Messages from Masters: Etienne Charles and Diego Rivera

by Ella Campbell

Mr. Charles (trumpet) and Mr. Rivera (tenor) are both professors at Michigan State University. During one studio night, Charles and Rivera combined their studios and demonstrated playing in a frontline.

They started with 6 themes about the logistics of playing in the frontline of a combo.

1. Listen!
This is the main idea behind everything they talked about. Listening to each other, listening to records, listening to yourself.

2. Phrase
Learn how to match phrasing with each other. The lead voice should play phrases the same way each time around so the people who are following can understand how they should play. When the lead player adds inflection, make it very obvious and repeat it clearly. Know if you are supposed to lead with your sound or if you are supposed to lead with your rhythm.

3. Time
Don’t drag because you’re trying to swing too hard. To play in time you have to play on top of the beat. If you’re right in the pocket, by the time your sound gets to the rhythm section, you will sound behind.
Practice breathing together, especially in awkward tempos. The frontline should breathe in time to play in time.

4. Articulate
The back of the note is equally as important as the front, especially for woodwind players. The frontline can even take the time to talk it out before just playing and copying each other – decide where cut-offs are, etc. Charles pointed out that trumpet players should tongue every note so each one has clarity.

5. Examples
Wynton & Branford
Mason Brothers
Joe Henderson & Kenny Dorham: “Our Thing” Listen to how they shade their notes the same way.
Lou Donaldson & Clifford Brown
Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson & JJ Johnson: “Cape Verdean Blues” Listen to their liberal use of cluster voicings
Billy Strayhorn
Some tunes to know as a frontline: Confirmation, Billie’s Bounce, Joy Spring, Caravan, Quicksilver, Weedot, Orbits, Cain & Abel

6. Balance
Know the power of your instrument. How does it relate to the power of other instruments in your frontline? Brass instruments tend to get more powerful in higher registers, woodwinds get more powerful in their lower registers.
Trumpet is playing the melody most of the time but trombone is usually more powerful than trumpet even though trumpet is a higher instrument. The safest bet is to keep a third or sixth between trumpet and trombone instead of playing in octaves.
When a frontline is trumpet and tenor, sometimes trumpet players will have to widen their sound to match the breadth of the sound of a tenor. Tenors have a tendency to play too loud, so try to play with a smaller sound while being a secondary voice.
As an accompanist, know to tone it down and blend. When you are not playing the melody make sure you know your role (what extensions are you playing?). When you are playing the melody, know your role!

They also spent a lot of time talking between the 6 themes they based the class around. The other topics we gathered were, Performance, Practicing and Harmony.

1. Performance
Most of the time there isn’t going to be a chart, but you’ll need to harmonize. You need to know the extensions and chord tones. To be safe, use mostly guide tones when improvising harmony. When you’re playing a peer’s composition, believe in the composition.
Play at a volume where you can hear the lead player. Focus on playing in time while you do this – it helps to tap your foot on beats 1 and 3 so that you don’t slow down.
For pickup measures, make sure you breathe together. This means the leader must breathe loud enough so that the entire frontline can hear it.
Stand in a line: Face your audience, not each other. Usually the trumpet will stand in the middle, as in a big band. Trumpet players: Play the melody a little loud the first time through to dictate the phrasing of it.
Have fun with each other: In the best frontlines, you can tell a dance is going on between them.

2. Practicing
Play along with records and try to harmonize with the melody. And, play along with records in general.
There was a student duo playing for the studio. A male trumpet player and a male saxophone player. They were playing a waltz. Charles suggested they waltz together, and this dialogue ensued:
Charles “Waltz together!”
Rivera “For giggles!”
JazzGirl “I’d giggle!”
* awkward pause *
Alas, there was no waltzing. 😦

Charles and Rivera played Billie’s Bounce as an example of ways to practice together. Rivera suggested different styles of playing together. For one try, he suggested playing everything long, just to see if they could do it, and do it together.

3. Harmony & Arranging
– When it’s just two of you, make sure you harmonize and “get the meat:” 3rd and 7ths. Especially if you have two horns and no chordal instrument. Harmonizing in 6ths is also a good way to get a full sound from two horns. When playing in 6ths, think about the resultant tones, the overtone series: “Finale won’t tell you that.” When you’re arranging on a writing program, you won’t be able to hear the overtones that you will when real instruments are playing it. Play your arrangement at a piano, and listen for different timbres that will result because of overtones. Things might be muddy there that weren’t muddy on your “human playback” in your writing program. Different rubs will create a ring of sound around them and fill in the gaps for you. For instance, Billy Strayhorn uses less instruments with wider intervals between them, and overtones fill the rest of the sound out.
– Your harmonies don’t have to be perfectly parallel either. For instance, on Black Codes, it sounds like there are two melodies at once.
– Don’t forget that the piano can be used like a horn too! Give them something arranged to play in harmony with the frontline.
– Tenors: When you’re harmonizing on the spot, stay around your middle C and break.
– Safest Harmonies: 3rds, Unison, 6ths, Octaves
– Just 2 Horns: all of the above & tritones

Until next time,
Swing sisters, swing!
– La


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