New Trumpet Music

The Festival of New Trumpet Music commissioned new works from five composers this year — I’m behind on blogging about them because of the rest of the Festival, but here’s what I heard in these great new pieces. I’m not adding links because they are all still available at the Festival site.

1. Peter Evans plays with an unbelievable array of sounds. For this group he wrote short pieces that sounded almost like bebop “heads,” but with some parts chopped out, reversed, and (sometimes) reinserted. Like jazz with plug-ins. Or like Charlie Parker tunes put through the editing suite. The effect is that of a standard jazz language with something terribly smudged about it, liked the smudges in a Francis Bacon painting. The phrases gallop along, almost out of breath, and the changes scurry to keep up. Mesmerizing. When improvising on these pieces Peter plays lines the likes of which I’ve never heard. Extremely chromatic, with wide intervals and unexpected changes of direction. This guy can play just about anything, it seems.

2. Cuong Vu has a killer trio with Stomu Takeishi and Ted Poor. Lots of electronics and at times they play with the edge of punk or hard core or funk. But most of the pieces have a core of lyricism that sometimes echoes contemporary electronic pop styles. He took advantage of the commission to write some new pieces for the group. Interestingly, he described the existing trio rep as “ditties,” and felt pressured (by the commission) into writing “real music.” The result was a suite which started out with less reliance on groove and more contrapuntal line writing and shifting meters and textures. The new pieces then developed into new kinds of grooves (what Cuong, if I understand his terminology correctly, would probably have called “ditties”) based on the materials. In a way it was a brilliant new look at what he does, shifting the chromatic lines he writes and plays into bass parts and, ultimately, the kind of killer grooves that Stomu and Ted eat for breakfast. Cuong sounded great. Long live the ditties.

3. “Air Glow” is the name of the new piece composed by Du Yun for Micah Killion’s group, The Practical Trumpet Society (aka TPTS). It is scored for five trumpets and electronics. There was an ingenious aleatoric quality in much of the trumpet writing that sounded fun to learn and play. The effect at times was improvisational, but I could see from the scores and parts that there was quite a bit of written material. Du Yun tells me she will send me the score — I’m interested to see how she was getting at that. With the electronics there were times where the overall effect was somewhat desolate: air sounds, noises, maybe planes, gunfire, bombs? But ultimately the exuberance of the trumpet parts emerged with a boundingly human and joyous buoyancy. It’s a piece i would really like to hear again — maybe next year, if not sooner. Fascinating and original stuff.

4. Amir ElSaffar convened a very special group for October 5 — trumpet, alto sax, oud, buzuq, violin, bass, drums. He began the show playing santur, a quarter-tone sort of dulcimer in which the the strings are hit with small sticks. The pieces were varied, but mostly revolved around pedal point vamps in various meters and tempos. Of course, when he picked up the trumpet (alternately, cornet) he was playing in the quarter-tone scales of traditional maqam. But that seemed to be a small point — it wasn’t for effect or show, it was simply that he’d adapted his instrument to the needs of the music. Actually, the most noticeable aspect to his playing is his imperturbable sense of focus. There was a moment in one piece, a soft slow piece, when all the others fell away and left Amir by himself. He played with a quiet, airy intensity that not only quieted the whole band, but paralyzed the entire room. After about 30 seconds by himself he simply stopped. There was a collective gasp in the room that stunned. Beautiful. Also notable was how well Amir and Rudresh Mahantappa blended, both in tone and in pitch. Rudresh’s solos took fire every time. Nasheet Waits was also outstanding, particularly on a tricky piece in 17 that had all the musos counting on their fingers.

We spoke briefly about his trip to Baghdad. Amir studied music there until 2002 and of course has many friends still living there. I was curious what it would really be like to be living there under the circumstances. He tells me it’s worse than we can imagine — no one goes to congregate anywhere, you can’t carry a musical instrument in the street, much less play a gig. No matter what side you come down on in U.S. politics, it’s undeniable that the effect of our country’s actions there have made Iraq almost unlivable. Sadly, that’s a fact that rarely comes up in our national political horse races.

5. Jonathan Finlayson wrote a new book of music for his band Common Thread — two trumpets, trombone, bass and drums. Almost every piece deals with intensely intertwined lines between the two trumpets. The grooves are also quite complex and the band weaves in and out of these textures like they’re playing a standard. Another interesting thing is that in Jonathan’s music the soloist is almost always part of a larger texture, rather than jumping out front and taking over. Shane Endsley, Tim Albright, Matt Brewer, and Marcus Gilmore all did an amazing job of handling the new pieces.

We will be making a collection of scores as an archive, and we plan to commission five trumpeters and/or composers every year. If you are interested in being considered, please feel free to send your music to:

Festival of New Trumpet Music
PO Box 31
Croton, NY