Although Miles Davis seems to be the focal point of any discussion that links jazz trumpet and St. Louis, our area's horn legacy certainly doesn't begin -- or end -- with the legendary musician. Local trumpeters Charlie Creath and Dewey Jackson were major attractions in the riverboat bands that played up and down the Mississippi after World War I. And Harold "Shorty" Baker, Clark Terry, Lester Bowie and Jeremy Davenport all represent different generations of St. Louis musicians who have achieved national recognition for their horn playing. Now there's a new generation of St. Louis-bred trumpeters on the horizon. And three of the most promising -- Russell Gunn, Marlin Bonds and Keyon Harrold -- will be featured in concert this Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Sheldon Concert Hall, presented by the Crusaders for Jazz. Fittingly, the event is being billed as a tribute to the music of Miles Davis, and these three young horn players certainly have the talent to do justice to his music.
Although Harrold is still a senior in high school, he's led groups in performance at the Backstage Bistro and held his own sitting in with nationally known musicians. Bonds is completing his music studies on the East Coast and is also earning a growing reputation for his musicianship. And at the age of 27, Gunn has just released his third recording as a leader, Love Requiem, on the High Note label -- and his debut release on Atlantic Records, Ethnomusicology, Volume 1, will hit record stores next Tuesday.
Although Gunn was born in Chicago, he grew up in East St. Louis, developing his trumpet skills under the tutelage of Ron Carter, the acclaimed teacher who turned the Lincoln High School Jazz Band into one of the nation's finest secondary-school ensembles. After spending a year studying music at Jackson State University, Gunn decided to begin a full-time career as a professional musician. He toured in the backing band of soul singer Johnnie Taylor, then spent some time playing with Carnival Cruise Lines bands in the Caribbean before returning to St. Louis in 1993.
Gunn's big break came in December 1992, when he performed with alto-sax player Oliver Lake at Washington University. Lake, a former St. Louisan who now lives in the New York metropolitan area, was so impressed by Gunn's skill on trumpet that he invited the young horn player to join his touring band. Soon Gunn had decided to make the big jump to the New York City jazz scene, and within a matter of months he found himself playing with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
By the end of 1994, Gunn had recorded his debut release as a leader, Young Gunn, on the Muse label. He became a member of Branford Marsalis' Buckshot LeFonque, a cutting-edge band that blended jazz, R&B and hip-hop beats; recorded with the likes of Lou Reed and Maxwell; released a 1997 follow-up recording, Gunn Fu, on High Note; and appeared on Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning recording Blood on the Fields.
Gunn continues to grow and develop as a musician, and the almost simultaneous release of Love Requiem and Ethnomusicology, Volume 1 underscores his varied interests. Love Requiem is a straight-ahead jazz recording with an interesting classical twist. And Ethnomusicology, Volume 1 features Gunn's surprisingly organic blend of jazz and hip-hop beats.
"Love Requiem is actually one large work broken into different sections," says Gunn, speaking on the phone from his home in the Atlanta area. "I actually got the idea from Mozart's Requiem Mass, which Mozart wrote in tribute to his father after his death. I'm using that form to present a musical concept tracing the evolution of a love relationship -- one that's seemingly solid but that gradually breaks apart."
As mentioned, Ethnomusicology, Volume 1 presents a synthesis of jazz and hip-hop, the two musical styles to which Gunn is most attracted. "Actually, when I was in high school, I really wanted to become a rapper rather than a jazz musician," Gunn says. "But the opportunities really opened up for me in jazz, so that's the direction I took. But I still listened to hip-hop, and I never thought it was strange to like both styles. So Ethnomusicology really isn't anything new for me, although it's definitely something different for anybody who's just a jazz fan or who's into rap and hip-hop. Actually I've been doing the music that's on Ethnomusicology for about three years now."
The recording opens with a weirdly altered voice speaking over a slow instrumental vamp (a technique reminiscent of the opening of the classic Jimi Hendrix album Axis: Bold as Love). Then the music spills into overdrive, layering the turntable scratching of Apollo DJ with deep grooves laid down by bassist Rodney Jordan, drummer Woody Williams and percussionist Kwami Bell. Andre Heyward's trombone playing, blistering sax work by Greg Tardy and Bruce Williams, and Gunn's soaring trumpet push the music into jazz, but the hip-hop flavor remains an essential element throughout. Spoken-word interludes by Wynton Marsalis, Charles Mingus and Run DMC reinforce Gunn's philosophy of breaking down the barriers between jazz and rap.
"The band I used on Ethnomusicology is basically the same band I've been working with in clubs in New York City since 1995," explains Gunn. "On my previous recordings, I had less control over what I wanted to do in the studio. With this one, Atlantic pretty much let me do what the band and I had been doing live. I'm pretty happy with the way they've been supportive of the music, and they're working hard to promote it. But I'm realistic about the music. I realize the difficulty of getting this music out there. This record is so different and uncategorizable. It doesn't really fit into the existing formats of jazz radio or pop or hip-hop radio. But I knew that going in -- and I'm still happy with the music. It's a really true album."
Gunn moved to Atlanta last September, and he seems happy with that new aspect of his life as well. He and his wife have a new baby daughter, and he finds plenty of advantages in his new location.
"We decided to move to Atlanta because we didn't want our daughter to grow up in New York, and I think, aside from New Orleans, Atlanta is the next best place in the country to hear and play jazz. I play in clubs here on a semiregular basis, and although there's not the depth of music you find in New York, it balances out. Here, I can walk outside in my shorts in January, and I have trees and grass and silence. And I'll probably live longer, too!"
Although you won't hear Gunn performing his Ethnomusicology music at the Sheldon on Thursday, you'll definitely hear him putting his talent to work on some classic Miles Davis music in the company of Bonds and Harrold. And that approach is just fine with Gunn.
"I think we'll be playing Miles tunes from his albums like Four, his more recognizable things rather than Bitches Brew or In a Silent Way," he says. "But that's fine. I love playing that way, too.