Monday, March 23, 2015

When a Horn Section Doesn't Work with Blues

Muddy's 1966 album Brass & The Blues; our case study

The stereotype for blues art and design is to always include a horn player, most of the time a saxophonist. It somehow emphasizes that a horn section is an integral part of a blues band.

While it not unusual to have a horn section in a blues setting, keep in mind the blues did not come the city; where the music scene is slick and refined. It came from the Mississippi delta, from the cotton fields, where music was learned by listening to others; no formal training or instruction... very 'primitive' and raw. A place where a harmonica was called a "Mississippi Saxophone", where it was about the hardships and not about getting down to the dancefloor.

So even since the dawn of jazz in the early 20th century in New Orleans with Dixieland Jazz, it had an urban flavor to it. And urban centers, such as Chicago and New York City, were very welcoming to this style of music, eventually leading to the Jazz Era of the 1920's, swing era of the 30's, and bebop of the 40's. 

The blues did not gain much popularity in the big cities until the mid-to-late 40's. One of the main Chicago blues pillars is Muddy Waters, whose raw Mississippi sound paired with electric guitars led to an explosion of inner city blues. None of these bands had horn sections. 

But later on, artists such as B.B. King started adding a horn section to their band. It ultimately gave them a more R & B, soul/gospel feel. So now you can hear a difference between several bands; one reason that B.B. King was successful is that he played 'higher class music', per the words of Muddy Waters. Horns always evoke a feeling or aura of sophistication.

Which brings me to the point today; in 1966 Chess Records decided to 'renew' Muddy's sound by adding a horn section to his traditional blues. The results were mixed, but the album sold well enough.

With the addition of horns, the music automatically changed to a more R&B sound. This is not the issue here, but rather it did not mix with the style Muddy was bringing forward. 

So if you ever get in a discussion about blues and horns, site the above example. 

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