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: When did you form Vine Street?
Harry Kim: At the end of 1990, I had just been on the Phil Collins “But Seriously” tour and at that time I was with the Phenix Horns. I just kind of decided I’d put a horn section of my own together. I just called guys that I really enjoyed playing with and really nice people.
WWBW: Did you have a concept of what you wanted the section to sound like?
HK: I don’t remember thinking in those terms. I guess I should go back in history a little bit.
HK: When I started playing the trumpet, I was in bands a lot and mostly I played pop music in what they call cover bands now, but they used to be called Top 40 bands back then. I would take over the job of section leader mainly because nobody knew how to arrange for horns and I was figuring out how to write for horns. The greatest education was transcribing Blood, Sweat and Tears horn charts and Chicago horn charts and James Brown, things that were on record. I wore my records out.
WWBW: You had to pick up the tone arm in the old days and move it back five grooves. Right?
HK: Exactly. I remember one particular time I was trying to transcribe a Chicago chart and the way I did it, because I didn’t know about harmony or anything at the time, I would write the top line, which is easy to hear, then the bottom line, and then if there was another voice in there, I’d try to pick it out—usually sax. It was amazing to me because I don’t think I have amazing ears but I’d try to pick out a sax part and just I can’t hear it, can’t hear it, can’t hear it. And then all of the sudden when I identify it, that’s all I heard, was the sax part.
And then later on, I started realizing that these things are really in chords so even if I couldn’t hear what the sax was playing or the middle voices were playing, I’d just fill in the blanks because I had the top and I had the bottom. The most difficult were the Chicago arrangements. They’d use these augmented 9th chords and augmented 9th is when you have a major 7th between the trombone and the trumpet. And I couldn’t tell who was playing what there. It’s hard to explain. You got the major 3rd on the bottom and the minor 3rd on the top, and then they would have the 7th in the middle. So, once I figured that out, every time I heard that sound, I knew exactly what it was. It was the sound for that chord.
WWBW: You didn’t come at it from any kind of organized schooling educational background or grabbing the Nestico book and going bananas with that?
HK: I learned basic harmony and keyboard harmony and music theory in high school because I went to a school, it was one of the first of its kind at the time. Now there’s tons of performing arts high schools, but this was like the original.
WWBW: In New York?
HK: Yes. The one they based the film “Fame” on. Performing Arts High School. And they had a lot of ear training and theory. It was really a great school.
HK: You just get the required…what do they call those? I’m having senior moments here now. You get your required classes like history and math.
WWBW: Distributional requirements.
HK: Yes. You get those and then the rest of the day was music. Performance and theory and keyboard harmony and blah, blah, blah.
WWBW: So did you grow up in the New York area? Or did you go there for the school?
HK: I was born in the Lower East side of Manhattan. I was born and then grew up in Brooklyn. Lived there in the Lower East Side and then we moved to Brooklyn as life got a little bit better. You know, I grew up in one of the worst slums in New York, Lower East side of Manhattan which is now so yuppie. It’s crazy.
WWBW: It must be odd to tour back home.
HK: I just did that with my son because he always wanted to do that with me. That’s actually why we took a trip to New York City and I took him to all the places that I had hung out and grew up in and played in schoolyards and what not. He was so fascinated.
But anyway, when I was 14 or 15, I was in a band. I put together a band and we did weddings and stuff like that. So, we played standards but later on when I was 17, I started playing in Top 40 bands. So that’s when I started getting these horn section things together.
WWBW: Kind of out of necessity. Somebody had to do it.
HK: Somebody had to do it or somebody did do it and it was horrible. Actually, that was more the case because somebody would provide charts and they were terrible. And I knew they could be better, so that’s when I took it upon myself to do stuff like that and work on phrasing and as the years went by, I started working in show groups, Vegas show groups.
WWBW: So were you playing for marquee acts? Like Elvis Presley blows through and he needs a horn section? That kind of thing?
HK: I should explain how Vegas was in the old days. In the old days, Vegas’ primary income came from gambling. In order to attract gamblers, they pretty much gave away entertainment, gave away food, gave away rooms. Back in 1970 when I started working Vegas, you could see Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett with dinner for about $9.
WWBW: That’s amazing.
HK: And then they’d have a late show. It was show like two drinks and it was like $11. These were what they called the main rooms. That’s where Elvis would play, the big stars would play. But then, every hotel had at least one lounge. This was the design for gamblers to take a little break. Maybe if they brought their wife, they’d take them to see a little show that was also inexpensive. It was $3.50. You got two drinks. The people that performed in these lounges were either up and comers or people on their way down. But the headliners of these lounges were well-known. For instance, the Tropicana. You could go see Count Basie and Joe Williams two times a night for $3.50 with two drinks.
So, the huge draws were in the main room and then these other exactly timed 45-minute shows, in and out, and then a whole new audience and then another act would come in that was also sort of well-known. These things would start at 4:00 in the afternoon and end around 4:00 in the morning. Prime time was between 8:00 and 2:00 in the morning. So, the bigger stars played during prime time and the unknown acts would play earlier or later. We only did two sets a night and so a lot of these were called show bands. You go in there and do a 45-minute act, entertain people, and they can have a little relaxing time and drink and then go back out to the gambling tables. They had big acts. I don’t know if you remember Little Anthony and the Imperials?
WWBW: Of course.
HK: Fats Domino and the like. They played these main rooms. They were main acts usually in the lounge and they had people that became lounge acts like Louie Prima.
