Recent Listening: Jeffrey Snedeker’s French Horn

Jeffrey Snedeker, Minor Returns (JS). Snedeker is a rarity, a first-chair symphony French horn artist who understands jazz time, phrasing and feeling. In settings from quartet through big band to 41-piece string orchestra, he pays homage to the horn’s role in jazz. Snedeker solos on pieces associated with the music’s handful of French horn heroes, including Julius Watkins, David Amram, Willie Ruff and John Graas. Among his colleagues is the perennial French horn poll winner Tom Varner, one of the few players of the instrument to make a substantial impact in jazz over the past two decades.

Snedeker and Varner revisit “Two French Fries,” the Gigi Gryce piece that featured Watkins and Amram in a 1956 Oscar Pettiford big band album. Doubling the duration of the Pettiford performance, they solo at length, exchange fours with drummer Tom Noble, do simultaneous improvisation and—stunningly—play in unison, harmonized with two saxophones, a transcription of Watkins’ virtuoso solo from the Pettiford record. Their backing on “Two French Fries” is by the Central Washington University Jazz Band 1, which nails the demanding arrangement. Varner is also a guest on “Linda Delia,” a Latin number Watkins recorded with Les Jazz Modes, the group he led in the 1950s with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Watkins might grin knowingly at Varner’s note-bending solo.

John Graas’ “Allegretto, from Jazz Symphony No. 1” is an octet arrangement reminiscent of Graas’ 1950s west coast milieu. The blowing choruses are built on the changes of “All The Things You Are” and have fine solos from Snedeker, alto saxophonist Lenny Price, trombonist Phil Dean, and tenor saxophonist Saul Cline—indications of the often-overlooked quality of jazz talent in the Pacific Northwest. “Godchild” has the same Gerry Mulligan arrangement and instrumentation as the 1949 Miles Davis Birth Of The Cool recording. Snedeker pays tribute by quoting the first notes of Davis’ solo before he constructs his own. Price, on alto, and tubaist Curtis Peacock also solo to good effect.

Snedeker was inspired by the example of Willie Ruff to include “Summertime,” “Oleo,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Autumn Leaves,” all recorded by the Mitchell/Ruff Duo. His inspiration for the amusing version of “Straight No Chaser” is the similarity of its melody line to the famous horn passage in Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, dramatically intoned by Snedeker before he counts off a brisk pace for Monk’s famous blues in F. It has effective solos by pianist John Sanders, drummer Garey Williams and Snedeker. The other direct classical association is “Moonlove,” Andre Kostelanetz’s appropriation of the horn theme from the andante cantabile movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Sanders introduces it with a succession of Tchaikovskian chords, then Snedeker plays the famous melody before he and the rhythm section make their lilting way through a chorus of ¾ swing.

Snedeker plays “Take Five” unaccompanied, incorporating split tones and startling interval drops to the nether region of the horn. “In a Sentimental Mood,” the sole track with strings, is rich with horn melody and variations over an ingenious arrangement by the late Tom Gause. The title piece and “Home Away From Home” are originals by Snedeker’s composer brother Gregory, both with challenging harmonies and time changes, and with powerful bass work by Isaac Castillo, another Northwesterner worth keeping an ear on.

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  1. says

    Nice review! It’s always great to see one of our “Horn-brethren” getting some jazz love.

    (Mr. Taylor plays the French horn in New York City—DR)