The TromboFunk Digest: Issue 2

Diving into Curtis Mayfield–an active listening

A regular digest of all things funk, horns, & practice.  Here’s what you need to check out this time:

This week I'm shedding for Midnight Sun's tribute to Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" album – the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film of the same name.  Let's actively listen to one of my favorite tracks on the album...



Give Me Your Love

Why does that hat sound so groovin?

Listen to the hat.  Ya, it's just 16th notes.  But what makes it sound unlike a computer metronome playing 16ths? Try to tap along with your hands and blend in until the sound of your hands disappears.  Now, tap like a square metronome robot. What did you change? How is it clashing?

Finding Composite Rhythms in the Groove

Yes, a groove is made up of many instruments.  But its character only truly arises when they are in COMBINATION.  The sum is greater than its parts. The intro sections of this tune have long stretches of uninterrupted groove.  Use these stretches to do a challenging, but mind-elevating drill: Instead of hearing separate rhythms for each instrument, try to combine 2 instruments mentally into a single composite rhythm.  For example, take the bass and guitar and imagine the bass was one hand on a conga and the guitar was the other hand. 2 hands, same drum. Where do they line up? Where is there space? Try to sing the combined rhythm.  Now try other duets. Trios! Quartets! Finally, can you hear THE WHOLE BAND AS ONE BIG DRUM?

Those HITS, Tho!  

So often in this music you'll have breaks with tutti band hits–usually just a single chord with a complex rhythm. That break often becomes the signature of the song.  This is possibly my favorite example of all. What is the rhythm for this break? (The count does not stop.) Very often these hits will have a particularly lush chord with extensions.  What is the chord quality? Do you hear a 9th? an 11th? (Hint: compare the highest trumpet/strings and the bass.)

Orchestral Character

This is not a Parliament or J.B.'s horn section.  We are further from the band sound and closer to orchestral brass.  How would you approach this differently as a result? What is different about the attacks?  The note shape? The color? Put another way, what would be an INAPPROPRIATE way to play these lines?  Always know the context and character of any line you go to play. Sometimes the line is orchestral, sometimes funky, sometimes somewhere in the middle.  Sometimes you might be playing something that wasn't even meant for horns in the recording!

Arranging v. Transcribing - Choosing Voices

If you're playing this, at some point you'll have to write a chart.  You don't have a full orchestra–probably just 2 or 3 horns. Here is where we differentiate arranging and transcribing.  Don't just transcribe–writing down every single part and hoping it will make sense on the bandstand. (It never does.) Be an ARRANGER.  Make tough, bold choices to make the music sound good with instrumentation you have. So just what lines should the horns play? What lines SHOULDN'T they play?  It helps to actually imagine your horn section playing it with the band at the show, rather than think about it abstractly.

An Album As A Work of Art

And finally, listen to the whole album!  This album has a definite feel from start to finish.  What musical elements connect the songs? If you were to write a track to add to this album, how would you make it fit?



Bryant Smith
Contributing Editor

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