained buzzes of Freddie Hubbard's flugelhorn offer subtle differentiation from the brassy, sharp crackles of Gillespie's open horn and the choked voicing of Clark Terry's muted trumpet. The flugelhorn's inherent dampening produces a singular sound even when Hubbard pushes the highs that on trumpet might be mistaken for Dizzy. With four trumpets to individualize, Fanfare & Fiesta avails itself of technology and features wah-wah mute on a number of tunes in addition to the former devices. Ragin's ensemble pulls out all the stops on the Lester Bowie number, "How Strange." Omar Kabir on trumpet with wah-wah mute and James Zollar on trumpet with plunger mute commence the duo improvisation. The oscillations of Kabir's electrically enhanced horn pair well with Zollar's acoustic wah bending. And both remain distinct from Ragin and Winslow's pristine, open horn Spanish brass duet that follows.

Whether through individual musical style or the use of mechanical intervention, the most gratifying two or multi-trumpet numbers differentiate each horn's sound. Surprisingly, the biggest exponent of the format failed to grasp this essential ingredient. With albums called 2 Trumpets and Three Trumpets, Art Farmer leaves no room to doubt that he's capitalizing on a discrete genre. But the music on these discs is as prosaic as the titles. On every tune the trumpets blat monotonously complementary lines. Take "Palm Court Alley" on the triple horn release: even to the most attentive listener Sulieman, Farmer and Byrd sound so similar that their back to back improvisation metastasizes into one protracted and indistinguishable solo.

The narrow musical spectrum of two, three and multi-trumpet small group ensembles and the difficulty to individualize each horn's sound within that range probably account for the format's limited popularity. The genre manifests some charming characteristics: unison playing during the development of melody and contrasting solos when the trumpets succeed in differentiating their voices. Miles' ego probably prevented him from entering the studio with a musician of the same ax, not the challenge. His aching and lyric voice beside the combustion of an insouciant Lee Morgan would be something to behold indeed. The definitive two-trumpet album still awaits genesis—Wadada Leo Smith and Roy Campbell perhaps?

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