Fresh off Phil Collins’ recent world tour, The Vine Street Horns talked to Woodwind & Brasswind about playing in a section, equipment, and getting along (more important than you might think in landing a gig). Interviewing Vine Street was a tricky thing. It was impossible to get them all in the same city, let alone the same room under our time constraints, so we conducted four separate interviews with Harry Kim (trumpet, arranger), Daniel Fornero (trumpet), George Shelby (saxophones) and Luis Bonilla (trombone), the transcripts of which are fascinating and voluminous.
Woodwind & Brasswind: There’s a great Midwestern tradition of top-of-the-line horn playing. Did you have a really good high school music program?
Dan Fornero: There’s no doubt about that. I was fortunate to go to an amazing high school, Tremper High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When I went there they had a marching band, a concert band and a symphonic band. They had a wind ensemble, two jazz ensembles and a symphony orchestra that used brass every day of the week.
I’d get up and go play in wind ensemble and then go straight into orchestra. It was phenomenal. In my hometown, there was a great administrator and educator names Ralph Houghton. His son, by the way, is the great drummer Steve Houghton.
Ralph set up a system years ago to help with renting instruments to the kids and so by the time everybody in Kenosha was in fifth or sixth grade, there were a whole lot of people playing musical instruments. By the time they got to junior high, they were already getting around their instruments and by the time they were in high school, they were pretty darn good. There was a lot of emphasis on playing music in Kenosha.
Additionally, there was a lot of drum and bugle corps in the area at the time, which is really where I started. Around fifth or sixth grade I started playing soprano bugle in the Kiltie Cadets drum and bugle corps out of Racine, a town about ten miles north of where I’m from.
WWBW: How big a town is Kenosha to support that vigorous a band program?
DF: Kenosha, at the time I lived there, I think about 68,000 people lived there, something like that. It wasn’t that big a town, really, considering. And Racine was very similar, north of it. There was the Kiltie Cadets drum and bugle corps, the Kilties, the Racine Scouts, the Kenosha Shoreliners, the Kenosha Queensmen – I mean these were all different drum corps that were within ten miles of each other, just full of guys playing horns. When I was in the Kiltie Cadets there were guys in there that were very, very good at a very young age and so I had a lot of role models. Then when I got into the Kilties when I turned 14, that corps was from the age 14 to 21 so there were college guys in there. There was a lot of people to really be influenced and inspired by.
WWBW: That kind of speaks to the power of a few highly motivated individuals, I think. You mentioned Mr. Houghton. It just takes a few people in a town of that size with high energy to orient students to the possibility of music.
DF: That’s true and it was also a bit of a different academic vibe back then. They didn’t look at the arts as a waste of money. They looked at the arts as a really important part of a well-rounded education, which unfortunately today is not the case.
WWBW: School systems are cutting music programs, so then it becomes private instruction or nothing. It’s tough.
DF: That’s right. And then you listen to the stuff being put out that the kids are buying into. Sophisticated musical content is not real prevalent on the radio. There’s some that gets through. I mean I’d have to say Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and people like that are doing some really great stuff.
WWBW: There is a young jazz movement afoot, groups like Kneebody, Snarky Puppy—but it seems to be that the spigot has been shut down quite a bit.
DF: I agree with that. Snarky Puppy’s been spectacular. Those guys are something else.
WWBW: I saw them at the Disney Concert Hall. They did an opening set for Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard. They were amazing. They played an hour set and it was absolutely spectacular.
DF: They’ve really got a great thing going. It’s very fresh and original.
WWBW: You’ve been in with Harry and Vine Street pretty much since the beginning, right? Is that my correct understanding?
DF: Yeah, founding member. Harry was with the Phenix horns, which was the horn section originally for Earth, Wind and Fire. They had an opening and he got the nod on that. They had also become the horn section for Phil Collins. In 1989 they recorded the But Seriously album and took it on tour and that was Harry’s involvement with the Phenix Horns and Phil Collins. After that tour, Harry decided he wanted to create his own horn section so he asked me to be part of that.
WWBW: And how did that come about?
