The Making of Give It One

Background, by Paul Sarcich

The London Sound Series started in 1994 with a recording by Cala Records of 40 cellos: The London Cello Sound.

It was an immediate success and the label gradually added recordings of large ensembles of each of the orchestral stringed instruments. The London Trombone Sound marked the company’s first excursion into the brass world.

Well received as these CDs were, they did not give warning of what was to become the sheer phenomenon of The London Horn Sound, released in 1999. The combination of stunning playing by London’s top hornists, the sheer beauty of their ensemble and the imaginative arrangements commissioned by Cala Records of classical, jazz and popular music propelled this CD into an iconic place throughout the horn world. It was a remarkable and quite unexpected phenomenon. And not only as a listening experience: an exceptional demand has also arisen for performance sets of the arrangements—indeed, the more challenging they are, the more horn ensembles seem to want to take them on.

A sequel seemed the obvious step, but when the horn section of the Vienna Philharmonic came out with their own horn ensemble recording, it took the particular genius of Hugh Seenan—apostle extraordinaire for the horn, tireless promoter of the instrument and mastermind of the first recording—to think of making a jazz album. Nothing but French horns and a rhythm group. Pardon? Was he seriously going to put a non-jazz instrument like the horn up against the trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the conventional big band?

Yes he was, and Cala’s Artistic Director Geoffrey Simon immediately embraced the idea, knowing the quality of the musicians whom Hugh would bring into the studio. Of the four composer/arrangers, Richard Bissill and Tim Jackson are principal hornists in London orchestras, Jim Rattigan is that rare beast, a French hornist who is essentially a jazz-man, and the brilliant young British pianist Gwilym Simcock not only supplies charts but leads the rhythm section and even puts in an appearance as a jazz horn soloist. They all met at a pub some months before the recording and collectively agreed not only the repertoire, but crucially, the musical and stylistic approach. Quite simple really: if you think it’s impossible, just write it in.

All of the great London orchestras are represented amongst The London Horn Sound Big Band’s complement of French hornists. Add to the mix some extraordinary specialty players, like Pip Eastop at the stratospheric end of the instrument and Anthony Halstead at the subterranean, and the music is bound (as jazzers might say) to “cook”.

This is the recipe for Give It One, which Cala Records believes will have as much impact as the first album. It’s new, unique, and above all, quite special.

Paul Sarcich

Thoughts from Pip Eastop

I don’t know at what point Hugh Seenan decided to feature me quite prominently in the project which one might have called The Return of The London Horn Sound. Although I’d been utterly delighted to be involved in the first album, I hadn’t had a lot to do—just a few squeally high notes near the end of Caravan—but as the new plan took shape it became clear that Hughie was expecting me to play much more, even higher than before, and to play jazz solos and generally jump through flaming hoops. I was worried.

Around the time the idea for the new album was gathering momentum, I was waiting for a new instrument I had ordered from Engelbert Schmid and this was to be rather a key factor in my contribution to the whole thing. The new horn was my own personal solution to the problem of playing jazz on an orchestral-type of horn. I had been learning jazz trumpet for some 5 or 6 years by then and was trying to find a way of re-importing what I’d learned there, back to my main instrument. My problem was that I’d never really liked trying to play jazz on a normal Bb horn—it seemed too muddy, cumbersome and indirect. Eventually, several strands came together in my mind which made me get in touch with Engelbert Schmid and get the new horn built. The strands were these:

1. That the Tenor Horn in Eb is a very good jazz instrument (listen to anything by the jazz genius tenor horn player and composer, Django Bates).

2. That Engelbert Schmid makes triple horns with an Eb alto—exactly the same pitch as a tenor horn.

3. That I needed a way of continuing to practise and/or play jazz without having to lug another instrument around with me.

4. That the “stealth” jazz “side” to my new Schmid triple horn MIGHT be just what I needed to play some jazz solos on the new album.

5. That an Eb alto might even help a teeny bit with the extremely high stuff that was, by all accounts, going to be thrown at me.

