Many people believe that the lead trumpet player has the most important role in the big band. It is the lead trumpet player’s responsibility to lead the band. If the lead trumpet player cannot do this, the sound of the entire band suffers.
Therefore a good lead trumpet player is someone who can lead the band with his performance skills without saying a word. This requires him to develop a very specific skill set. Let’s take a look at the six most important skills of a good lead trumpet player:
To me, musical style deals mostly with musical elements such as note shape, vibrato, and effects. The most important of these is note shape. Unfortunately, many of the younger lead trumpet players today don’t have a very good concept of note shapes. Their note shapes tend to be rectangular, which is a crude, astylistic way of playing. Rectangular note shapes are typical for those who have never studied note shapes in a lead trumpet context.
It would be wrong to say that all note shapes in jazz follow the same contour, but we know for certain that rectangular notes are unacceptable. In most cases in jazz, the note is always doing something and going somewhere. Rarely does it stay at the same intensity and same volume from its beginning to its end.
Sometimes the notes swell. Sometimes they start with what would be called a sfortzando in classical music. Other times the notes fade away. The possibilities are limitless and depend largely on the context. But staying static is, in my opinion, just sophomoric, undeveloped musicianship.
Everyone in the band has to have good time, but a lead trumpet player with bad time will make the entire band sound like it’s on the verge of falling apart. In a really great band, it is the lead trumpet player who leads the rest of the group in the overall feel of the time. Yes, it is the rhythm section that lays the foundation. But where the band sits on top of the foundation is largely determined by the time concept of the lead player.
Sometimes a good lead player will lay back on a tune when it’s appropriate. Other times (more rarely) he might push the tempo to help create a feeling of greater intensity. The rest of the band, if it is a good band, will take it’s sense of time feel from the lead trumpet player and adjust accordingly.
Different people have their own definitions of what phrasing is. Because I originally came through a classical education, my definition of phrasing deals mostly with intensity and dynamics of the melody. A typical classical phrase begins with low intensity, grows to a climax with high intensity and then resolves back to a lower intensity level. In jazz, phrasing is not as predictable as that.
In the big band, it is the lead player who determines where most of the phrases will climax. It is the lead player who determines how long the phrases are and how they will connect to each other.
4) Dynamics and Balance
There is some overlap between the subject of dynamics and phrasing. Phrasing deals with dynamics on a micro level. Here we are discussing dynamics at the macro level. A lead trumpet player who can only play loud is not very practical. I would much rather play with someone who has trouble playing loud enough than someone who cannot play soft.
Depending on their physical approach, some lead trumpet players have more difficulty playing softly than others. All lead players are capable of playing softly, but there are some popular methods that I believe handicap the players in this respect. They find that they can master the dynamics of their instrument only after a great deal of effort is invested into it.
In order for someone to be considered a good lead trumpet player, the rest of the band must be able to follow him. This requires a certain degree of predictability. The band needs to have confidence that the way he played a certain musical passage one time will be the same the second time, and the third and fourth, and so on.
This consistency applies to everything that I’ve listed here so far. It applies to style. It applies to note shapes and note lengths. It applies to breathing and phrasing. It applies to dynamics and time feel.
That consistency must be communicated clearly so the band can follow correctly. Most of the time, this type of communication is musical. The lead trumpet player almost exaggerates the musical aspects so the rest of the band gets it with very little miscommunication in the process.
Other times the lead player must communicate verbally. A good lead trumpet player should never feel timid or apologetic about telling the rest of his section how he wants to play the music. On rare occasions he will even have a need to communicate verbally to the lead bone and sax players. This is part of his job. It is his responsibility to do whatever is necessary to shape the entire band into one cohesive unit.
Style, time, phrasing, dynamics, consistency and communication, these are the treasured aspects of the greatest lead players. Notice the one aspect that I intentionally left off of the list…high notes. Having a good range does not make you a great lead player. It only gets your foot in the door. Being a great lead trumpet player assumes you have a good range and the six musical aspects I listed here should be added to that.
That said, one of my favorite lead trumpet players does not have a very impressive range. His name is Jimmy Brannon and he is one of the best lead trumpet players I ever worked with. He demonstrates all six of the qualities I listed here, but his range is not as impressive as some of the younger players of today.