Of Horns & Hard Drives

Perhaps you’ve heard of the android trumpeter.

Developed by Toyota, it was unveiled in 2004 as part of a suite of so-called Partner Robots designed to “embody kindness and intelligence and to assist with human activities,” in the parlance of a company press release. The scattered evidence found online is impressive, even scary. In one video clip, the robot plays a credible Dixieland version of “Bippity Boppity Boo,” complete with Wynton-esque trills. Another clip features a segue from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to the original Mickey Mouse Club theme, with what sounds like flawless intonation. The tone of the comments on these pages runs from dumbstruck awe to withering skepticism. One commenter summed up the ambivalence with a phrase both suggestive and succinct: “That robot blows.”

Setting aside the obvious wow factor and any attendant paranoia—no, the android will not take your gigs, unless you’re in a brass band at Tokyo Disneyland—the phenomenon represents a new intersection between trumpets and technology. I’m sure the research here is fascinating, with regard to embouchure alone. But since my interest tends more toward aesthetics than animatronics, I’ll take the android in symbolic terms, as a curious inversion. To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t encountered any robotic trumpeters on the scene. But I have seen quite a few human horn players engaging seriously with circuitry, and adopting electronics as an integral part of their music.

Old news, you might argue, and in a certain sense you’d be right. If we’re going there, though, you could say the same about Toyota’s young machine with a horn: German inventor Friedrich Kaufmann unveiled his own “Mechanical Trumpeter” back in 1810, using an assemblage of coils, levers and tongs. But Kaufmann’s contraption looked much better than it sounded, according to staff members at the Deutsches Museum, where it’s part of the permanent collection. I’ll similarly submit that most electronic effects favored by jazz trumpeters have long suffered from similar deficiencies, functioning at best like window dressing and at worst like the stuff of kitsch.

Now, to be clear: There’s a sizeable chunk of electric Miles Davis that I consider both deeply engrossing and vitally important, partly because of the Hendrix-inspired wah-wah action on the horn. And it’s hard not to be impressed by the perspicacity of Don Ellis, who ran his trumpet through an Echoplex at least as early as 1967. (See “Open Beauty,” the sumptuous tone poem at the heart of his Electric Bath album, on Columbia/Legacy.) What leaves me cold is any subsequent attempt to adopt electronics on a strictly superficial level, or in blatant Miles-ian imitation. This tough standard indicts some imposing trumpet talent, from Randy Brecker to Wallace Roney to Nicholas Payton. And it effectively excludes many others whose plugged-in bands have involved minimal electronic treatment of the horn itself: Roy Hargrove, Tim Hagans, Jeremy Pelt, Christian Scott, Corey Wilkes, etc. (all of whom I dig, by the way).

The more conscientious trumpet electricians take pains to approach their art almost as an entirely separate pursuit, requiring a different methodology of playing. Two of the finest happen to hail from Norway, where improvisation and electronics have had a less contentious relationship over the years. Nils Petter Molvær integrates sampling and sound manipulation so thoroughly into his playing that he can often seem like an electronic artist whose interface just happens to be a horn. Arve Henriksen presents an even more radical figure: His work with the four-piece collective Supersilent isn’t likely to be rivaled by any other trumpeter-programmer for some time. (The distinction isn’t merely technological: Listen to one of Supersilent’s many releases on Rune Grammofon, and you’re likely to be as haunted by his pristine tone as you are by his electronic savvy.)

Among the other trumpeters exploring this terrain, I’d place Cuong Vu and Rob Mazurek in comparable positions at the front of the pack. If you’ve heard any of Vu’s albums over the last decade, or seen him on tour with the Pat Metheny Group, you can probably attest to his firm grasp of electronics, both in concrete and abstract terms; his real-time sampling puts the equipment directly in the path of improvisation. As for Mazurek, I first took note of his efforts around the turn of the millennium—check out his cornet solo on “Tunnel Chrome,” from Chicago Underground Quartet (Thrill Jockey, 2001)—and his advances since then have been exponential. Last year his Exploding Star Orchestra released an album featuring the venerable trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon, who has worked extensively (and provocatively) with electronic effects himself. It would also behoove anyone with interest to seek out live recordings of Keystone, led by Dave Douglas; start with Moonshine, which Greenleaf Music released officially this spring.

Lest it seem that trumpet electronics are strictly an avant-garde preoccupation, consider the emergence of players like Matt Schulman, whose sensibility runs toward the pop spectrum, and Jesse Neuman, who often traffics in a deep-lyrical mode. (Neuman, it should be disclosed, is a former roommate of mine.) Another proponent is Shane Endsley, best known for his role in the jazz-rock confab Kneebody. “I think a lot of guys my age and younger especially are thinking along the next stage of development,” he told me recently, “buying electronics and starting to really treat them as something that you practice and develop and manipulate, just like you do your regular instrument.”

Endsley and I were perched at the bar in Barbès, the Park Slope joint where he had just finished a gig with a new trio called Stones Throw. The set was a vivid illustration of his statement, beginning with a sampled and harmonized background riff, triggered with foot pedals. At various other spots in the performance, Endsley employed an octave effect, generated a haze of static and distortion, and sparred with on-the-spot recordings of himself.

“My concept for using that stuff is to try and have it not sound like a trumpet most of the time,” he explained. “I like to disguise and mask it, have it blend into the sounds that the pedals are making. So it really is more like laptop or keyboard.”

That may sound like an odd goal for a trumpeter, but it’s viable, and a thoughtful use of the means at hand. Besides, there’s a beguiling symmetry at work here: While Toyota strives to have its robot play the horn in a serviceably human style, there are those who are taking the opposite route. In a cutting contest, I know which side I’m betting on.

Originally published in October 2008

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