Jazz Podium, 2013 ~ Sonic, 2005 ~ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2005 ~ Munich Found, 2005 ~ Jazz Journal International, 2003 ~ Crescendo and Jazz Music-2, 2003 ~ Crescendo and Jazz Music, 2003 ~ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2000 ~ Münchner Merkur, 1998 ~ Jazz in Bayern, 1997 ~ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1997 ~ Jazzpodium, 1995 ~ Downbeat, 1972
THE ART OF PLAYING LEAD
by William Whitworth
I love soloists, and I like some of the "outside" groups, and yes, rock can be wonderful, especially when you want to get stoned and just lie down in the music, as though it were a warm bath. But damn it, young fogey that I am, I still think that one of the most thrilling things in music is the sound of a great lead trumpet player, operating in a good section and a good big band.
For instance, Snooky Young, the senior jazz lead man, whose marvelous sound and time and conception have inspired several generations of players by now. The Department of the Interior ought to designate Snooky as a precious natural resource, like a forest, and give him a lifetime grant. Or Bernie Glow, who is the most successful studio player in New York, because of his strength, his versatility, and, above all, his musicality. Or Doc Severinsen, who has become not only a lead player but a soloist of starling virtuosity. Or Marvin Stamm, a flashy, exciting player who is the first trumpet player of his generation (early 30s) to really make it in the New York studio business.
There are so many other players worth discussing and writing about, in New York, on the West Coast, and in Las Vegas. But none of them has given me more musical pleasure than Al Porcino, who has played lead for dozens of bands and acts, including Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Terry Gibbs, Charlie Barnet, Elliot Lawrence, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee. I wish that all the young lead players in the country, in high school and college, could hear Al in person, doing what he does so well. Al doesn't have Bernie Glow's versatility, or Severinsen's or Stamm's technique. If you hear him playing a ballad solo, you probably wouldn't be very impressed. If you heard him warming up, you wouldn't be impressed at all, because Al's low-register warm-ups tend to have a thin, spitty sound. He doesn't begin to sound like himself until he gets into the upper register. But put him in a brass section and you hear a projection, a beautiful sound, a pulsing time, and a fiery conception that, in my opinion, constitutes a landmark in the history of jazz lead playing.
Trumpet players who have worked with Al a lot or heard him a lot always talk about his sound. Alan Rubin, one of the most promising young players in New York, told me recently: "Al's sound is unique. He has a way of putting a huge volume of air through the horn. He gets a fantastic projection out front. And there's something about the quality of the sound that I don't know just how to describe. I always just say it has zing." John Audino agrees with Rubin. "Al is exceptional," Audino said recently. "In his conception, his feel, and his sound. The last time I heard him with a big band was about three years ago, with Buddy Rich. He hit a high G that night that was so big it was incredible. It was like that note was going to explode."
Larry McGuire, another trumpet player in Los Angeles, accurately described what's different about Al's sound when he said once that it was "bright and cutting, yet big." You don't usually get both of those qualities in a trumpet sound. If you play legitimate equipment - a big bore horn and a fairly deep mouthpiece cup - you get a big sound, but it's "dark", and your range is limited. If you use a shallow mouthpiece, as many commercial players do, you get that cutting, brilliant sound and have an easier time with the high notes, but your sound is thinner and you're likely to play sharp. I think that Al has been more successful than any other jazz lead player in combining bigness with brilliance. (Yes, I remember Conrad Gozzo and Ray Wetzel and Billy Butterfield. Save those cards and letters.) He does it on a large-bore Benge trumpet and a Bach 10 ½C mouth-piece that has been altered to roughly the size of a Bach 6C.
