When I started listening to jazz, as a kid growing up in rural Ohio, I got pretty lucky choosing my first few records. A Dizzy Gillespie compilation from the Ken Burns Jazz documentary; a reissue of Charlie Parker’s Prestige sides, featuring a young Miles Davis; the ubiquitous Kind of Blue. I loved small-group jazz early on, and grew to love many big bands as well. This list, however, focuses primarily on “horn bands,” groups with slightly larger front lines—three or four horn players (sometimes more), typically performing artfully arranged originals. It’s a format that inspires my writing to this day.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all of the tracks in this Artist’s Choice:
Blue Train (Blue Note, 1958)
As a trumpet player, I’m continually enamored with 19-year-old Lee Morgan’s crackling sound and prodigal technique on the instrument. I selected this song first, however, because it so clearly illustrates one of my favorite aspects of writing for multiple horns. In the first statement of the melody, the three-piece horn section plays in unison. But in the second, they split into harmony. When three different instrumental voices play in harmony, their overtones blend in a magical way, creating a completely new sonority—this is orchestration. And, as we can hear, Coltrane chose his young sidemen for this date very wisely, creating one of the art form’s lasting masterpieces.
“2 and 2”
2 (Nonesuch, 2006)
Leaping ahead, this track, arranged by alto-sax luminary Miguel Zenón, serves as a thoroughly 21st-century example of what four horns can do. Compared to a simple head chart, the composition is epic, and while it could easily be adapted for a big band, it would lose much of its spastic, improvisatory feel in the process. That’s the beauty of a “little big band”: We get all the harmonic color and compositional expanse of a big band, while retaining the nimble athleticism of a smaller group. Of course, there’s no shortage of exemplary SFJAZZ lineups to choose from, but this particular iteration (featuring Zenón, Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, and Isaac Smith) is the one that inspired me to begin writing for this instrumentation.
Wynton Marsalis Septet
“Happy Feet Blues”
Live at the Village Vanguard (Columbia, 1999)
This track comes from a staggering seven-disc set spanning nearly five years of live performances at the storied Vanguard in New York. The band plays with joy, dynamics, and utmost care for the infectious New Orleans beat, which brings me to the main point: These three- and four-horn lineups are rooted in jazz’s earliest foundations, in the New Orleans second-line tradition, with which Wynton and his bandmates are so well acquainted. In this original composition, Wynton makes excellent use of both tightly voiced ensemble sections and the traditional soloistic interplay of early jazz. A sterling example of history made new.
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
“Children of the Night”
Mosaic (Blue Note, 1961)
A few artists could fill a list like this all by themselves, and two of them are Wayne Shorter (who wrote this piece) and Art Blakey. Now Blakey didn’t arrange much for his band, but he did dictate the instrumentation, and always made space for his sidemen to exercise their considerable arranging talents. This composition is unusual in that it casts the tenor saxophone as the lead, despite its being voiced under Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet. Alternating between modal pedals and hard-bop chord changes, it foreshadows Shorter’s further exploration of adventurous harmony. Be sure to hear Wayne’s complete reimagining of the song on his 1995 electro-orchestral album High Life (Verve).
Rosewood (Columbia, 1978)
The first (and title) track of Rosewood somehow captures a little bit of every number on this incredible effort from the firebrand trumpeter/composer. Featuring not only two brass and two saxes but also additional woodwinds, auxiliary percussion, and even a harp, Woody took the concept of the “horn band” in a more symphonic direction, which laid groundwork for future composers to think more orchestrally. But despite the extra orchestration, this album retains the feeling of a tightly knit small group. As a side note, I simply love the recording and mix of this album—pure ’70s saturation!
Wing Walker Orchestra
Hazel (ears&eyes, 2019)
Wing Walker Orchestra is an 11-piece ensemble—four brass, three saxes, and rhythm—led by bass clarinetist and composer Drew Williams. The highly arranged, often through-composed works still maintain an invigorating freshness in the ensemble feel, which is a difficult feat to perform over the often-lopsided time signatures. Influenced by modern art-pop, Balkan brass music, and postbop, this number features the horn section in a triumphant refrain that lights a path forward for creative, modern music in the mini-big band format.
“Eight Plus Three/Alice My Dear”
A Long Time Ago (ECM, 1999)
Kenny Wheeler is revered among trumpeters for his inimitable sound and solo improvisations, and he’s equally esteemed among composers and arrangers. No matter how he expressed himself, he did it with a singular, instantly recognizable voice. This album is no different—following the success of his heroic big-band release Music for Large & Small Ensembles, Kenny opted to downsize to eight brass, piano, and guitar. Essentially, it’s a big band without saxes or drums, which can make for some very intimate moments. He flaunts an aptitude for counterpoint that rivals classical composition, and the broad ensemble voicings keep the brass choir sounding clearly.
“Mode for Joe”
Mode for Joe (Blue Note, 1966)
A classic album from the tenor-saxophone titan, Mode features several impressive Henderson originals. The Cedar Walton-penned title track, however, shows how creative a jazz composer can get with just a few extra voices. Utterly unlike any other composition on the album, “Mode for Joe” uses vibraphone and brass voices as a lush rhythmic punctuation to Joe’s soaring countermelody. The result sounds like a dreamy ballet from the pen of Leonard Bernstein, which simply wouldn’t be possible with a smaller group. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone, in particular, adds a distinctive shimmer that transports the piece.
“Tones for Joan’s Bones”
Boss Horn (Blue Note, 1966)
Blue Mitchell, an underappreciated trumpet player in his era, truly shines on this album, which features three reeds and two brass. The masterful Duke Pearson is listed as the arranger, and pianist Chick Corea has two originals on this date, only two weeks before he would record his own debut album featuring (and titled for) this same composition. The remainder of Boss Horn captures the romping hard bop that Mitchell was known for, but this version of “Tones for Joan’s Bones” has always captivated my ear.
The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
“Up from the Skies”
Up from the Skies (Planet Arts, 2006)
Technically, this is a lot more than a horn band. The VJO is a 16-piece big band, but I think this arrangement from Jim McNeely uses the ensemble in a way that feels like a smaller section. Through the use of innovative flugelhorn doubling, muted trombones, and sub-tone softness, McNeely is able to conjure a unique, veiled richness—a prime example of how overtones from different wind instruments combine to create incredibly colorful timbres. Additionally, he cleverly borrows passing chords from other key centers, further confusing the harmonic overtones. The melody unravels into multiple subgroups, weaving and stumbling from voice to voice, before ultimately reuniting the band for the final recap. Ensemble writing at its finest.