Although most people associate the sound of jazz with sultry saxophones and darkly thumping double basses, it's really the trumpet (along with its siblings, the cornet and flugelhorn) that should stand as the style's pre-eminent instrument. After all, jazz was essentially invented on the trumpet, back in 1922 when Louis Armstrong stepped forth from the ensemble in King
Oliver's band to deliver its first improvised solo; the instrument's bright, brash tone and extraordinary melodic flexibility made it a natural leader.
No wonder that so many of jazz's early heroes were trumpet players. Starting with Armstrong, the list stretched in every direction, from Bix Beiderbecke and "Hot Lips" Page to Roy Eldridge and Cootie Williams; from Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis and Clifford Brown; from Ruby Braff to Chet Baker.
Then a funny thing happened. As jazz moved from the cool grooves and hard-bop hip of the '50s into the more experimental sounds of the '60s, the trumpet found itself relegated to the sidelines. Sure, Miles Davis was still a star -- in fact, it was he who led many of the era's musical revolutions -- but almost every other horn player of note seemed to be a saxophonist: John Coltrane. Ornette Coleman. Sonny Rollins. Albert Ayler. Wayne Shorter. Sam Rivers. Archie Shepp.
Part of the problem had to do with the way the music had changed. Between Coltrane's "sheets of sound" and Coleman's free-jazz experiments, the typical jazz solo simply teemed with notes, as each bar bristled with hemidemisemiquavers -- a tough enough task for saxophonists, but a near impossibility for brass players.
Davis, of course, avoided the problem by taking a less-is-more tack, carefully choosing his notes and letting the idiosyncratic genius of his solos speak for itself. Unfortunately, his strategy worked only too well, for so great was (and is) his genius that even exceptional trumpet players seem mere midgets by comparison.
Just look at Freddie Hubbard; although a far more proficient technician and arguably more adventurous (while Davis disdained Ornette Coleman's early work, Hubbard wound up playing in the legendary Free Jazz double quartet), Hubbard's recordings seem marginal compared to Davis' magnificent work.
Maybe that's why the young lions of today's jazz scene are so open in their emulation of the pre-electronic Davis. If you can't beat 'im, their credo seems to be, imitate 'im. Which is why the latest efforts from three of today's most promising young trumpeters -- Roy Hargrove's "Public Eye" (Novus 3113), Terence Blanchard's "Terence Blanchard" (Columbia 47354) and Marlon
Jordan's "Learson's Return" (Columbia 46930) -- all come across as attempts at recapturing the sound and sensibility of Davis' great '60s sessions.
Of the three, Blanchard best understands the sort of ensemble sensibility that stood behind Davis' most memorable recordings, which may be why his self-titled album comes closest to the spirit of those old albums. Of course, it helps that Blanchard, who has already recorded several albums with saxophonist Donald Harrison as well as dubbing the trumpet parts in "Mo' Better Blues," has a little more experience than Hargrove (who's 21) or Jordan (who's 19).
For whatever reason, "Terence Blanchard" manages to seem more than the sum of its parts. That's not meant to slight Blanchard's improvisational abilities, for despite his tiny tone (which, frankly, seems more suited to cornet than trumpet) he's obviously a soloist of immense skill. But the album's strengths have less to do with the work of any individual soloist as with the flow of ideas between each player, suggesting that Blanchard TTC had emulated Davis' leadership more than his trumpet style.
By contrast, Hargrove's debt to Davis is more obviously improvisational. Like Davis, he's fond of pushing chord progressions to their limits, and understands how illuminating well-chosen dissonance can be. Yet Hargrove never tries to ape Davis' dark tone or coy attack; his phrasing may be concise and considered, but it's driven by an aggressive tone and playful sense of dynamics that's entirely Hargrove's own.
Consequently, "Public Eye" is a joy, balancing the new jazz's interest in nostalgia with genuine individuality. When Hargrove handles a ballad, like "What's New," he'll spin a solo that's as lean as it is lyrical. But let him loose on an up-tempo tune like "Hartbreaker," and he's not only at home with bop basics, but understands how to make them seem fresh again. Best of all, he knows when to stop, something which leaves each of his solos seeming like a complete, well-crafted idea.
That's one talent Marlon Jordan could use. Although he's blessed with prodigious technical ability, his solos seem like exercises in going nowhere fast. Although Jordan's work on "Learson's Return" relies on much the same vocabulary as circa-'67 Davis -- oblique, modal lines and choppy, repetitive patterns -- it's as if he has pulled them out of a phrase book; nothing ever leads anywhere.
"Learson," by the way, refers to Jordan's mentor, Wynton Learson Marsalis -- a telling bit of homage, since many of the problems marring Jordan's album could be heard in Marsalis' early work. Not his current material, though, for Marsalis' most recent album, "Standard Time Vol. 2: Intimacy Calling" (Columbia 47346), seems miles from the abstract angularity of Davis' approach. As with the other albums in his "Standard Time" series (inexplicably, Vol. 3 actually preceded this release), Marsalis' playing is pungent and uncluttered, drawing on jazz's past so obliquely that it never seems at all derivative.
Marsalis isn't the only up-and-coming trumpet player with a new take on tradition, mind you, for Australian James Morrison also has some interesting things to say. Trouble is, his technique is so utterly dazzling it may take a few listens to "Snappy Doo" (Atlantic 82175), the third and latest of Morrison's American releases, to realize just how insightful a soloist he is.
It isn't just that Morrison is in complete command of his instrument, from the clarity of his high notes to warm, burnished tone of his lower register; he's equally good on trombone, euphonium and saxophone. At several points, in fact, he overdubs himself into a one-man big band (take that, Ira Sullivan!), a bit of sonic wizardry likely to impress any listener.
Solid as his solos on sax or trombone are, though, it's the trumpet work that shines brightest, for his technique and conception seem so closely matched on trumpet that his playing almost has the personality of a human voice -- which, though not as immediately impressive as the big band stuff, is perhaps the truest indicator of Morrison's genius.