Artist’s Choice: Steven Bernstein on Great Brass Solos on Vocal Songs
Where intuition, fearless virtuosity and restraint meet
Playing a brass solo on a vocal song is a unique situation. The art of these solos is to conjure the melody without aping it, compliment the timbre and phrasing of the vocalist, and elevate the song to a new level. Adding the beautiful mystery of an improvised solo creates a new dimension within a lyric-based song. These situations are also unique in that they take place in a recording studio, usually with the soloist hearing the music for the first time, and require a special blend of intuition, fearless virtuosity and restraint. This is not meant to be a list of the greatest or most iconic solos in the vocal genre; rather, these are solos that have meant the most to me and inspired me over the years.
“The St. Louis Blues”
LOUIS ARMSTRONG, CORNET
OK … for me this is the greatest solo in recorded history. My parents had this record in the house when I was growing up, and it always seemed so mysterious and beautiful. Listen to the way Louis brings his volume down in the minor section behind the vocals and then answers each phrase perfectly. In the major section he uses incredible harmonic counterpoint, and in the minor section it’s pure blues. This man invented American music.
“Long Gone Blues”
HOT LIPS PAGE, TRUMPET
BILLIE HOLIDAY AND HER ORCHESTRA
Lips starts with sweet, soft answers behind Billie, while the reeds play organ tones for the three vocal choruses. Tab Smith plays a chorus, and then Lips takes it home with one of the greatest blues choruses I’ve ever heard. It’s the embodiment of playing a brass instrument like a human voice, only it’s better ... because it’s a trumpet.
“Five O’Clock Whistle”
REX STEWART, TRUMPET
DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS FAMOUS ORCHESTRA
This song starts with Rex’s whistle call and then he plays the melody in his own inimitable style once down the octave and then shouting it out. Ivie Anderson comes in with the song (she is my favorite of all Ellington vocalists), Rex takes a beautiful chorus and then trades with the vocal—two of the greatest sounds in musical history, with the greatest band swinging behind them. Heaven.
“I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)”
MELVIN LASTIE, CORNET
Could this be the most iconic brass solo in modern pop music? Everyone can sing this solo, and it’s probably been played by every instrument imaginable all over the world. Melvin was from one of the many important musical families in New Orleans, and contributed to important albums by Willie Bobo, Joe Henderson and Sam Cooke.
“I Will Wait for You”
JOHNNY COLES, TRUMPET
Look to the Rainbow (Verve, 1966)
I love Johnny Coles, and as any musician who crossed paths will tell you, he is one of the sweetest people on the planet. His sound and note choices were so personal and his solos always told a beautiful story. As great as his solo is, it’s his playing with Astrud on the final chorus and his outro that really gets me.
BARRY ROGERS, TROMBONE
Mambo Con Conga Is Mozambique (Tico, 1965)
Barry Rogers: His trombone sound, rhythmic skills and improvisational abilities changed the sound of New York. His solos are legendary to a generation of New Yorkers, and this may be the greatest; it’s definitely iconic.
“Today I Sing the Blues”
JOE NEWMAN, TRUMPET
Today I Sing the Blues (Columbia, 1969)
Here is a perfect example of how to combine Basie sophistication with “modern soul,” and Joe Newman is my man. His sound enhanced so many records, from Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones to Donny Hathaway and Jimi Hendrix. He was a great jazz soloist and a great player in the studio—the right man at the right time.
OSCAR BRASHEAR, TRUMPET
EARTH, WIND & FIRE
Head to the Sky (Columbia, 1973)
For my generation, this was a game-changer. Oscar’s trumpet sound and pitch blend perfectly with the electric rhythm section, and his vocabulary references Coltrane, but with a distinctly trumpetistic edge. Oscar’s sound also had a big influence on my choice of equipment.
HOWARD JOHNSON, TUBA
Hotcakes (Elektra, 1974)
Howard’s funky tuba had a huge influence on me, as did his perfect arrangements on Taj Mahal’s The Real Thingfrom 1971. When I was 16, I bought the Band’s Rock of Ages because it had Howard and Snooky Young on it. (I had no idea who the Band was. I was a jazz head.) I ended up playing next to Howard in Levon Helm’s band 30 years later. Ain’t life grand!
Born in 1961, trumpeter, slide-trumpeter, composer and arranger Steven Bernstein has been a staple of New York City’s adventurous jazz scene for over three decades. His current projects include his Millennial Territory Orchestra and Sexmob. For more of his track picks, visit JazzTimes.com.