The Horn Call

Dave Lee – “Under The Influence” – by Pip Eastop

In London there is every kind of music going on all the time and it’s no secret that a large proportion of the world’s best musicians live and work there. Dave Lee is a hornplaying Yorkshireman who has lived in London since 1974 and is one of the Capital’s busiest and most brilliant players. He can be heard in films, on television and in studios, concert halls and theatres playing everything from classical to pop music, from chamber music to big band.

He has produced a CD album of short works for horn in a wide variety of styles and settings. A brief selection of some of his chosen musical sources will give an idea of the kind of treats in store : Pink Floyd, Weather Report, David Bowie, Erik Satie, Bifly Strayhorn, Kurt Weill and Michael Nyman, to name but a few. In the context of the kind of horn playing work which is Dave’s bread and butter, this album is somewhat autobiographical but if there is a central theme for the disc as a whole it must surely be the actual sound of the modern horn itself, most particularly its commercial appeal, I mean “commercial” in the sense of it being such a glorious sound that anyone hearing it will be hooked and want more of it.

Dave’s instrument is interesting : he uses a mouthpiece of his own design and plays a stunning looking pure sterling silver single Bb/A Schmid with a built-in F extension.

Apart from being an extremely enjoyable and listenable disc, I think this collection is such a compelling advert for the effectiveness of the horn in projecting musical/visual scenes that it is likely to have quite an influence on any film composers, song writers or producers lucky enough to hear it.

The opening track, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, by Pink Floyd, begins with a pulsating, glowing backdrop of sound oito which float the steely, glinting tones of a muted horn. The effect here is of a visual panorama and when when the mute is removed it’s as though the sun has come out from behind a cloud flooding the soundstage with warm golden glowing hornlight.

“Birdland”, written by Zawinul for Weather Report was recorded so well in 1977 that although it soon became a classic it has seldom been performed by anyone else since, probably because it was too intimidatingly perfect. Dave Lee’s new version is highly original and effective and he has a wonderful group of musicians to accompany him – including Derek Watkins, one of the world’s greatest and most recorded trumpet players.

“The first Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is presented within an eclectic mix featuring the breathily intimate voice of Skye, vocalist from the dub-sout-trip-rock-meditation-trance-pop group, morcheeba. She is skillfully blended with a lot of tasty solo and ensemble horn sounds and the spicy tabla playing of Sirishkumar.

In a suite of starkly angular music by Michael Nyman written for the film, “The Ogre”, there is a curiously Alpine flavour with shades of Janacek’s sound world creeping in. For me, this track conjures up the scene of a pack of mad barking clockwork saxophonists cavorting in high Czech mountain pastures. In the other work by michael Nyman, “Psalm”, we discover a good new piece for horn and piano The music conservatoires are always on the lookout for this kind of thing. Students be warned, though; it is not going to be easy to play.

Dave Lee includes an adaptation – for horn, bass guitar and tabla – of a short piece by Jaco Pastorius, the brilIiant bass guitarist from Weather Report. This works beautifully and is strangely reminiscent, in both tonality and timing, of Benjamin Britten’s serenade for Tenor, horn and strings (although, thankfully, there is no tenor!). Here can be heard some beautiful and spacious horn playing.

In “Blood Count”, by Billy Strayhorn, Dave shows that there are other ways of sounding sexy apart from using saxophones with lashings of vibrato. Duke Ellington would have loved this sound but French horns coutdn’t really produce it back in his era.

“Sea Eagle”, for solo horn, was written in 1984 by the eccentric English composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, knighted for his compositions despite their lack of musical appeal and their aImost total unplayability. Dave Lee gives us a great lesson into how to turn a seemingly random, shapeless and impractical selection of notes into a thing of great beauty.

The disc includes a very beautiful version of the much-arranged (and much abused) piano piece, Gymnopedie No. 1 by Erik Satie. The horn’s timbre is magical here, seeming to come at you from all directions at once. It’s a great reminder of what a horn really sounds like – what a horn really should sound like. But just what that sound is and why it is such an elusive and indefinable thing remains a mystery to me because even when it is presented like this, as if an a golden platter, one can only listen in puzzled wonderment, feeling somehow enriched by the whole thing.

Spiegel im Spiegel is a very slow religious-sounding melody by Arvo Part. For me, this is the heart of the whole album. Anyone who feels in need of a horn lesson should look no further because this is a wonderfully practical illustration of how it is done. On the surface this track is no more than some extremely slowly played legato scales but deeper listening will reveal an astonishing, literally breathtaking, degree of control. An impossible, invisible legato and immaculate breath control with a sound, which is, paradoxically, as steady as a rock and yet always fluid and mobile. The effect is hypnotic and, to most horn players it wilI be humbling experience. I think it’s also worth noting that every individual note can be heard to posses its own unique timbre, yet another layer of subtle variation. Composers of commercial music constrained by budget considerations shouted listen to it and take note that this kind of richness, this infinite variability of sound, is simply not possible to create by electronic means. In other words real hornplayers are irreplaceable.

This CD is a jewel box of delights, many more than I have described here, all beautifully produced, aIl excitingly and perfectly played. The horn has been crying out for an album like this to be made and I can think of quite a few horn players who will be kicking themselves for not having thought of doing it, …and then perhaps kicking themselves again on realising that even if they had, they wouldn’t have made such a superb job of it as Dave Lee has with “Under the Influence”.