Top 50 JAzz Blog

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Mutes and Other Distortionary Audio Lenses" by Steve Provizer

My last post showed some of ways mutes have been used in jazz trumpet playing.  The technological extension of the sound alteration/manipulation done by mutes is, of course, electronics. Or, before that-mechanics. The photo below shows the mechanical trumpeter constructed by Friedrich Kaufman in 1810. Obviously, after a very tough gig.

T. Blanchard w. wireless mic
Note that I'm not talking about simply updating the means of amplification by having a wireless mic attached to the bell of the horn; that simply allows the player to move away from a stationary mic and still be heard. 

You do need to run through a mic so that the sound becomes an electronic signal. Then, you can run it through an effects box. Initially that process involved re-shaping an analog wave, but for the last couple of decades, like everything else, this has moved into the digital domain; domain being the appropriate word for the hegemony of this technology.

The effects used most often are reverb, wah-wah, fuzztone, flanging and plain old distortion-all long used and abused, by guitar and bass players. In a recent rash of tweets, I listed some early rock and pop examples, which I put at the bottom of the post for your leisurely perusal. 

Tape Echoplex
In electronics, as in the use of harmon mute without a stem, Miles was very influential. However, the trumpet player who explored it first was Don Ellis, who recorded using an Echoplex in 1967. Ellis also incorporated Indian scales, used a 4-valved trumpet and did some Third Stream work. Here's his lovely "Open Beauty":

As a relict of the 1960's, I can tell you that many of us who played the trumpet and also had a foot in the avant-garde "classical" music camp collaborated to make odd sounds with 
early synth manipulators. Moog and Buchla were the chief makers. In that context, the goal was less alteration than obliteration of the trumpet sound; the reduction of the note to a waveform that could have just as easily been produced by dropping bricks onto bedsprings with an electronic pickup(which, come to think of it, I did). 
Buchla Synth
As noted, Miles was a key figure in this story. He'd been incorporating electronic instruments-keyboard, bass and guitar-since about 1967. Then, in Bitches Brew, electronic manipulation became a big player, but in post-production. Finally, in late 1970, Miles began putting his horn through a box with a pedal and ran the wah-wah down, as in this track from Live-Evil:

Interestingly, on Live at the Fillmore, recorded earlier in 1970, Miles was still playing acoustic (un-modified) trumpet. From 1971 on, he rolled with electronics.

Since that time, many trumpet players have incorporated electronics into their music. More mainstream guys tend to use it lightly-Roy Hargrove, Tim Hagans, Jeremy Pelt, Christian Scott, Dave Douglas; and more outside players, more radically-Coung Vu and Rob Mazurek. 

Jon Hassell has probably been the most wide-ranging practitioner of electronics with trumpet. Sometimes New-Age-y, World-y, Tranc-y, occasionally Inside-ish, Minimalist-ish, etc. He calls his stuff "Fourth World."

The logical extension of all this is a combination synthesizer and trumpet, a little item resembling a machine gun that generates a midi-signal, needs no conversion into the digital domain and can be controlled by breath and fingers. It's a little ironic that James Morrison, a trumpet player who has mastered the "old" technology of playing the trumpet, designs and markets a digital-trumpet

Here's Mike Metheny blowing a well-known version of such devices, the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument). Mike's a great trumpet player. 

The sound is, obviously, extremely adaptable, but also somewhat de-natured. I'm not much for the Puritan work ethic, but the human struggle to play a normal trumpet-mastering breath and chops-can be heard in the sound. It gives weight and meaning to the notes. 

Like mutes, electronics can be another arrow in the quiver, but will never be a replacement for natural sound.


Of all things, Marty Robbins - Don't Worry. 

See. Ann could do more than dance. Early fuzztone. Ann Margret-I Just Don't Understand.  

Always on the edge of distortion-Howlin' Wolf-Highway Man.  

A Fuzztone pioneer. Rocket 88-Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston. 

The Ventures- 2,000 lb Bee Pt 1 (1st use of a fuzz box 11/62). 

You know The Lads knew a good fuzzy thing when they heard it. Think for Yourself.   

Zappa-Willie The Pimp. 

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