6. I was quick to tell Hughie about all this and he seemed happy enough to accept what I was going to try to do, with the reservation that he wasn’t going to have any filthy tenor horns anywhere near the studio (I fear that prejudice against these fine instruments is all too common).

A pub lunch meeting was set up with Geoffrey Simon, Hugh Seenan, many bottles of wine and a bunch of hornplayers, in particular those who were going to be writing the tunes for the CD but also one or two of us who were going to be playing some of the solo lines. Gwylim was there, too, to find out about his triple guise—as pianist, composer and jazz horn player.

My only stipulations were that I wanted any jazz parts to be given to me in the key of Eb and that I needed plenty of time to practise them before the sessions.

The new horn arrived in due course and it proved to be an absolute beauty. The F and Bb sides are as good, if not better than those on my earlier Schmid double horn, and its “Stealth Eb Jazzhorn”, which is how I think of it, is just amazing. It’s perfectly in tune right across its range and integrates beautifully into the rest of the instrument. Towards the end of my jazz solo in Give It One I switch out of the Eb side right down to the F side for a big downward glissando and then back up to the Bb side for a little upward run of quarter-tones—and I don’t think that the sound quality changes all that much. It seems to me to be the perfect all-rounder and I absolutely love it.

Being still rather new to jazz improvisation I didn’t feel able to wait until the sessions and just make up my solos on the spur of the moment (like you’re supposed to do if you’re a real jazzer). Instead, I made sure I got the lead sheets with plenty of time—about a month, I think—and then worked them out... in fact I actually wrote them down and I’m very glad I did. I know they would have sounded pretty lame if I’d not done so. However, the solo spot I was given in Gwilym’s Blues For Hughie was a straightforward blues so I thought for that one I would leave it until the actual recording and just go for it. I’m quite proud of it, actually. It’s not too bad at all. Strangely I can’t remember playing a note of it. I’ve a friend who’s a neuroscientist who tells me that this kind of memory loss is a classical symptom of extreme fear! Well, scared I was—there were lots of hornplayers around in the studio, listening to my attempts, and there was very little time, so I felt a lot of pressure to come up with something good out of my completely empty head. Ready—steady—go! Er...

I’ve been asked to write something about the high stuff I played and explain how it’s possible to go so high. First, there is nothing freaky about playing up there and I do believe anyone can do it. Trumpet players do it all the time, although it’s slightly easier for them due to slight differences in the mouthpiece design. I think it’s mostly a cultural thing, though—trumpets play very high and horn players generally don’t. There’s no upper limit to the range of a horn but many players stop at top C as if it’s some kind of ceiling. The horn has a very wide range and most players learn to cover it by starting in the middle and working upwards and downwards from there to develop their range. My approach has been somewhat different because from rather early on in my hornplaying life I realised that it would probably be a good idea to get comfortable in the high register and then work downwards—in other words to put the problems into the middle register rather than have them high up where it’s hard work and makes your eyes bulge. Somebody once told me (I think it was Alan Civil) that the high register is “where the money is”. It turns out that this is not true at all, but at least the thought of it made me work.

So, playing high is something I’ve always practised carefully and regularly. I’ve treated it as something like archery target practise. What you need is accuracy, strength and confidence. My archery concept starts with accuracy and by practicing for this you slowly build up strength in the embouchure muscles — and your confidence is growing because you are not missing any. The aim is to get to a stage where you are going for a high note and you KNOW you are going to get it. The opposite feeling, as in when you KNOW you’re going to miss it, is usually quite reliable. Let’s be honest—there’s nothing worse than really taking a good swing at a high note and missing it. There are no two ways about it—it’s a disaster. No one will look you in the eye afterwards. Of course, people will tell you they didn’t notice, but you know they are just lying. Fear of cracking notes is what grips you when you aren’t completely confident, and if you do crack any whoppers you’ll be increasing that lack of confidence. So, the trick is to practise in such a way that you never miss them, so that you get used to 100% accuracy. It’s just that—a trick. It’s not so difficult, really, but you have to be methodical and patient. I’m certain that with the right sort of regular practise, anyone can do it.

