The trumpet is the one and only musical instrument I have tried to befriend. I took lessons, played in the school band and brass ensemble and on one horrific occasion embarrassed myself as a soloist. I had some fun along the way but all in all, the journey was a struggle. The trumpet won. It demanded commitment and respect in return for its melliflousness, but those were gifts I was didn’t provide. I thrashed away, as if it were a stubborn, brassy donkey, cursing its refusal to sing. But it stood its ground, the haughty thing. It gave in the same measure as it received. When, in the end, I packed it away in its velvet-lined case for the last time we both experienced a sense of relief, but also, not a little regret.
The trumpeters whose music I’ve selected for this post treated their dears far better than I. They gave their all and were rewarded. And so were we by the music they produced together.
I Love Paris. Eddie Calvert was known as the ‘Man with the Golden Trumpet’ and very popular in the 1950s and early 1960s. Unfortunately, his reputation, built around the clarion tone of his trumpet, was coupled with distasteful political views. He moved to South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where he was popular with the ruling elites, especially after arranging the old hymn, Amazing Grace, into a bit of apartheid heraldry he termed, Amazing Race. This piece is the earliest bit of trumpeting I remember and was on an album (jet airline on the cover) in my folks record collection.
The Ring of Fire. June Carter wrote this barnstorming tour de force with her then husband Merle Kilgore. Her lover, Johnny Cash, introduced what seemed an incongruous ingredient, the Mexican trumpets, and overnight he had the biggest hit of his career. The names of the trumpet players remain unknown but it is their work that makes this song one of the greatest trumpet songs ever performed.
The Lonely Bull (El Solo Toro). Herb Alpert more than any other trumpeter inspired me to take trumpet lessons. I just couldn’t get enough of his light, joyous and sparkling sound which still epitomizes for me, America in the 1960s. It is the sound of California, summer and shopping malls. Though this was recorded as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, there was in fact no Tijuana Brass until several years later. Albert recorded most of the group’s early records by overdubbing the trumpet tracks himself. It was only when the records become so popular that he was forced to put a group together (the already-named Tijuana Brass) and hit the road. They were one of the biggest groups of the 60s but Alpert was always a reluctant ‘star’. He eventually had to call an end to the group, after surviving a near mental breakdown on stage. He immediately sought out a therapist and tried to reclaim his life.
Meeting Across the River. Bruce Springsteen has a knack for bringing all sorts of characters alive in his songs. This song, from Born to Run, by my reckoning the greatest of all rock n roll albums, is a master lesson in storytelling. A small-time crook desperate to get a break briefs his young side-kick, Eddie, on how to act when they cross the river for a meeting with a real Goodfella. Randy Brecker’s trumpet, which accompanies the song from the opening bar, provides the perfect sonic atmospheric for the song, conjuring up the lights of New York twinkling on the dark surface of the Hudson River.
I’m Crazy ‘Bout my Baby. Louis Armstrong sings this Fats Domino song, as well as delivers an infectious, prancing trumpet accompaniment.
Ah Leu Cha. John Coltrane duels it out with Miles Davis on this track from ‘Round About Midnight, one of my favorite jazz albums. The fast moving piece, which Miles plays without a mute, is performed with perfection and precision, and is a nice contrast to the ultra ‘cool’ sound with which Miles was about to revolutionize the entire jazz universe.
The Return of the Prodigal Son. I chose this song because I have a deep love for Jesus’s parable of the same name. But also because Freddie Hubbard, my favorite trumpeter, is such a master and this is but one of hundreds of great tracks by the man who defined trumpet artistry when he was at his peak (60s and 70s). His warm and honeyed tone had no rival and can be heard on a huge catalogue of albums.
Where y’all At? This is an angry, passionate jazz rant by a man who has probably been the subject of more rants by jazz critics than any other contemporary musician. When he burst on the scene in the early ‘80s Wynton Marsalis was hailed as jazz’s savior but soon fell foul of the cogniscenti who labeled him ‘traditionalist’ and a dogmatist. This track has some good trumpet playing, but ultimately it is about the anger and frustration.
My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It. Wynton teams up with Willie Nelson for a fun take on the Hank Williams song. Both ham it up but Wynton manages to deliver some good trumpet breaks as well.
Bombshell Baby from Bombay. A Hindi movie’s interpretation of Elvis rock ‘n roll. Wonderful jazzy trumpet playing from some faceless Bollywood studio musicians.
African Marketplace. I love this song for the same reason I love Meeting Across the River. It conjures up a scene that is vividly alive, in this case, a busy frenetic African market. The seeming chaos of the trumpet, drum and clarinet also reminds me of the wedding bands that used to blare their way through the streets of Allahabad and Mussoorie where I grew up. The trumpeters always in the lead and often drunk as skunks.
Trumpet Highlife. West African pop/jazz from Victor Ola-Iya and His Cool Cats!
If Joe Fas Me. Another wild trumpet led romp with a singer nearly delirious with hilarity. Go the Twinkle Stars!!!