DF: He and I were old friends. We used to play a lot with a band called Rudy Regalado. Rudy Regalado was a percussionist band leader, rest his soul. He had a band called Chévere. I think at that time he might have called it the L.A. All Stars Chévere. Harry and I and Arturo Velasco and a host of other guys that we’re all real still close with, played with that band. We were playing original music, mostly arranged and composed by Oscar Meza, the great bassist.
A large part of the music was instrumental and extremely challenging. To this day I can’t believe what we were taking on. Oscar wouldn’t write for the specific instrument. He didn’t care what the ramifications of trying to play something like this on a trumpet or a trombone would be. He just heard it and he wrote it and then we had to grow into it. That band really taught me a lot and I made some lifelong friends out of that. That’s where Harry and I really solidified our friendship.
WWBW: How busy has Vine Street per se been over that, what is it, close to 20 years, I guess?
DF: We’re pretty fortunate. I mean Harry was really smart in the beginning and he hired a publicist. That publicist got our name around into some performances at a place that used to be called L.A. Live. It used to take place at this one club that’s no longer in existence down in Century City. They used to have, I don’t know if it was weekly or monthly – I don’t really remember exactly, but they would have an all-star lineup of different acts coming in. One week it would be Hamish Stuart from the Average White Band and then they would put together a band of guys in L.A. to play that music with him. Prince would make an appearance occasionally. Al McKay came in with Earth, Wind and Fire and we did Earth, Wind and Fire material with him as the leader.
So they used us as the horn section for that and that got us a bunch of exposure. We ended up getting a few different record dates for different artists. In the early ‘90s, Phil had decided to make a change with his horn section. He contacted Harry and asked him to put together a horn section. He said he already had a horn section and he sent him couple of recordings we’d done with other artists. Phil loved it and hired us.
Because of Harry’s relationship with Phil, we got the nod on that and that really opened everything up. We started touring with Phil in ’94 and ’95 and then in ’96 Phil did the Phil Collins Big Band which was his band with our, you know, the Vine Street Horns and then we augmented the band into big band form by adding guys from the WDR Köln big band. ’97 was another pop tour. ’98 was another big band tour for Phil Collins where we augmented it this time with also a group from Northern Illinois University and Ron Modell.
In ’98 we began touring with a French rock artist named Johnny Hallyday. He was something special.
WWBW: A fellow I work with lived in France for a long time and I was telling him about the assignment and so he goes online and says this guy Johnny Hallyday is kind of like the biggest thing in France.
DF: He’s the biggest artist really I think I’ve ever worked with in terms of fan base. The first gigs we did with him in ’98 the French were hosting the World Cup that year so they built a brand-new stadium called the Stade de France. The Rolling Stones were apparently the first act to ever play in this brand new outdoor stadium for soccer and they had a massive stage setup and some sort of ramp going out to the middle of the football pitch.
DF: So the French promotor for Johnny Hallyday decided, being a little off-put that his artist, the national treasure of France, wasn’t the first artist to go in there, decided to outdo whatever had been done there before.
We got to France and the stage was the width of the entire endzone, if you will, of the soccer stadium. It was about no less than four stories tall, I’d say. It had diagonal ramps going up the back set, which later would host a hundred-piece choir all in white robes. He had a hydraulically lifted 40-piece symphony orchestra come out of the center of the stage into the air. He had the ramp leading from the stage going out to the center of the pitch and he would come up hydraulically from there and just appear through a whole rocket kind of sled system that was under the ramp that would get him from front of the stage to all of a sudden he’s in the middle of the stage and entered with a helicopter drop and four stunt men pretending to be him landing in different – I mean it was off the hook.
The first thing we thought – we had rehearsed in Los Angeles for three weeks for this with this French guy. We couldn’t understand the words, but Harry was doing the horn arrangements and we were happy to be there. I remember my very first thought when I got to this, saw the stage I just thought, my God, we need to renegotiate. This is bigger than we ever expected it to be.
WWBW: Yeah, there’s some money being spent and where’s our piece?
DF: They took care of us. Don’t get me wrong, but that guy, we never imagined that it was anything that big. Nobody’d ever heard of the guy. But in France he can’t really leave the house. He’s –
WWBW: He’s Elvis.