Pip Eastop

Jazz for non-jazzers, by Richard Bissill

Writing jazz charts for symphonic players, i.e. non-jazzers, needs some careful thought, irrespective of which instruments you’re writing for.

Symphonic players just aren’t schooled in jazz; jazz phrasing, articulation and timing needs to be instinctive and natural and classical players generally fail miserably in those departments. In a way it’s not their fault; classical music training can be like a straightjacket in that respect. Writing music which is too jazzy for straight players to handle can result in frustration and disappointment for the writer who feels his efforts are being severely compromised.

However, orchestral brass players probably get closest to what’s needed due to their instruments having a jazz connection and also the fact that the players don’t possess the pack mentality and restrictions of string sections!

French horns of course are not so readily associated with jazzing although there have been notable exponents over the years. Due to its sheer difficulty, the horn doesn’t lend itself to flying around like a trumpet. A jazz horn soloist is far more impressive when not surrounded by trumpet and sax soloists!

That said, when it came to writing charts for the Give it One album, I had no doubt that with such a fabulous line-up of talented players covering the depths and heights of the horn’s range and technique, I would be able to write pretty well what I wanted to as far as style and difficulty were concerned. So in those respects I treated the arrangements no differently from any other brass arrangements I’ve done. Knowing individual players’ strengths also helped me to personalise some of the more extreme moments. Writing Fat Belly Blues for Tony Halstead was a joy. His rich dark fundament is well-known amongst horn players and he certainly comes up trumps on the recording. At the opposite end of the spectrum, knowing that Pip Eastop is at your disposal adds another octave above what most mortals can hope to achieve. His stratospheric solos are incredible. As far as ensemble was concerned, having a really tight rhythm section helped enormously to drive the group along and as long as everyone trusted it, latched on to it and stuck to it, everything became easier.

Richard Bissill

Introduction, by Hugh Seenan

After the success of The London Horn Sound, many people who had bought the album particularly liked the last track, Caravan, with its big band style.

In 2005 Geoffrey Simon conducted a performance of that arrangement with many of the guys who played on the album, at a concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of the British Horn Society. I was Chairman of the BHS at the time and the packed audience loved it. Geoffrey and I concluded that we really should explore a new recording project. I had always been reluctant to make a London Horn Sound II, as I had thought the original CD was kind of a one-off occasion. And anyway, it was now being copied by others. So if we were to make another album I was determined to do something completely new. Entering the jazz world would certainly fit that bill, although as the horn is a “Cinderella” instrument in the jazz genre it was a bit of a tall order. I started looking for ideas. We have our very own fine jazz horn player in London, Jim Rattigan, whom I consulted. I also happened to listen to a 70’s recording featuring the jazz trumpet player Maynard Ferguson blasting out the track Give It One.

I made up my mind there and then to get that number arranged for the album if it ever happened at all. Over the next couple of years I tried to formulate how the album would work but it was rather a struggle at first. I had played in a horn big band in Oslo with the wonderful Norwegian jazz horn player Fred Johansson, so I knew a horn big band could work well in concert, at least. However my recordings of French horn jazz greats Julius Watkins (unfortunately deceased), John Clarke, Tom Varner and Adam Unsworth—all Americans—made me think that if this album was going to be made then apart from Jim Rattigan the key players would have to come from across the pond. So it would hardly be a London Horn Sound.

A good album has a certain amount of luck involved. For instance, with The London Horn Sound back then, getting 32 London horn players free over three consecutive days should by rights have been virtually impossible. But almost by chance certain things started to fall into place which made me start to believe that an all-London based jazz horn record might just be possible. The incredibly talented horn player Pip Eastop became heavily involved in playing jazz—but on a trumpet. My great mate Richard Bissill, the LPO principal horn, had recently played with jazz trumpet legend Winton Marsalis on one of his rare visits to London. I spoke to Pip about my ideas for a jazz horn album and he asked me to give him a few months to transfer his trumpet jazz prowess onto the horn. So now I had Jim and Pip, and of course Richard was up for it!

