Why Am I Playing Cornet?

It’s really hard to say why. The difference is very subtle, so subtle that many people don’t notice the difference. (If you are one of those people–nothing wrong with that–simply stop reading now and skip to the next post).

I think it started with learning all that Don Cherry music last summer. The cornet gets inside the band in a way that the trumpet sometimes doesn’t want to. Initially I liked it simply because the sound is warmer and it comes out of the horn closer to my ear. It’s a joy to play.

After a few outings I realized that it was not going to be all fun and games.

The cornet reacts slower than the trumpet and I like that it makes me play slower. I have to reconsider some ideas, and in that reconsideration comes the question: “Is this the best way to serve the music at this moment?” That feels like a positive development for me.

The low and high registers sound considerably different than they do on a trumpet. I’ve always favored the low range of the trumpet–thinking like a tenor sax and blending like a trombone. The cornet is rich that way and accentuates that velvety lushness.

One of my pet peeves about trumpet playing is brightness in the high range. I always tried to play, if high at all, with a warm (though not sugary or sappy) sound in the high range, in fact intending to sound warm and fluid in all ranges. (Any shrieky stuff you hear from me up there would be my own deficiencies).

The cornet doesn’t do that. The bright lead trumpet thing is just not there. Of course, I’m still practicing and learning, but so far I like that I can go up there and maintain a full warm attractive sound, even though the intonation is a much bigger challenge.

I just realized I’m eight paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned the equipment yet. (It’s a Yamaha Xeno). I’ve always felt, as did my teacher Carmine Caruso, that the important thing is the player, not the instrument. I still believe that. Great players sound great no matter what they’re playing. That said–I have tried those heavy-weight horns that some folks swear by. To me they sound great doing one thing. If I only wanted to play that one way I would grab one in a second. But for my music, I’m clearly attracted to horns that can be flexible for tone and timbre.

I’ve always wanted to be a one horn guy. And not merely to save myself the schlep. I like the challenge of expressing a full range of sounds on one instrument. Plus it’s hard enough learning one instrument. I truly admire players like Roy Campbell, Donny McCaslin, Joe Lovano, who can fluently play a whole range of instruments. It’s a lot of work. For me, just to get one instrument singing is a big enough task. This switch was an either/or decision for me.

The thing I always listen for in players of any instrument is the personality: no matter what the style, situation, or dynamic, people who are able to sound like themselves on one instrument and play with enough tonal variety to express a depth of emotions and a range of feeling. I like following a player’s voice on one instrument through the course of a recording or performance. To hear all the things they can do and say; how that adds up to a complex, indescribable and essential whole. Because most of my music is instrumental–with no words–the trajectory of each player in a piece is a part of the narrative.

In some ways the cornet feels like a refinement towards a role I’ve always heard in my head: inside the band, mingling tones more fully, singing more roundly, assuming a wider range of roles, supporting. But hitting when necessary.

At the end of the day an instrument is only as good as its service to the music.

That’s the way I hear my favorite cornetists at their best. Nat Adderley, Woody Shaw, Don Cherry, Thad Jones, Bix. Plus it’s the instrument Freddie Hubbard played on Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles–that’s the record with One Finger Snap. Also there is no shortage of modern-day players, and I’ve been able to exchange notes a bit with Graham Haynes, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Jeremy Pelt, who has played the horn I’m playing.

I’ve decided to record the Quintet book with it next week. See you on the wires, if not at the club.