Thursday, November 04, 2010

Come Blow Your Horn

More than fifty years after rock 'n roll revolutionized popular music there is not a whole lot of excitement left in the classic guitar-bass-drums-piano formula popularized by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and a host of other pioneers. I still love rock music but many times when I crave more than what the basic rock band lineup has to offer I start searching for something a little more substantial, and often, I’ll find what I’m looking for in bands with horn sections.

Horn bands make some colorful music so it's a shame there aren't more of them. Is it because fledgling artists can't absorb the additional expenses of a larger group without promoters shelling out more cash to compensate them? Are many of the small clubs that new artists depend on for gigs not big enough to house a larger ensemble? Probably, it's nothing more than the likelihood that rock fans just prefer the simpler, more traditional sounds.

Regardless of the reasons, the pop music landscape is littered with horn bands that tried but never quite made it to the big time. Some never had a hit, some were one-hit wonders, and a few had minor successes on the album charts. Some were novelty acts. Some were critical successes and some were not. Among them are Sons of Champlin, Ides of March, Lighthouse, Chase, Mom’s Apple Pie, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and let's not forget the all-female horn band, Isis. A few, Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Tower of Power, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, and Earth, Wind and Fire have done very well for themselves but overall less complex fare continues to rule the charts and the airwaves.

To help you choose the horn bands whose catalogs are worth delving into, here, in chronological order based on the date of their first release, are my favorite horn bands, the ones you shouldn’t miss.

Sly and The Family Stone
This trippy, hippy band from the psychedelic era was not only one of the first bands to be integrated with both black and white musicians it was also one of the few with both male and female members. While the horns were not the band's focal point (the groove was) they were still an integral part of the Sly experience. They weren't improvisers or soloists, but the horns, consisting of one sax and one trumpet, enhanced almost all of The Family's greatest songs. They offered far more than the staccato bleeps used by most traditional R & B horn bands.

Blood, Sweat & Tears
B,S & T’s debut album, Child Is Father To The Man, recorded by founder Al Kooper's edition of the group, is clearly unique. The record featured everything from jazz, blues, folk, ballads, and a little progressive rock as well as all-star jazz trumpeter, Randy Brecker. It has become a rock classic. Kooper's B,S & T fell apart after only one album and the remaining members reorganized. The David Clayton-Thomas version that soon followed was a more pop oriented affair that had a string of radio hits over the next couple of years.

Anybody who has read Bloggerhythms over the years knows how I feel about almost everything Chicago recorded from 1969 through 1974. They released a couple of more gems later but for the most part the septet used up their inspiration early in their career. At the time they possessed everything a band could bring to the table. The horn trio was the featured attraction and they wrote songs specifically for the sax, flute, trumpet, and trombone. Nobody in rock has ever used brass and woodwinds as wonderfully as Chicago did.

Steely Dan
Walter Becker and Donald Fagan didn’t have a permanent horn section. Instead they used a host of studio all-stars that changed with every album. Many people don’t even consider The Dan a real rock band because of their intricate jazz influenced arrangements. Nevertheless, they recorded what is possibly the greatest jazz – rock song ever, "Aja."

Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes
Often denounced as Springsteen with brass The Asbury Jukes’ first three albums, all produced by Miami Steve Van Zandt, certainly showed the Boss’s influence as they covered many of his songs. Beginning with their fourth album, The Jukes, they dumped Van Zandt, asserted their independence, wrote their own music, and released a more mainstream affair that proved they had talent in their own right. Johnny Lyon's soulful voice was clearly another asset.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Setzer’s rockabilly and jazz big band is essentially The Stray Cats with horns. While Setzer and his men haven’t broken any new ground, his scorching guitar work, when coupled with more traditional big band arrangements, can blow the cover off of any decibel meter in its vicinity.

The Cat Empire
These Aussies are the ultimate party band and are perhaps the best horn band on the current pop music scene. Their reggae and ska inflected arrangements have anyone who has ever heard them dancing in the streets. As with Steely Dan, the horns are not a permanent part of the group even though one of their two lead singers and primary songwriters, Harry James Angus, doubles on trumpet as one of their lead instruments. The Cat Empire is a must listen.


  1. Excellent list, Charlie! Some others I enjoy include:

    Chase - Scored a hit with Get It On but their success was short lived when 4 of the bandmembers were killed in a 1974 plane crash.

    Tower of Power - A bit more soul and funk oriented than many of their horn band contemporaries but they released many excellent albums as well.

    Ten Wheel Drive with Genya Revan - This is one I only learned of recently. I checked out some of their material online and found it thoroughly enjoyable.

    The Electric Flag - Late virtuoso guitarist Mike Bloomfield's short lived attempt at a horn band. While the Electric Flag only spawned 3 albums (one of which was a score/soundtrack to the 1967 movie, The Trip). A bit more blues-oriented than Chicago, BS&T, or Tower of Power. Bloomfield was better known for his musical collaborations with Al Kooper, and for being the guitarist for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The Electric Flag married many of Bloomfields influences together.

    Hunters & Collectors - Australian horn band from 1980-1998. They were known more known for their tight driving rhythm section that put more focus on bass & drums than on guitar than they were for their horn section. The horns, while not as prominently featured in the music as in other horn bands provided a musical canvas for the rhythm section to "paint on." Most songs dealt with gender differences and they were pub rock favorites throughout the duration of the band's history.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Sly and the Family Stone - "I Wanna Take You Higher" is to me the high point of Woodstock, after Jimi's Star Spangled Banner.

    I have much to say about horn bands, but will save it for later.