4 Horns & What had a shifting but always exceptional line-up

Corner Store Jazz

Phil Haynes – Drum Set & Composer; Paul Smoker – Trumpet; Ellery Eskelin – Tenor Sax; John Tchicai – Tenor Sax; Andy Laster – Baritone Sax, Flute, Alto Sax; Joe Daley – Low Brass; Clarence ‘Herb’ Robertson – Multi-Brass

I’m excited about the reissue, 4 HORNS & WHAT? THE COMPLETE AMERICAN RECORDINGS, on Corner Store Jazz. The band released two studio albums and those soon disappeared when their German record label, Open Minds went out of business. 4 HORNS & WHAT? from 1989 and 4 HORN LORE from 1991 are included on THE COMPLETE AMERICAN RECORDINGS. There is also a Brooklyn Academy of Music live recording, from 1995 that has never seen the light of day.

Clarinetist Don Byron is the MC on the Brooklyn Academy of Music recording. Byron implies that abstract art on canvas is easier to appreciate than abstract music because music is such a personal thing. He hoped that the audience would enjoy the concert. Judging from the audience applause I don’t think Byron needed to worry. I envy the people who got to attend this wonderful concert. I doubt they will ever forget it.

Drummer Phil Haynes first thought about forming 4 Horns & What in 1986. He wanted two brass players, two saxophone players, and he envisioned a band that could play like a whisper one moment, and then raise the roof the next. He needed a unified approach to group interaction. He got that by using the African conception of direct conversational interplay between rhythm and melody. By not having a bass player the rapport between the drum and the horns become the norm.

Haynes attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where he was Paul Smoker’s student. They formed early bands and toured together. Haynes talked about Smoker’s playing. “He doubles up the rhythms, he doubles up the changes, he triples, he substitutes, other people thought he was just crazy.” I wonder if Haynes would have formed 4 Horns & What, if Smoker hadn’t been around.

Smoker wasn’t the only radical virtuoso in the band. Andy Laster played flute plus different reed instruments. John Tchicai or Ellery Eskelin were monsters on the tenor sax. Herb Robertson and Joe Daley handled brass.

‘A’lil Iowa Get-Down, ’the band’s unofficial theme song, shows up twice on THE COMPLETE AMERICAN RECORDINGS. Andy Laster on baritone sax, Ellery Eskelin on tenor trade riffs. They’re joined by Joe Daley on baritone horn and Smoker on trumpet. Haynes, on drums, often mimics what the others are playing. It’s a joyful noise. The live version is faster, louder, and the rhythmic complexity gets amped up a couple of notches. Smoker’s solo is over the top with double and triple tonguing, notes are played low and somber, and then the trumpet explodes in a barrage of crystalline high notes.

There is a cool drum shuffle beat on ‘Goofus ’Step. ’The rest of the guys reminded me of a mariachi band, by way of Charles Mingus. Ellery Eskelin isn’t on the live recording but John Tchicai kicks butt on tenor.

‘Ballad For Heike ’off the first album, is indeed a ballad. Eskelin’s slightly off-kilter tenor is really quite lovely. Smoker can play beautiful trumpet.

4 Horns & What had a shifting but always exceptional line-up. The band has been largely forgotten. I hope the release of 4 HORNS & WHAT? THE COMPLETE AMERICAN RECORDINGS changes that.