Back in the Groove

After a band-less gap of more than a year, I’m in a new one. It’s as different from any of the many groups I’ve played in previously as well could be: I’m now the guitar player in a 12-piece R&B/soul band (91.67% blue-eyed variety) with a full horn section, three “chick” singers who trade off being Martha and Vandellas because only one of us has yet to see 40—and a very able rhythm section of drums, a percussionist, keys, and bass. Plus me, rapidly developing carpal-tunnel from playing hours of muted, off-beat 16th-note funk patterns.

The playing is at a pretty high level, but once I learn the tunes I hope to not hold the others back or embarrass myself too much. This will entail a bit of (gasp!) work, because on the first hand many of our arrangements are quite complex, and while I read music almost as naturally as English in other contexts, I am not accustomed to doing so on the guitar, and until I have them all by heart frequently lose my place amongst a forest of repeats, bar-numbered vamps, and “da capo”-signed endings. (Guitar solos, where they appear at all, are short, incisive commentaries; that 20-minute, twelve-chorus “Crossroads” wanking won’t wash in this world.)

And on the second hand, because everything is of course in horn keys: B-flat, E-flat, F, A-flat. Like most rock/blues players I’m used to the “guitar keys”: E, A, D, G, C, and occasionally maybe B-natural. Any “real” guitarist with a schooled background or jazz experience on the instrument can play in any key with equal aplomb, but that ain’t me, yet. I’m getting there, though, and am now nearly as facile improvising a vi-ii-V-I turnaround in B-flat as in A; E-flat may take a little longer. (Trumpet and sax are both transposing instruments, which sound notes higher than their lettered “names” on the page, hence the near universal practice of writing music for them in the keys that yield easier fingerings for them rather than for the guitar player, who they figure need only move up or down a fret or two. A number in the key of E would require the trumpet to play in F-sharp, which would probably ignite a Musician’s Union walkout.)

I mention all this personal trivia only to reiterate what a pleasure it is to be in-room with live brass and live drums. It excites the ears and triggers the tapping muscles of the feet in ways that recorded music just plain doesn’t. The gulf between a live horn section dealing out the percussive stabs of Tower of Power’s “Down to the Nightclub” and the same reproduced by even the best, most expensive audio systems, remains surprisingly wide. Wider, perhaps—though this is of course highly subjective—than that between a forest glade viewed on state-of-the-art 4K video and the same scene regarded through a picture window.

In terms of wide commercial availability, audio recording and playback are just about a century old, almost exactly twice the age of video reproduction. Yet one could argue—as I just did—that in one-half the development time video has come further. Which means we of the audio persuasion have work to do, though whether or not the market forces to induce it exist remains an open question. In the meantime, get out there and hear some live music, with horns and drum-kits, in intimate rooms, not stadium shows where everything is so miked, amplified, and processed that you might as well be listening to a Bluetooth headset. You just might discover you agree with me.

John Sully's picture

Yep. You can get pretty close with a bluegrass band or other acoustic stringed instruments in small groupings, but anything that includes horns? Fergitaboutit. Horns and drums is where it falls down for me, and don't even think about a full orchestra.

prerich45's picture

Syncopated rhythms a lil tough for ya?! :) Hearing live horns and drums has been part of my life since I was a child. I've sang in Black Gospel groups since I was a teen (directed a few choirs in my time too). You'll get there...

Oh try playing a "black gospel praise break" on congas - your hands will bleed!!!!! Ahhh....yep, those were the days - medical tape for your fingers and thinking of distinctive ways of manipulating congas, bongos and other percussions.

If you don't mind some of the obvious religious themes - Kirk Whalum's The Gospel According to Jazz volume 4 has some nice stuff on it (to include a cover of Paul McCartney's "Let'em in" that includes Rick Braun - straight funky, and a cover of "My Hero" by the Foo fighters (which doesn't seem religious at all).

prerich45's picture

You gotta remember that!!!! In R&B/Blues/Gospel - expect to end up in A flat somewhere!!!!