Music is entering a new Brass Age. French horns and trumpets are stepping out of symphony orchestras and jazz combos, adding oomph everywhere from Kanye West's marching band spectacular at the 2006 Grammy Awards to the ongoing indie-rock vogue for Gypsy brass. Heck, the Daptone Horns (which have played with Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Mark Ronson) have worked harder in the last couple of years than many groups do in a whole career.
For the next two weeks, San Francisco celebrates the dawning of these instruments' latest era with the Hornucopia Festival. Between September 4 and 14, more than 35 brass- and horn-driven ensembles will be performing at nine venues including Café Du Nord and the Great American Music Hall, and there might even be an impromptu parade somewhere in the lineup.
Hornucopia organizer Sol Crawford has been following this sonic surge for a while. Crawford, a booker at the Mission's Amnesia bar, identifies the sound as part of a larger trend that defies genre classification. The artists in his event infuse traditional music from around the world with "modern, irreverent, and innovative approaches."
But even drawing almost exclusively on local talent, the sheer volume of possible candidates was overwhelming. The field needed to be narrowed. What was the common thread running from salsa and New Orleans jazz to Afrobeat, Balkan dance bands, and klezmer?
You guessed it: brass and horns. "You can talk about this music in poetical or musicological terms, or just point out one obvious thing: Beautiful, wailing horn playing gives this music its guts, and binds together so many ragtag, cross-cultural traditions," says Jason Ditzian, sax player for '60s Stax-inspired soul group Lord Loves a Working Man and bandleader of klezmer group Kugelplex, both of which are part of the Hornucopia roster.
Some Hornucopia participants, like large jazz ensemble Realistic Orchestra, are dominated by brass and horns. But for most, the criteria for inclusion was simply whether these instruments were at the heart of a group's music. "If you removed the trombone, trumpet, and sax from Manicato, could they make their Latin, dub-heavy grooves?" Crawford asks. "Would Polkacide have as much punk-polka punch without the tuba? Could Aphrodesia play their unique take on Afrobeat without that killer horn section? No way."
Ditzian observes that horns used to rule in the days before guitarists could plug into a stack of Marshall amps. "Guitars have had a good run for the last 60 years or so," he says, "but I think there might be a yearning in some people now to unplug that shit."
Along those same lines, Hornucopia's focus dovetails neatly with modern ecological concerns about saving energy. "The idea of people-powered ways of living are exciting right now, and horns and brass are about as people-powered instruments as you get," Crawford observes. "When you break them down, it's just breath routed though plumbing acting as an ingenious amplifier."
Crawford truly believes that Hornucopia's main players possess a distinct power to hit audiences in the guts. Yet he can't help but slip a joke about the tools of their trade into the conversation: "What do you call a guy who knows how to play the trombone, but doesn't?" he asks. "A gentleman." If Hornucopia is a good indication, that gentleman might also be a fool. Kids, start nagging your parents for tuba lessons now.