DF: He’s France’s Elvis, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson all together in one thing, whatever that fanbase is for those guys, they’re all that for Johnny. And the French either absolutely love him or they really don’t care for him. He’s not their cup of tea. But he’s their national treasure. He brought rock and roll and R&B to the French while America and England was creating it in the ‘60s and the late ‘50s. So he’s just been going at it and they kind of re-launched his career in ’98 and we were really fortunate to be part of that.
WWBW: On the general subject of horn sections maybe articulate the difference between a studio hiring for hotshot L.A. horn players and hiring a section that’s already together and knows one another’s tendencies and proclivities.
DF: There is something to be said for being a section when it comes to instinct, musical instinct and phrasing. Certain horn sections play a certain way and those guys just know instinctively what they’re going to do when they see a certain kind of music in front of them. But the L.A. top dog guys putting together a horn section it’s going to be pretty darn good. I mean there’s no doubt about it. I’ve been in a lot of horn sections on session work in L.A. where it’s just a put-together thing and if it’s the right guys, and L.A. is filled with the right guys, its’ spectacular. It’s different, but it’s spectacular. And they have equal merit.
Vine Street, when we go together, already know what Harry’s going to do musically. We see a certain phrase I know how Harry’s going to want that played and that gives us a little swagger on the music that is really fun to play.
Can’t take anything away from the session guys. The difference, though, is a little bit of it may have to be nuanced and agreed on whereas in a horn section that’s already established and played together so much that sort of discussion is already built in without having been said.
WWBW: Living in the belly of the beast where when you look over your shoulder you’ve got wonderful brass players, you must protect your area pretty well by a vigorous routine. Do you practice a lot?
DF: That’s why I had to call you back. I had about another minute worth to go on this exercise I was trying to complete [laughs]. So yeah, I’m practicing. If not working I’m practicing. We’re paying off of our bills off of this. It’s not a hobby and at the beginning of the day I’m a musician. You learn all the time and doesn’t get any easier as we get older. I love what I do and I just want to be better at it. So if I’m not working, I’m working away at it.
WWBW: Want to talk about equipment for a little bit?
WWBW: Do you have an endorsement?
WWBW: Okay. Which do you play?
DF: I also endorse GR mouthpieces.
WWBW: I have never heard of that.
DF: Gary Radke, GR mouthpieces.
WWBW: Where’s he?
DF: He’s out of Dousman, Wisconsin
WWBW: Mouthpieces are kind of this magical category…
DF: No joke. Little small differences make huge differences.
WWBW: What is it about Gary’s mouthpieces that you like?
DF: Gary Radke he will tell you that he’s not a mouthpiece designer. He’s a problem solver. I think that’s the way he would describe himself. He has designed a series of playing tests based on the fundamentals of playing trumpet. First, he does a little bit of research on who you are, gets an idea what kind of player you are. Then he asks you to play these different things and he listens very intensely right next to your bell – not in front of it, but just to the side of it. He listens for areas where a typical trumpet player will have a little hiccup in some of these little things that he asks you to do. Based on where your little hiccup is it gives him information on what will help you in the design of a mouthpiece.
He’s a pretty amazing guy, really. I think the secret of going to Gary is to trust him and just go okay, look, I’m going to let you tell me what’s best for me. He designs something based off of these playing tests and what he’s heard and what he knows about you. John Lewis trusted him to that and so has Wayne Bergeron. I was looking for a change of mouthpiece and works for those guys, I’m in. So I went and saw him and we did a couple of days of testing and design. He created a series for me that’s based off of his standard 3 rim, which is pretty neat. The John Lewis mouthpieces are custom rim. So is Wayne Bergeron’s. Mine is based off a 3, which is kind of nice for a lot of trumpet players because a whole large population of trumpet players plays on the 3C or 3 rims. So the interior of the cups and the backboards and such are varied for different advantages. Let’s say it that way.
WWBW: I’ve never heard of such a thing, that consultative process at the front end.
DF: I f you go to my website danfornero.com, the series that he created for me is there and you can purchase them through that. Also there’s a YouTube video of the testing of the first design he made, which is the basis of the entire series. The second day of the testing he put it together. He said, “All right, I’m going to put a camera on. Let’s go.” And we did the little tests and that’s what’s on. You can watch that on YouTube.
WWBW: Which Yamaha trumpet do you play?