A jazz album stands or falls on its rhythm section. In 2007 I read an amazing review from the London Jazz Festival about a sensational young British jazz pianist called Gwilym Simcock. I remembered meeting Gwilym when he was a teenager and I was taking a horn class at Chetham’s Music School in Manchester. At the time he was a horn player, along with his best friend Chris Parkes who is now Principal Horn of the RPO. I knew that Gwilym had composed for Chris a rather fine jazzy piece for horn and piano. Also, that I had offered Gwilym a horn place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I am a professor—but he decided instead to take first study jazz piano at the Royal Academy of Music.

I wondered if he would consider playing piano on this evolving CD and writing some numbers for it. I called him from Basingstoke Station were I had a few minutes while waiting to catch the train to London and I asked him with fingers crossed if he would be interested in joining the team. I felt a mixture of relief and excitement when, without hesitation, he said yes! Knowing that Gwilym was on board, with his inspirational jazz piano playing and sheer genius in this genre, was probably the key element in the final decision to go ahead with the project.

I also contacted another incredibly talented horn player and composer, Timothy Jackson of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He too said yes and amazingly, he told me that he also played jazz horn and would like to write for us. We all eventually met over lunch at Blackfriars Wine Bar to exchange ideas. Geoffrey Simon’s label, Cala Records, backed the project completely.

We recorded Give It One at Air Studios in Hamstead, north London, over three cold, dark days just after Christmas 2007. Inside the venue the atmosphere was anything but cold, and the sessions were in fact a revelation to everyone who took part. All the musicians involved, including Martin France on drums and Sam Burgess on bass, surpassed themselves. Gwilym’s contributions at the piano left us speechless and he even took a jazz horn solo himself. The arrangements and new compositions were, without exception, stunning. Geoffrey conducted with his usual aplomb and good humour.

Special thanks to Tim Handley, who produced, and Curtis Schwartz and Gwilym, who mixed the album.

I know that the horn world is somewhat conservative, and this new album may take many people by surprise. However one thing is certain, the horn has escaped out of the closet and I hope you love the result as much as I do.

Hugh Seenan

Jasper Rees's Article in the CD booklet

The French horn has always stood apart from its colleagues. Joining the orchestra relatively late, in the concert hall it has been seated away from the rest of the brass section. It has never muscled its way into the colliery brass bands of the north of England, and in America has infiltrated the marching band only in the guise of a mellophone.

There’s one inner sanctum above all where the horn has struggled to get its foot in the door. When jazz began to flower as a musical form between the wars, its small caucus of renegade instruments gradually welcomed intruders from the orchestra. “Horn” duly became a catch-all name for any number of brassy instruments with slides, reeds or valves. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the pioneering Julius Watkins started to make a case for the French horn as a jazz instrument, recording with his own sextet on Blue Note, and with the short-lived outfit Les Jazz Modes. But while he became a session player with Coltrane, Mingus, Monk and Miles Davis, even he had difficulty securing gigs and in one disastrous interval jumped ship to the more employable trumpet.

Other jazz horn players have come along in his wake, notably John Clark and, more recently, Tom Varner, Adam Unsworth and James MacDonald. They all have one thing in common: they’re American. In the 1950s the great British virtuoso Dennis Brain would play salsa with Roberto Ingles and his Orchestra, but full-time horn jazzers have always been thin on the ground in Europe and the Russian Arkady Shilkloper is the only player so far to have earned serious recognition this side of the Atlantic.

