The trumpet doesn't have the range of shadings that reeds and keyboards do, but its narrow timbre has advantages, and its focused clarity can make certain themes and changes stand out in an arrangement. Miles Davis' trumpet lines, for example, revealed the skeleton that held his surprising compositions and arrangements together.
In the early '70s, however, Davis trumpet was often lost in poorly defined electronic collages. In the mid '70s, it hasn't been heard at all. Nor has any other trumpet played a similarly major role, and the recent important innovations in jazz have been made on tenor saxophone, piano and bass.
But now, the trumpet is reemerging as a major instrument. Davis reportedly has recorded his first album in years and should release it this summer. And several other trumpeters have come along who play the horn with aggressive precision.
Perhaps the best trumpet player of the moment is John Faddis. He makes each note in his quick runs distinct and ends each phrase as definitely as he begins it. Often compared to the young Dizzy Gillespie, Faddis has that same fine control that creates fascinating half-shades.
But if Faddis is the best player, the most important trumpeters are Woody Shaw and Kenny Wheeler. While they may be a shade behind Faddis in technical flair, they use the trumpet as an expert compositional tool and as the axis of excellent ensembles. In these ways, they are the true heirs of Davis, and offer two of the best recorded examples of composing and band-directing since Davis' glory days.
In 1970, Shaw and Wheeler tied in a Down Beat magazine critics' poll for "talent deserving of wider recognition" on trumpet. Both musicians have matured a lot since then - though in very different ways - and they are now becoming widely known.
Both musicians have found that tricky middle ground between open-ended solos and restrictive charts. Their numbers are more than a series of solos in which each musician takes 32 bars. The compositions have a dramatic shape with a beginning, middle and end. Each soloist has a purpose within that drama that is more definite than a chord progression, but not so definte that it inhibits his own personality.
While Shaw's music has a pronounced swing, Wheeler prefers long, elegant lines. On "Deer Wan" (ECM-1-1102), Wheeler establishes themes with sustained trumpet notes that begin small and blossom slowly into resonant tones. Saxophonist Jan Garbarek follows him with similar lines that open just as Wheeler's are closing.
Wheeler uses ECM's best musicians: Garbarek, guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and, on one number, Ralph Towner on acoustic 12-string guitar.
Wheeler's compositions have a decidedly pastoral feel. Themes open and close with the gradual but irresistible cycles of flora and fauna. Wheeler's trumpet soars gracefully against Holland's and Towner's delicate pluckings on "3/4 in he Afternoon." On "Dear Wan," Garbarek echoes Wheeler's lines until they converge in a closing duet that resolves the dialogue in a satisfying symmetry.
Woody Shaw's quintet is probably the tightest jazz unit playing today, and has been together for two years. When a band can follow immediately on the heels of a solo and start a new movement in perfect unison as this one can, you know they are well-rehearsed and well-led.
Shaw often supplements his quintet (reedman Carter Jefferson, pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Victor Lewis) with additional horns and percussion, calling the expanded group the Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble. He uses both units on "Rosewood" (Columbia JC 35309), his first major-label release after eight on small labels.
Shaw takes the impressive soloing capabilities of his musicians and uses them as building blocks in his arrangements. Each number is constructed around a striking melodic theme - three by Shaw and one each by Gumbs, Lewis and Houston. Shaw's hard-swinging trumpet leads the group on an initial charge through each theme. But this momentum soon encounters counter-vailing tempos, moods and disgressions in the solos. Each solo builds on the previous one, rather than starting from scratch, and creates a new momentum that resolves the initial theme and counterelements in a forward rush that is hard to resist.
"Rosewood" is an endlessly fascinating record because so many musical personalities are going full tilt at once. But it is all ordered and held together by Shaw's trumpet. Once again the center of a milestone jazz record can be found at the sound of the trumpet.