The Trouble with Horns: Steely Dan, “My Old School” (1973) and Ani DiFranco, “Promised Land” (2003)

It’s hard for me to listen to horns.  I admit they have a place in Beethoven—where they’re as likely as not to sound like goofy hunting horns, though, come to think of it.  In jazz, I know very well that Miles and some sax masters are awesome, but I would vastly rather listen to piano or guitar or even Stéphane Grappelli playing violin.  In rock . . . I have many disappointments.  I know this is scary-eccentric, but I’m not even sure I want to keep the horn parts in “Penny Lane” or “The Last Balloon.”

What is the ground of this feeling?

At one level, horns in rock turn it into show music, cheesy manipulative entertainment having nothing to do with expression and sincerity.  This “show” aspect of horn-powered music limits my enthusiasm for all but the most sublime James Brown or Stax/Volt material.  (Why do I not feel the same way about, say, the organ part in “Born To Be Wild,” sonically so much like a horn section?  Maybe it’s just that I’m a keyboard player and the model of the polyphonic keyboard wizard thrills me more than the model of a choreographed little team of tooters.)

More fundamentally, consider that the two basic structural dimensions of our voice are the pipe and the cords.  We get vibrato from the flexing of our cords, adding an extra layer of expressive oscillation on top of sound’s basic wave oscillation.  Stringed instruments, including piano, duplicate this liveliness.  Except when they’re delicately handled by masters, pipe instruments miss it.  They honk and bleat.  The way they transcend their steam-whistle crudeness is with “color” (purely a relationship among the tone frequencies that produce the total tone) and huskiness (like a flute or saxophone’s blend of air noise with piped tone).  You get a rudimentary instant personality with horn sound, but only with difficulty can you approach crying or singing.

I know perfectly well that what I just said is arbitrary and inadequate.  I could have put things the other way round:  horns sing (bold enunciation!), breathing, while strings whinge.  De gustibus non est disputandum!  I’ll never find an objective reason to sustain my view against all others.  What I want to do is catch myself in an inconsistency and see what that reveals.

So how is it that I can be suddenly, decisively reconciled to what I generally can’t stand?  How do I recognize that the horns in “My Old School” by Steely Dan (arranged by Jimmie Haskell) are fabulous?  Somehow the competition between horns and electric guitars to blare has turned into a convergence in this song, and the Steely Dan emphasis on syncopation and short notes has fostered an equivalency.  The guitar and horn parts envisage each other so shrewdly that the guitars take on color from the horns and the horns take over the plucked attack of the guitars.  It must be the partnership that gets me.  The arrangement won’t let me hear the horns as a separate horn section, a layer of frosting; they absolutely can’t be scraped off.

“My Old School”

Short notes, syncopation, hip arrangement, and a sense of interesting partnership are keys again to my other stellar example of horns in the rock realm, Ani DiFranco’s “Promised Land” on Evolve.  Picking up sinuous, staccato, exploratory qualities from DiFranco’s singing, the horn voices are smart and amazingly acceptable.  As the album title suggests, DiFranco is devising new extensions of her musicality here, and the horns have been drawn fully into her counsels; their color and breath are strategic; even their potential for showiness is turned to expressive account.  For me, it’s the most satisfying new venture of this kind since Joni Mitchell took Tom Scott’s reeds and woodwinds on board for Court and Spark.

“Promised Land”

Through the years I’ve had to be won over at various times to a whole series of crucial ingredients of rock, even to vocals themselves.  (That’s right—once I was listening to The Ventures in preference to The Beatles.)  A particular musical work had to teach me the convincing gesture that requires the new ingredient.  My general position is that horns, like synthesizers, are still on probation; but the peppery horns of “My Old School” and “Promised Land” (and, yes, some of that James Brown, some of that Stax/Volt, some tracks on Blood, Sweat & Tears, and some Midnight Oil and Hunters and Collectors) have made the grade.

Let’s make a mix:  what are the greatest rock horn parts?


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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10 Responses to The Trouble with Horns: Steely Dan, “My Old School” (1973) and Ani DiFranco, “Promised Land” (2003)

  1. The saxophone has no place in rock music and there can be no doubt about that.

    • This comment reveals your ignorance of history and simply lack of ears. Sax players invented rock in the ’50s, and guitarists stole their riffs from them (look it up)… To each their own I suppose.

  2. Steve Smith says:

    What about “Baker Street”? The exception that proves the rule, you may say; but what about The Blasters, “I’m Shakin'”? What about the brilliant doubling of guitar by sax on “Couldn’t Get It Right”? Are you immune to the charm of “Who Can It Be Now?”?

  3. To your list I would add Tower of Power, Earth Wind and Fire, and (early) Chicago.

  4. Yes I am immune to the charm of Who Can It Be Now?

  5. Another of Ani’s songs with a really good horn part (IMO) is “How Have You Been,” which sounds like something James Brown should have done. Very tasty.

  6. Steve Smith says:

    And I was forgetting Morphine. Now there’s some valid saxophone.

  7. Steve Smith says:

    Delightful reed parts by Levon Henry in new Joe Henry track, “Swayed.”

  8. Steve Smith says:

    I get a kick out of the peppy, droll horn parts on “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune,” the opening track of Jack Bruce’s wonderfully progressive album Songs for a Tailor (1969).

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