In 1999 conductor Geoffrey Simon and Hugh Seenan, former principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra, chose to commemorate the remarkable depth of horn-playing talent in London with The London Horn Sound, a CD featuring music adapted for horn ensemble ranging from Wagner to Queen. Its success provoked imitations, as horn players from the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic followed The London Horn Sound into the recording studio. One of the most vibrant recordings on The London Horn Sound CD was left till last, a sixteen-strong account of Duke Ellington’s Caravan. Its popularity, particularly when it was performed as the finale to the British Horn Society’s 25th Anniversary festival in 2005, with Jim Rattigan taking the solo, prompted Geoffrey Simon and Hugh Seenan to get the band back together again.

The result is Give It One, a fizzing, snapping, swooning collection of jazz tunes which have been put through the mixer and come out revealed afresh. Performed by between six and eighteen horns with piano, bass and drums, what this extraordinary set of recordings reveals is that the best French horn players can turn their hand to this style as if born to it, both as virtuoso soloists and selfless ensemble players.

And some can compose, too: Give It One features as many originals as arrangements. Richard Bissill, whose regular gig is Principal Horn of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, composed Los Jaraneros and Fat Belly Blues in addition to arranging Not Like This, The Trolley Song and the title song, Give It One. The old jazz hand Jim Rattigan created Caseoso after arranging Daydream, while Timothy Jackson, a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s horn section, not only composed Lana’s Lullaby and Three Point Turn but gave us an inspired Sound Of Music Jazz Suite, available exclusively as a download from

The ensemble is supported throughout by the remarkable Gwilym Simcock on jazz piano, who also reminds us of his horn-playing roots by knocking out a solo in a composition of his own making, Blues For Hughie. As an arranger Simcock makes the case for the horn as a convincing substitute for even the most iconic voices with his versions of The Way We Were and God Bless the Child.

There have been some personnel changes since the first London Horn Sound CD. In Angela Barnes of the LSO and Kathryn Saunders of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra there are two more women than there were last time round. Other than that, the only fair way to single out individual players from such a peacock display of staggering talent is to draw the listener’s attention to the holes in the ozone layer punctured by Pip Eastop’s high playing in God Bless the Child and his numerous jazz solos, and the meaty wit of Tony Halstead’s low-range mastery in Fat Belly Blues. For connoisseurs of the rare and difficult French horn technique of singing and playing at the same time, there is a masterclass from Frank Lloyd and Jackson in Three Point Turn. And on several tracks a quartet of Wagner tubas, variously led by Dave Lee and Jeffrey Bryant, adds a darker hue to an already rich palette.

People who know the horn world will be eager to know which soloist is producing which sounds. Maybe these names will also become familiar to jazz listeners who for now are merely curious to find out how “the soul of the orchestra”, as Schumann called the French horn, cuts it without white tie and tails. In Give It One, from the heart-melting laments of Not Like This and Daydream to the hip-swaying Latin accents of Caseoso and Los Jaraneros, they have their scintillating answer.

Jasper Rees © 2008, London
Author, journalist and horn player

That long lunch...

A group of us met for lunch at Blackfriar's Wine Bar on 27 June 2007, to work out the plan for Give It One. It was, to the day, a year and a half before the CD would be released.

Hugh Seenan pulled the meeting together. Hugh was Principal Horn of the LSO for over twenty years and is now a leading British freelance and session player, in addition to serving as Professor of Horn at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He'd had the idea for The London Horn Sound in the late 90s and was feeling that the time was now ripe for a jazz horn recording by way of follow up.

Hugh invited the talented composer/arranger/French hornists Richard Bissill, Timothy Jackson and Jim Rattigan, along with Pip Eastop of the High Notes, whom we somehow knew would play a pivotal role. I was there for Cala Records and also as the conductor. I was kidded for remarking that jazz was finding its way more and more into my orchestral programming. Strings playing jazz? Yeah right, but could French horns really, really do it?

