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Exploring the French Horn’s Broad Spectrum

Across oceans or across towns, French horn players find one another. They all dwell, after all, in a curious musical isolation.

In jazz the French horn lingers there, even some 55 years after Miles Davis and Gil Evans deployed three of them on Birth of the Cool.

It is a “slippery” instrument, as Tom Varner allows. The Seattle-based titan of the instrument knows, because he has spent a long career mastering it. He is among its few jazz greats, and has recorded some of the finest jazz French horn albums, few as those are.

In the classical world, exponents are more numerous, and Seattle can boast of a particularly fine one, Mark Robbins. He has been with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 32 years and is now its associate principal French horn player. He also is principal horn with the Seattle Opera (that’s him, sounding the horn calls in Wagner’s Ring Cycle).

Robbins and Varner now are both on the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts, and as part of the college’s 2012-2013 Music Series, they are performing together for the first time.

Their concert of mixed classical and jazz French horns, with piano and vocalist, is testimony to Robbins’s musical open mind. Few classical hornists would go there. But Robbins has, in fact, been an admirer of jazz horn for decades, and of Varner, from the moment he first heard him at a Seattle jazz club. Robbins’ alertness to the instrument’s possibilities in that realm arose in his youth. He even considered studying jazz at Berklee College of Music. He instead stuck with his classical training at the University of Miami, but in part because he found a jazz band to his liking there.

He says his concert with Varner promises “the contrast of different kinds of music and different styles of horn playing. We’ll also see where some of the music overlaps.”

Varner has repeatedly topped category polls of Down Beat, Jazz Times, and the Jazz Journalists Association. He has done that by demonstrating that you don’t need to be in the classical world to possess serious chops. He gained those by declining, from the start, to be the typical jazz French horn player: one whose primary instrument is trombone or trumpet. Instead, irrepressibly, he has been a proponent for the horn as a surprising but deserving jazz instrument.

It makes famously fearsome demands on its players. The closeness of its overtones and its size compared to the trumpet and even trombone ensure that. To attain the flexibility that jazz requires, whether in post-bop or later styles, Varner has pursued a tireless apprenticeship, and even now casts himself as a student working on his sound vocabulary. He draws particularly from the jazz spectrum. His swinging, pulsing approach is a distillation of everything he grew up with and later embraced. It echoes with the innovations of trumpeter Don Cherry and alto-sax titan Ornette Coleman—early heroes—as well as with what he calls “the extremely grooving, extremely mysterious rhythm playing of Ron Carter and Tony Williams” in Miles Davis’s mid-1960s quintet.

His range and articulation, delightful shocks to listeners, are not surprising given how diverse his collaborations have been. They have taken in not only the jazz vanguard but also classical and new-music developments. Outside jazz, he has worked with everyone from microtonal composer LaMonte Young to Beirut-reared oud master Rabih Abou-Khalil. With all that, he has always managed to remain wholly digestible to even the casual music listener—no small accomplishment.

While Varner is “the French horn player in contemporary jazz,” as renowned critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt dubbed him, Robbins can lay claim to the mastery expected of top-flight classical horn exponents. But far from all his peers in that world would be willing, let alone eager, to explore a repertoire such as he and Varner will perform.

It spans musical worlds, and reflects the range of performance and instruction at Cornish. With them, on the evening, will be another Cornish instructor, Dawn Clement, a pianist adept in both jazz and classical modes. Also on the program is Gina Gillie, a classical vocalist who teaches at Pacific Lutheran University and knows her way around the French horn repertoire because she also performs on the instrument.

She will accompany Varner and Robbins in a performance of her “To the Seasons” (2009), a four-movement (and four-season) piece for soprano, horn, and piano. Also possible on the program are a French horn piece by Paul Dukas, to set the context for selections by George Gershwin, whom he influenced.

For Robbins, as for audiences, the prospect is a concert that promises to be what he likens to “a good meal of contrasting dishes,” and highlights what Varner characterizes as “the wide range of this beautiful instrument that we play.”

Peter Monaghan writes frequently about jazz and the arts for a number of publications.

Tom Varner and Mark Robbins perform at Cornish College of the Arts’ PONCHO Concert Hall on Friday, November 30th at 8:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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