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Jam School!

Horn Sections in Pop Bands

Just one horn:  It's usually a sax. Tenor is particularly popular because it balances high and low ranges so well. Clarence Clemons in the E Street Band. Junior Walker and the All-Stars. It's a lengthy list. A single horn usually finds itself in the lead role. Playing solos, countermelodies, or sometimes the melody itself. He might also contribute to the rhythm by playing some repetitive patterns. Find some groups and investigate for yourself.

Two horns: Generally trumpet and sax. The trumpet's sheer power makes the horn section heard, and the sax is often found an octave below. Rhythmic pops and punctuations are much more effective with two or more horns because the doubling makes them sound very strong. In many cases, a trumpet and sax can give you a radically different section sound by doubling on flute and flugelhorn. Other groups may employ a different combination. Sax and trombone can make for lower pitched lines that are not as obtrusive as when a trumpet is involved. Trumpet and trombone have most of the capabilities of trumpet and sax. An unusual, but very famous combination was the two-sax section of the Average White Band. (the trumpet player quit and they never replaced him) With two horns, harmony is also possible. For non-reading situations, two players make an ideal section. They can generally do anything that they agree on as a pair, and if one of them has an ear for harmony, he has plenty of room in which to work. For this reason (as well as economics) most horn sections have two players.

Three horns:  Most of the more deluxe horn sections sport three horns. Usually, a trumpet, a sax and a trombone. Often, a trumpet and two saxes. Other combinations are more rare--mostly notably the alto sax, tenor sax and trombone of James Brown's famous J.B. Horns. Most groups with sections this size are playing funk or soul music and the horns have a big visible role. Note groups like Kool and the Gang, The Commodores, and the Ohio Players. One highly notable rock group would be Chicago. Many of the newer swing groups like Royal Crown Revue and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies use three-horn sections. The advantages that the third horn brings include the ability for one horn player to solo while the other two riff in unison or harmony, richer harmonies in background parts, extra power, and more versatility--particularly if you have one or more sax players who double clarinet or flute. One very popular instrumental group, the Tijuana Brass, used two trumpets and one trombone. Important note: Once that third horn enters the band, it becomes more difficult to harmonize off the top of your head. For three players to work as one, someone is going to have to coordinate their notes--probably by writing parts for them. A three horn section can cover triad type voices very well, but can also sound very jazzy if the writer is skillful.

Four Horns: This is rarer yet. The makeup of the section has much to do with what kind of music the group plays. A swing band will proabably be a trumpet, a trombone and two saxes. Note Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Roomful of Blues, James Moody's working band from the 1950's, several Duke Ellington small groups including Johnny Hodges Orchestra and Rex Stewart's Orchestra. Oliver Nelson showed some terrific possibilities for a four-horn section featuring trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax, and baritone sax on his legendary album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth. Also check his work on More Blues and the Abstract Truth. A more rock-oriented band might go for a brassier sound. Blood Sweat and Tears, the grandaddies of jazz-rock, had a horn section with two trumpets, one sax and one trombone. This made for a very brassy sound with a lot of screaming high notes. Having two trumpet players is a tremendous advantage when it allows them to share/alternate the duty of hitting those strenuous high screech notes. A mellower sounding band with the same instrumentation was the group used by Ray Charles on his album The Great Ray Charles. The arrangements were done by Quincy Jones. Writing for four horns is very scientific and fairly easy if you follow the rules. There are always enough horns to hit the essential chord tones, and always enough left over to play some color notes. This is also a good sized section if you want to have more complex arrangements. Two horns can play a melody against two other horns playing rhythmic figures or a countermelody.

Five Horns:  On the rock/funk side of things, the most legendary five-horn section is probably that of Tower of Power. Two trumpets, two tenor saxes and the very famous baritone sax of Stephen 'Doc' Kupka. The TOP horn sound is legendary in the recording industry and many famous artists have made use of them. The two trumpets provide unlimited screech power, and the tenor and bari saxes provide a  warm, reedy middle and bottom. The unique Tower of Power horn sound was arranged (written) for the most part by trumpeter Greg Adams. There have also been many fine five-horn jazz groups. The most common lineup is trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax, trombone and bari sax. Numerous groups have used this instrumentation. I have particulary enjoyed some employed by pianist/arranger Jimmy Jones for artists like Joe Williams (Me and the Blues, Jump for Joy) and Nancy Wilson (Broadway My Way, Hollywood My Way). This instrumentation is extremely flexible. More recently a California guitarist named Anthony Wilson has released three albums featuring the same instrumentation. It makes a very rich palette from which to paint your musical ideas. Writing for five horns can be as easy as writing for four if you stay within certain limits, or it can be more complex and colorful. For economic reasons very few working pop bands have this many horns.

Other Combinations:  Another five-horn combination from the Big Band Era is the "Tenor Band." That's three tenor saxes plus a trumpet and a trombone. A popular six-horn combination in both jazz and pop music is 2 trumpets, a trombone, and 1 each alto, tenor and bari sax. There were a number of larger bands in the 1920's using 2 trumpets, a trombone, 2 alto saxes and 1 tenor sax, but the reed players did extensive doubling--especially on clarinet. Benny Goodman's big band of the 1930's had 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, and 4 saxes--generally alto/alto/tenor/tenor, with the clarinet often providing or doubling the lead. A standard big band horn section today is 4 trumpets, 3 or 4 trombones and 5 saxes (2 alto/2 tenor/1 bari). Stan Kenton's band used 5 trumpet, 5 trombones and 5 saxes.

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