Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the band Chicago live in Colorado Springs. Witnessing the forefathers of jazz-rock strum their guitars and blow their horns in person was a wonderfully eye-opening experience.
They performed all of "Chicago," their second album and initial after they dropped "Transit Authority" from their name, for practically the first time since recording it more than 40 years ago. I didn't know a single song until the iconic "25 or 6 to 4" played right before intermission, but I could still appreciate the kind of lungpower they needed to pull of riffs and improvised solos at altitude.
While the makeup of the band has evolved throughout the years, the current lineup includes original founding members Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone and Robert Lamm on keyboards and vocals. They’re all in their 70s and I was amazed by their stamina as the danced on the stage and managed to still hit the high notes.
After the break they performed their decades-spanning hits like “I’m a Man,” and “You’re The Inspiration.” The plush seats of the theater and the generally older demographic created a lax crowd, but by the end of the three-hour concert “Saturday in the Park” had everyone on their feet.
Though I didn't grow up listening to Chicago, I have listened to my fair share of rock with horns. I wish the combination were more prevalent than a handful of bands and niche genres.
Note: I know the saxophone is technically a woodwind instrument because it has a reed so don’t write in or post a comment. However, for simplicity's sake I'm not referring to the sounds of oboes and clarinets in this piece so I will momentarily label the saxophone as brass.
Probably the first horns-heavy track to woo me with its alluring sound was Anathallo's "Fugue 24" way back in 2002. As the name implies, the brass continues to build on top of itself until the vocals begin halfway through the song. I’ll frequently restart the song before it’s done to listen to the mesmerizing intro again and again.
Depending on the composition the versatile section can be triumphant or melancholic. A soldier plays a bugle to wake the troops at morning, or “Taps” to send them off to their final resting place. While Anathallo may have been my gateway, any number of bands in my library has continued to make me fall head over heels with diverse horn performances.
It’s impossible to not move to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ soulful Christmas album or sing along to the trumpet parts of CAKE’s and Beirut’s repertoire. David Byrne will forever be remembered for his contribution to the 80s as the front man of Talking Heads, but he should likewise be recognized for his collaboration with St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, on "Love This Giant." The genre-bending album is funky, artsy, and I still pinch myself at the fact that I saw the duo on tour in Telluride.
Speaking of Colorado, the state’s own Paper Bird and DeVotchKa added trumpet, trombone and tuba to their folksy tunes. Shawn King, the drummer of DeVotchKa, even holds the trumpet in one hand as the other bangs on the snare. Seeing King lead a whole brass group when joined with Colorado Symphony magnifies the magnificent sound.
Of course one can’t mention rock infused horns with the Jamaican-based ska. My brother introduced me to Five Iron Frenzy, another Colorado band, around the same time as Anathallo to add fuel to the fire. In college my dorm-mates formed a large ska band called The Swashbuckling Doctors and for homework they loaned me the entire influential catalogue of Reel Big Fish.
I’ve somewhat outgrown the punk-y genre, yet the love of horns still hums in my heart.
Some of my all-time favorite indie bands have also dabbled in brass. TV on the Radio, The National, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver each feature wonder tracks that stand out from the others because of the uncommon instruments. The common thread between all of them is saxophonist Colin Stetson
Stetson's solo work with his trademark circular breathing made realize that the sax could stand on its on. It definitely isn’t for everyone yet I find the drone absolutely hypnotizing. From there it was just a small step to discover the instrumental trio Moon Hooch. They’re just two saxophonists and a drummer.
Whether the style is more experimental or traditional, horns should not be considered a gimmick. Make them just as regular as the standard drum, guitar and bass trio. Let's hear that fanfare around the clock.