Bigness doesn't mean simple loudness. Al plays loud, all right, but the point is that when he plays a high note it's a big, round, open "Aaaahh sound, instead of that pinched nasal, screaming-meemie "Eeeeee" sound that you're more likely to hear in the upper register. For an example of what I'm talking about, listen to Al's high G on Yesterday, in Kenton's Contemporary Concepts album, or to his double A on the end of Los Moros de Espana, in Gerald Wilson Orchestra/ On Stage. That G was played on a Bach 7C and the A on the altered 10 ½C. Listen to The Fabulous Bill Holman album on which Al plays all the lead on a Bach 6B. And check out the beautiful E on The Moon is Blue, in Bill Holman's Great Big Band album (which is available through Kenton's mail-order operation, incidentally). Notice the control and vibrato - that's playing in the upper register instead of just blatting the note out or squeaking it out. As Bernie Glow told me once, New York is full of guys who are strong and have a lot of range and never miss a note, but the notes don't add up to music. Al's notes add up.
Thin, sharp, upper-register screaming drives Al crazy, but he started out as a high-note screamer himself. From the time he worked with Georgie Auld, Louis Prima, Tommy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa in the early forties, up through his first jobs with Kenton and Herman in the late 1940's and early 1950's, Al played a pea-shooter mouthpiece, as he described it, and specialized in high notes. He had a good double B-flat and an occasional double C, and he was a stranger to concern for intonation. But by 1951 he had grown dissatisfied with this kind of playing. For one thing, the arrival of Maynard Ferguson had convinced him that it was ridiculous for anyone else to play the trumpet in the extreme high register. "This guy can play up there," Al often says, "so what's the point in other guys squeaking out these little high-C whistles?" In addition, he had matured enough musically to appreciate the big sound of some soloists and of such a lead player as Ray Wetzel. So he began several years of experimenting with legitimate (meaning, to him, Bach) mouthpieces - with a 10½C, a 7C, a 2½C, a 6B, and the altered 10½C. Each time he switched, he gained some sound, lost some range, and then slowly rebuilt the range. By about 1954, he had achieved his big sound, held on to the necessary range (up to an A and sometimes a B-flat), become a full-fledged intonation freak, and began his long and mostly fruitless search for a band that swung and a brass section that played in tune.
For Al, the result has been years of bitter frustration, but for the rest of us it has been a series of albums containing some gorgeous lead playing. Among these albums (in addition to those already mentioned) are Bill Holman's Jazz Orbit, The Exciting Terry Gibbs Big Band, Gibbs' Launching a New Sound in Music and Explosion!, and The Woody Herman Band! He has made dozens of other albums, with everyone from Ray Charles to Nat Cole, but I think the ones listed here offer the best examples of his lead playing. (Long gratuitous aside: I didn't list Al's recent albums with Chuck Mangione, because they don't show off the brass that much. And, though he was in fine, strong shape on Buddy Rich's band, I don't recommend Rich's Mercy, Mercy album, because the engineering on it is so terrible. The brass section has that distant, muffled sound that you often hear on vocal albums. A great many recording engineers seem to hate brass or to have strange ideas about what to do with it. In New York, they love a hollow, echo-ey, marching-band-in-a-gymnasium sound. May each of them be strapped down and forced to listen to El Capitan over and over for 48 hours. If you want to hear what I mean, compare almost any New York album with the Gibbs albums that were recorded live at the Summit.)
If I were playing Al's records for a young trumpet player who hadn't heard them, I would talk about his phrasing - they way he makes sense out of what he plays, instead of just playing a string of notes - and how hard he swings. But these are such subjective matters that there isn't much you can say about them on paper, with no illustrations. I would also mention a couple of minor, but nice, touches in his playing - his vibrato and his shake. In New York, the lead-trumpet vibrato tends to be on the fast side. Al's is slower and, to my ears, jazzier. The New York shake tends to be fast, too - almost nanny - and not to vary much with the tempo of the tune, while the West-Coast shake is often extremely slow and wide. Al's shake (which comes from Al Killian, he says) falls between these two, and changes in speed according to the tempo of the tune. I think it sounds terrific but, again, this is a matter of taste.
