Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Zen and the Art of Second Cornet

A couple of weeks ago I again had the pleasure of performing with Ted Shafer's Jelly Roll Jazz Band, and as usual these days, I played second cornet to Leon Oakley's lead. Rae Ann Berry was on hand to film part of the last set*, which gives me a relatively rare opportunity to listen to my performance from the audience's viewpoint.

Lately I've been wishing that I'd had more opportunities to hear recordings of myself over the years. Recordings are devastatingly honest. When you are playing, you tend to hear what you meant to play, but a recording relentlessly makes you listen to what you actually played, and  gives you a more balanced view of how it fits (or doesn't) with what the rest of the band was doing. It can be painful but is very educational.

And I need this education... and not because I want to play first cornet, but because second cornet is hard.**

The JRJB is a two-cornet band, in the style of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band of the 1920's and Lu Watters's Yerba Buena Jazz Band of the 1940's. Most trad bands have only one cornet, along with the usual one trombone and one reed in the front line. That gives each player a fair amount of freedom, because those three instruments are expected to play independent lines more than close harmonies. But twin cornets have to play together . That's a word that covers a lot of ground.


You might expect harmony to be simple, and often it is. Trad jazz tunes usually have simple chords and progressions. The second cornet could just play the root of the chord when the melody is on the third, and the third when the melody plays anything else; but this gets boring for player and listener alike. Fortunately there are things you can do to spice it up. Leading tones, suspensions, passing tones, and notes that suggest a more complex chord progression all add flavor and make the two-cornet sound lively and interesting. I'm also fond of "moving" lines: harmonies that almost sound like another melody.

Phrasing is definitely not simple. In a symphony orchestra you take your phrasing from the lead player for your instrument or section, and you have rehearsals in which the phrasing is first decided, then practiced by all. In a jazz band, you have to take both a longer and a shorter-term view. "Longer" because, instead of getting used to a particular phrase, you have to get used to the player himself, and learn how he thinks. "Shorter" because you can still be surprised, and you have to keep your ears open and make adjustments on the spot in live performance.

Counterpoint is both a staple and a last resort for the second cornetist. It is a staple because good counterpoint is wonderful and worth doing for its own sake. But it can also be a last resort because you really can't always play tight harmony. If the lead decides to improvise wildly, a normal harmony line will just sound lame. So instead, you improvise melodies and interjections of your own. It has to be something that will fit the chords and the mood, and that won't overpower or clash with whatever the lead is playing. (The latter usually means staying low while the lead plays high, and quickly moving to a different note when you find yourself in unison.) Often a good technique is to play "fill". Cornets are wind instruments: as if speaking, they play distinct phrases with predictable pauses for breath. The second cornet can pause when the lead is playing, and play during the lead's pauses. There may be considerable overlap, which is fine; but the offset phrasing minimizes collisions and gives the second cornet a distinct voice and identity that's often lacking in tight harmony.


Playing second cornet can be a strain. It's more complex that the major points I've outlined above, and it has to be done in real time—the band won't wait while you figure out what to play. And music theory isn't the only hurdle you have to master; there are practical considerations as well.

The JRJB plays arrangements out of a book, in which the lead and second cornet parts are carefully written out, note for note. Because I only play with the band a few times per year, I'm effectively sight-reading these tunes. I'm not too bad a sight-reader, but what I'm reading is usually a 40-year-old, fourth-generation Xerox copy of an original written by someone whose copy hand wasn't that good to begin with.

The copyist has felt free to summarize entire sections of the tune with notations like "B3 as B1" which makes you suddenly have to hunt back over sections D, C, and the interlude to find the "B1" mark; by the time you've found it, you're three or four bars into it already. The copy you're reading from has decades of wear, tears, discoloration, coffee**** stains, and fading. It has been scribbled on in pen and pencil to fix mistakes, insert or delete choruses, change intros and endings—and many of these alterations are out of date. Just reading it correctly is no easy task.

And reading it correctly isn't always correct! Those carefully-designed harmony lines in the second cornet part only work if the lead plays his carefully-designed written-out part... and he often doesn't. (And he's not supposed to. Jazz, remember!) When the lead decides to wander too far from what's written, or when I've gotten lost on the page, then I have to fake something. Usually Leon will stay fairly close to the page in the opening choruses; I don't have to fake much unless I get lost, and then only until I can find my place again. But later in the tune, especially on the out-choruses, Leon often just closes his eyes and plays what he likes. Then I just have to listen extra hard, and get creative, and be ready to return to the written music when we reach the hook, which should be given plenty of punch...

Nope, not easy. But if I do it well, nobody may ever know that I wasn't blithely reading the entire thing. I can just stand there and look smug when the tune is over!

* Salty Bubble and Tiger Moan came out pretty good, I think.

** "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." — Sir Donald Wolfit***
     "Math is hard!" — Barbie

*** Or somebody else.

**** I guess.

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