Gwilym Simcock arrived a little later from a recording session and his entry was a moment in history. He was more than twenty years younger than everyone else present except Tim Jackson, but he was greeted by these crusty pros with almost embarrassing reverence, as a star and a genius. (I soon saw for myself that he is indeed both these.) He countered, don't be ridiculous, you guys have been my heroes and role models since I was in short pants wanting to be a horn player. Eventually the mutual admiration society settled down and we got down to business. But the chemistry of that day, the shared excitement and pooled expertise, lasted throughout the project and can be heard in the music. The team was strong.

Crucially, two things emerged which were to be pivotal to the final product.

Typically in each of The London Sound Series recordings we have gone for variety in style and mood, partly through programming philosophy but also to showcase the full capability and range of the featured instrument. It's tougher to do than a single-mood album but it makes for more satisfying listening, we believe. So a lot of time was taken over lunch to ensure that Give It One would have a good mix of blues, Latin, up-tempo jazz and ballad. We decided not to venture into soul and R&B as we wanted to prove the point that pure jazz and the French horn are truly compatible. Ideas were broached and shared, and eventually each of the four composer/arrangers undertook to produce a certain amount of minutes and a certain mix of genres. There was no shortage of suggestions and some of the proposed ways forward sounded seriously intriguing. But so far it was all theoretical—no jot of music had been notated at that stage.

We then agreed that each composer/arranger would ensure his output of however many minutes must form within itself an entertaining and satisfying mini-programme. The theory was that when the final tracklisting of the CD was being decided upon during post-production, a shuffling of everyone's contributions would yield the same logical and well-structured succession of items as it had done in past London Sound Series projects. But as it turned out, Richard, Tim, Jim and Gwilym succeeded so well with their mini-programmes that after several months of experimentation over the track order we found that the correct solution for this recording was to keep each composer/arranger's work together, as you can see in the final tracklisting. It's this which provides Give It One with its item-by-item logic on the one hand and its arching sense of direction on the other.

It also solved a problem not foreseen over lunch, one we could be envied for having. At the sessions we recorded over 87 minutes of music—an almost unheard of amount in the time available. The musicians were that quick and everyone without exception met the challenges placed in front of them. This was way more music than can be contained on a CD, of course. Here Tim's self-contained, significant 14-minute Sound Of Music Jazz Suite proved to be perfect as a separate but enhancing part of Give It One. And we realised that the most exciting—and in today's terms most appropriate—way to present this suite to our audiences would be as a digital download exclusively from this site.

We had long known that the recording, to be made at Air Studios in Hampstead, north London, would have to take place at one of those rare times in the year when orchestras would wisely not be working and musicians would sensibly be enjoying Quality Time at home with their families. Otherwise every major London ensemble would have been essentially without its horn section, which we might not have gotten away with. The choices were two: either the dog days of summer (which were coming up too soon after the lunch to be practicable) or the sacrosanct period between Christmas and the New Year. We finally settled for a day of rehearsal on Friday, 28 December and five recording sessions over the following two and a half days. We finished with champagne just before New Year's eve set in. The timing in the end was designed to minimise, as best we could, the number of relationship breakups.

We planned the day of rehearsal not only to have sight of the dots but to recapture the special "London Horn Sound"—it's more than the sum of its parts—and to play in our chops as jazzers. All the hornists had played jazz before (I'm by no means the only orchestral conductor programming jazz) so swing was not an issue. What took some time was the realisation that, for this particular project, the horns would at times need to take the place of trumpets, trombones and saxes. Generally this meant much more emphasis on the start of the note, which is relatively untypical of classical horn playing. That the ensemble accepted and mastered this so quickly was quite amazing to me. Particularly as that distinctive "smokey horn" quality so famously associated with horn section playing could be, and was, recalled at a moment's notice when it was needed.

What didn't hurt at all was the unfailing jazz inspiration provided by Gwilym at the keyboard, more than ably assisted by Sam Burgess on double bass and Martin France on drums. In fact, once we were in the groove we found that it was no longer really about jazz at all, much less whether or not we classical folk were "getting" it; it was pure music-making, and that's how it ought to be.

Geoffrey Simon