With all his natural ability, Al should have been pretty happy musically through the years and should have made a lot of money, but he hasn't. Al's capacity for dissatisfaction is virtually boundless, and he is one of the all-time champion complainers. On the road, something was always wrong - the third trombone was out of tune, the second trumpet was pulling against him instead of with him, the fourth trumpet was so out of tune it was giving him headaches and backaches, the drummer wasn't swinging, the leader liked dumb, flashy charts that didn't swing, etc., etc. Every Porcino anecdote is a tale of early promise, inevitable decline, and final disappointment. They always end with phrases like: "And then they brought in all this weird, screaming music, and I said, 'That's it. I've had it.' Or: 'By then, I was completely beaten and frustrated. I didn't care if I ever played again.' Or: 'It was great for the first two or three months, but then, of course, all the bugs set in.'"
I love this sort of bitchy perfectionist attitude, so I treasure a remark that Al made a few weeks ago. We were sitting around drinking beer and listening to records, and he said: "You know, I've been blowing my brains out for thirty years, and what for? I can count the times it's really swung on my two hands." I said, "You mean ten bands, or only ten nights?" And Al said, "No. Ten four-bar passages."
There's always plenty of this groaning when Al talks about the Kenton bands he's played on. "Invariably with Stan it was always the same thing." Al told me not long ago, "I'd join the band, and for a while it would be beautiful. We'd be swinging along so great that I could hardly believe it was a Kenton band. And then one night Stan would be standing in front of the band, and he'd look up, and suddenly he'd realize it wasn't his band any more. It was swinging. And then we'd quit playing the swing charts and start playing something far out, or start playing Intermission Riff and those goodies. And then I'd get disgusted and leave the band. It was that way with the 1955 band - when we had a whole new library of beautiful music by Bill Holman - except that it took Stan a little longer to get tired of swinging that time. I don't want to sound like I'm putting him down, because I love the guy. We just didn't want to play the same kind of music. He always said he'd leave the swinging to Woody and Basie." The way Bill Holman and Bill Perkins remember it, Al almost took over the '55 band, telling everyone how to phrase, agitating for the hiring of this player and the firing of that one, and so on. All that Al ever really wanted from a leader was a complete artistic control of the band.
Off the road, Al had similar problems and others that were quite different. During his 12-year residence in Los Angeles and his recent three-year residence in New York, he worked on everything from albums to movies, but he never made the kind of money that dozens of other players did. As a studio player, he was thought to be limited, in that playing hot, swinging jazz was the thing he did best, and the only thing he really liked to do. He doesn't like rock much - he says that the rock figures written for brass are hokey. He was too stubborn and lazy, as he admits now, to practice all the time and build up the technique that would make him versatile enough for a wider variety of jobs. On the other hand, when the music was something that suited his abilities, his personality might get in the way. Many arrangers and conductors just want a workhorse - not some temperamental concertmaster who will treat them to a lot of griping about intonation and conception. There were other difficulties - involving politics, seniority, and personality clashes - that are too complex to go into here.
In summary, Al has sometimes had an unprofessional attitude, and that's one of the reasons I'm so crazy about him. Al is an amateur, in the original sense of the word - a lover. He has spent his life loving music, and has often neglected the business side of it. I was talking to Lew Soloff, the gifted young trumpet player with Blood, Sweat & Tears, about this one day, and he said: "Well, the music business is the music business." He's right, of course. But when so many musicians are as smug and efficient as accountants, and just about as musical, isn't there a need for passionate, cranky, stubborn lovers, who don't play every kind of music but play one kind sublimely?
I think there is. There isn't much of Al's kind of music left on the radio, but it's alive in a handful of road bands and in college bands all over the country. If I were Woody or Stan, I would audition my band for Al and beg him to come back on the road. (He would be hard to budge. He's moved to Miami, where he has plenty of work during the season and the opportunity to indulge his other passions - sailing and being in the sun.) If I were a foundation, I'd give him money and tell him to make some records. If I were a college with a large jazz program, I'd ask him to join the faculty and teach my students about ensemble playing. If I were a musical instrument company, I'd ask him to endorse my trumpet. And if I were a trumpet student, I'd ask the music faculty to please bring Al to the campus for a trumpet clinic. As it is, all I can do is hope that during the off-season Al will go on the road again for a while, that the band will come to town, and that I can stand out front - waving in the breeze from the brass-section - and hear some more of those chill-making big Gs.
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