DF: I think it’s the 9335 New York generation 2. Prior to that the trumpet that I first started playing when I began endorsing them is the Vizzuti line the New York Vizzuti model. They’ve just come out with a new model, the generation 2 New York, which I’m really enjoying. I’ve been playing on it since April. It’s really a really nice new design of theirs. Apparently, they redesigned the leadpipe and the bell and the piston length and some other things in there that have changed it pretty drastically, but it plays a lot like an old New York New York Bach that I have in my closet.
WWBW: I guess Harry’s playing the 50th anniversary Bach which is essentially like a repro of that horn you’re talking about, right?
DF: It’s hard to say. I’m not real familiar with Bach’s line other than the 37, 43, 72 and all that. The new models and I know they have this… they call it the Legacy. I don’t remember the name. I saw it at the NAMM show. But I really – I played it and I thought, man, these are great trumpets.
I love my old Bach trumpets and I love the constant research and development that Yamaha’s putting into their horns and giving them such a good scale and a consistency through there. Pitch issues are to a minimum and for me, as much as I love Bach trumpets, and who wouldn’t, the Yamaha seems to lay better for what I’m looking for in a horn. It’s just a great company to be part of and like I said, I love all the research and development they’re doing. They’re constantly coming up with something better and it’s a lot of fun.
WWBW: They’re an amazing company. Acoustic pianos to motorcycles to beautiful trumpets. How do you do it? Maybe one quick thing, back to the horn section: is there a division of labor between you and Harry? Does he mostly play lead? Do you do most of the solos or is it split up pretty judiciously?
DF: Not judiciously. I mean it’s Harry’s horn section. There’s no question about it. The Vine Street Horns is Harry Kim’s horn section and I’m part of it from time to time. The most recent Johnny Hallyday tours I was not part of, by my own decision. With Phil Collins I’ve been doing that, with some record dates I do that occasionally there’s other people involved. So it’s really up to Harry who does what.
And so I think on the most recent Phil Collins tour we just finished the lead was pretty much split up half and half. I’m very, very happy to play second trumpet to anybody. I don’t mind that a bit. I find it to be quite enjoyable.
WWBW: I do, too. That’s where I like to live.
DF: I don’t really care if I’m playing first or not. Some of the stuff with Phil Collins is so much fun I’m really glad I’m playing first on it. One of the songs, “Easy Lover” is an absolute blast to play and some others that are just so glad I get to step into those tunes and let it rip.
When it comes to soloing, especially for improvisation or something Harry’s the more go-to guy in the section. It is his baby and it is something that he does really well. I should also say this. He’s one of the finest horn arrangers I’ve ever worked with, as good as anybody. I mean when Harry puts together a horn arrangement it’s going to be pretty special.
There are two tracks on my record Harry did the horn arrangements for, Track 3 and Track 7 and I think they’re really great. Whenever we get into work with any artist and they have music in front of us that they want us to play, that’s one thing, but if they go, “Hey, Harry, here’s the tune. Write some horns around it.” He knows who he’s writing for and what we do and it’s spectacular. He’s really got a gift for writing.
WWBW: The arranger has so much to do with how the band sounds. Like the Stan Kenton records were very different from the large horn ensemble records that had come out to that point, and then these kind of signature voicings that Chicago uses.
DF: Very, very different. That’s why it changes the whole sound of everything. In pop music, the arranger has to know how to enhance a tune and not step all over it. You want to pick and choose your little areas to where it’s going to bring that song to life and stay out of the way of the vocal and enhance the vocal. If you’re lucky, you come up with a riff that becomes part of the tune that you can’t hear the song without that any more. I think that’s what Harry’s always striving for.
WWBW: Is there anything you want to make sure that we don’t miss at Woodwind/Brasswind about Vine Street or anything coming up that you wanted to point out particularly? This is coming out in November so if you’re pointing at anything in 2018, early 2018?
DF: The only thing that I really hope that you get across through our conversation here is how grateful I am to do what I’ve been asked to do, how fortunate I feel to be going at this and to be able to make a living as a musician. It’s a real gift that’s not lost on me at all. It’s a dream come true. I just want to get better and better at it and be grateful.
WWBW: I’ll make sure that it shines through and is prominent in the text.
DF: That’s great. I’m really glad you called and I’m flattered. Thank you.