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: Did you have a musical family growing up in and around L.A.?
George Shelby: Yes. My dad played violin and he started me on accordion when I was seven. That lasted for the twelve weeks they gave you the accordion for free. Then they tried to sell my dad the $6,000 accordion. That’s when he thought, yeah, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. He switched me over to saxophone when I was eight. I did not like it at all at first but grew to love it.
WWBW: When did that switch happen?
GS: It happened in sixth grade, so I was, gosh, I don’t know, twelve, something like that, eleven or twelve. I played in front of an audience and everyone clapped and that was it.
WWBW: Did you have a decent music system in the elementary school or was your father your…
GS: Oh, yes. It was private lessons mostly. There wasn’t a lot in elementary school, but once I got to middle school we had a fantastic music teacher. Charlemagne Payne was his name.
WWBW: Fantastic name as well.
GS: He was a great teacher and really showed us what it was going to take to be a professional and lit the fire under all of us.
WWBW: Was there a cadre of reed players who were trying to outdo each other? Like somebody would finally squeak out an altissimo, it’s like, “Aw, I got to get that.”
GS: I went to Monroe High School in the Valley, so at the same time I was at Monroe, Ted Nash was at Reseda High. Matt Catingub was I think at Grant and Dave Koz was either at Grant or North Hollywood. There were a lot of really great young players you would run into on jazz festivals and just be inspired by.
WWBW: And that’s how you would run into these peers that were nearby but not immediate?
GS: Yeah, exactly. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley so I had the good fortune to be kind of surrounded by the musicians in the Tonight Show band. I studied with Ernie Watts. I got to see Pete Christlieb play live all the time. Being a professional musician was not something weird or esoteric. It’s what most young musicians in the Valley were pursuing.
WWBW: I saw Ernie Watts play once. Charlie Hayden Quartet. He was the knockout of that group.
GS: Yeah, he has always been a beast and remains a beast to this day.
WWBW: Did you have a collegiate musical experience?
GS: I went to college for two years, to Cal State Northridge, so I stayed local. And then I got so busy playing I just went full time after a couple of years. I just couldn’t commit to the studies because I had so much going on in other places.
WWBW: When did you become part of Vine Street Horns?
GS: Gosh, that would have been – will have to check with Harry on this, but I would say officially about 2007. So probably about ten years.
WWBW: That must have been a great compliment to you. I’m sure you were already an admirer of Vine Street and Harry’s got the last word, right?
GS: Oh, absolutely.
WWBW: So I mean he’s got his pick, right? And he selects you. What do you think about your playing attracted his musical sensibilities?
GS: That I came cheap [laughter].
WWBW: That’s the only way I get a gig.
GS: There are certain people you click with in sections and in life and I think Harry is looking for a number of factors when he puts a section together. I guess I ticked enough of those boxes with playing and getting along well with others and being roadworthy, because you know when you’re on the road that’s a very close relationship.
WWBW: When was the last Phil Collins tour?
GS: We just got off the road with Phil about two months ago, three months ago and we're actually going out with him again in two months.
WWBW: Now that was quite a thing for him because he's had some difficulty in recent years.
GS: Right. He had a back surgery that didn't go well, so he has limited feeling in his feet and legs right now. They're working on correcting that. By the end of the tour, he was actually getting better and better, but he hadn't toured in, I believe, twelve years prior to this year. There was a lot of pressure on Phil, but so much amazing fan support, fans just literally flying from all over the world to see him perform in England this year.
WWBW: How about we move over to gear? You're a Yamaha artist, correct?
GS: I am a Yamaha artist, yes.
WWBW: Tell us about the horn.
GS: I got my first Yamaha horn in 1984 when I bought my soprano sax. It is a ‘62 and still have that same horn to this day. I kind of flirted with Yamaha altos and tenors, back and forth, but when they came out with their line in 2003 is when I was able to fully commit because I just felt they had gotten it right at that point, the scaling and the tone, the intonation all just came together. Now I play the whole range: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, clarinets, flutes, WXs. They're all Yamaha instruments.
WWBW: Would you characterize yourself as a tenor specialist or do you like to think, hey, I do them all?
GS: I think it comes in waves. When I was younger I played mostly alto in school and then started playing tenor a lot. And then, interestingly, Phil's show is probably, gosh, 90% alto at this point. I stay consistent on them and comfortable, but, yeah, absolutely I play a lot of tenor.
WWBW: Do you stick with Yamaha's stock mouthpiece or have you found something else?
GS: I play all JodyJazz mouthpieces.
GS: I'm playing a Super JET on alto, a DV on tenor.
WWBW: How about cases? Any of the fancy-schmancy road cases? What do you use?
GS: I use the Bam cases.
WWBW: Okay. Killer. Absolutely awesome.
GS: And my tenor case is the cowhide case, so...
WWBW: Oh, man, I keep hoping to see one of those in an airport somewhere. I've only seen them in the catalogs.
GS: I get more comments on that case than just about anything else.
WWBW: All of the fine playing aside, the hours and decades of practice -- naw, it's about the cow case.
WWBW: Do you get particular about mic elements or do you just hit the stage with your horn and say however our tech is amplifying is fine?
GS: No, no, no, no, no. I really, especially before Phil's tour, I really went on a hardcore mic search, trying different elements and different configurations and what I settled on was a DPA 4011 that I'm just in love with. I use it both in the studio and live all the time.
WWBW: Really? That strikes me as odd.
GS: It's very strange for me to kind of have just one mic that I'm using all the time, but the head element from the wireless configuration can be removed, so this mic will screw onto a long form preamp. I've just been thrilled with it.
WWBW: Cool. Weird question maybe. How tough is the music?
GS: Working in the section has been some of the most challenging music I've ever had to tackle because it's technically very difficult, but in addition you're having to come to a musical agreement with three other guys playing fast and furious. So it's been a lot of hard work but one of the things that really makes it easy and enjoyable is Dan and Harry play with such beautiful consistency that you always know where it's going to be. You don't have to play a guessing game. So that has been one of the saving graces in the section for me.
WWBW: Just before we sign off I just want to tell you that your sound is just fantastic. You have like five sounds and they're all great. This breathy Stan Getz thing and this Michael Brecker kind of a sharp funkiness, and then the screaming altissimo that isn't so out of control and full of color that maybe not ought to be there. It's astonishing to listen to you switch from one to the other and that's wholly apart from the brilliant harmonic imagination you have. So I just wanted to give you a heavy compliment on your playing.
GS: Thanks so much. I really appreciate that.
WWBW: Okay. George, excellent. Really great talker and really expressive and clear, detailed. Thank you for the interview.
GS: Thank you for your time and thank you for your kind comments about my playing. I really appreciate it.