WWBW: These acts that you describe. Do they come through with charts and pick up the horn section that’s there or you’ve got another band that’s kind of playing in between their sets?
HK: Most of them were complete bands and self-contained.
HK: One of the guys I worked with was a guy named Billy Joe Royal who had a couple of Top 40 hits in the 60s. I toured with him right out of high school to Lake Tahoe, Reno, Vegas and few months later we’d do it again. Lake Tahoe, Reno, Vegas. Lake Tahoe, Reno, Vegas. Three months later, do it again. So, I did that for a couple of years and it paid cash. As time went by, writing these charts, the cover charts, it was Earth, Wind and Fire, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the horn groups that were popular in the ‘70’s. We were all influenced by that. So, this is what I thought of, when I thought of horn sections. I remember people saying, “Oh, you write like this guy or you write like that guy,” but everybody was influenced by the same bands. We were always close the same way. The most important thing to me in a horn section is that everyone have the concept that we’re percussion instruments. The lead trumpet player is the drummer, and to have a good awareness of time and rhythms that are being played within the band. You could always tell an amateur horn section where they have a note on 2 and 4 and it’s not locked with the drummer. Those notes have to be locked. Or if you play Latin music, you got the clave and notes that are up in the clave rhythm, not locked with the clave. Oh, that sounds like kind of an amateur band.
WWBW: Did you see the James Brown biopic?
HK: No, I didn’t.
WWBW: Well, you should some time because there’s a scene in it where James Brown is talking to the band and he says to the drummer, “What instrument do you play?” And the drummer says, “Drums.” Then he says to Macio, “What instrument do you play?” And he says “Saxophone.” And he says, “No, you don’t. You play drums.” And then he says the same thing to the bass player and the guitar player and it’s exactly what you just said five minutes ago.
HK: I always felt that. I played Latin music for several years. And we tend to lock in with the percussion. And if you’re not locked in rhythmically, then everything’s out of whack. And if you listen to semi-pro guys, the horn sections are usually a little bit behind the rhythm. I always used to say I played percussion horn.
HK: So I appreciate players who know that concept or at least, may not know it literally but understand it. When you got 2 and 4, if you have notes on 2 and 4, those have to sit there. Everything else in between can kind of float around. The guitar might have a lick that emphasizes a certain rhythm and you have to be locked in. But any other notes, little 16th notes and stuff between, that’s when you can tell the character of the horn section, how they play those. And so that’s kind of a concept I’ve had. I’ve had a concept of playing things that aren’t written, like crescendos, like if you have a group of 16th notes, certain notes get a little bit more emphasis than others, a little accent on certain notes.
WWBW: Now on your charts, do you do a lot of the articulation marks?
HK: That’s why I pick the guys that I do because they’ll understand it. I wrote a track for Chicago and there’s a line that has all 8th notes, but I would think that anyone who played it would feel where the accents should be. And if a person just…you’re supposed to literally read music, but there’s a certain feel that goes with it that not everybody understands. Some people will turn around say well that’s not the rhythm. Well, play it that way. So, there may be 8th notes but you might have zabba do ba da ba do boop. If a drummer had those 8th notes, he wouldn’t just play da-da-da-da-da-da-da. And so, I think that a horn player with some sort of concept would understand it. That particular line means accents. Da de do de da ba do. You know, something like that because of what the rhythm section is playing. Same thing with 16th notes. Some notes get more emphasis than others. This is a feel thing.
WWBW: Like on a chart for Vine Street, you play together so well and you know each other so well, maybe you don’t drop in all those articulation marks because they’re all going to know where they are anyway?
HK: Well, it’s like this. I chose those guys because they can feel it. But if they don’t know it right off the top…they’ll hear me do it. And then they’ll do it.
WWBW: How consistent has personnel stayed since early 1990s?
HK: The saxophone chair kind of floated around for a while. For different reasons. The sax chair has been a very difficult chair because there’s two worlds the sax player has to live in. Not only being an impeccable section player but also a very stylistic soloist.
WWBW: Well, you have a good one now. I talked to George Shelby on Friday and I’ve been listening to him through the weekend. He’s fantastic.
HK: Absolutely. And he’s a good section player. He’s a good soloist. And he plays in the style of whatever we’re doing.
WWBW: Seems like a good Joe too.
HK: Well, that’s another thing. I was going to say that prior to him was Gerald Albright who is also an amazing sax player. I don’t know if you know who Gerald Albright is…
WWBW: I saw him at a Hollywood Bowl show. I think they were doing…it was the Jaco Pastorius catalog and he was in the section as the alto. He’s just phenomenal.
HK: Yeah, he’s terrific. He’s got a really good solo career going now. So that’s why he couldn’t do the Phil Collins thing and of course automatically called George to do it. Again, he’s got to have a pointed sound and be percussive like the rest of us. That’s one of the things I look for in a sax player; someone who can adapt himself to playing that way or naturally plays that way. You brought up something though—personality. I choose people that I’ve known for a long time and enjoy working with. When we’re on the road, we become a family and you can’t have any kind of disruption there. It’s of absolute importance to be able to fit and not have any issues. We eat together. We hang out together on days off. Do this and that. That’s important when you’re on the road. That’s one of the important things. Another important thing is that they are engaged in their music and express that. One thing I don’t like is horn players that won’t move on stage. I find that a lot of times that’s because they’re shy. To be able to able to engage yourself in the music in such a way that your body starts moving is important. My feeling about showmanship is that a performance is not just audio. It’s a visual art. When you’re doing videos, when you’re in front of 100,000 people, it’s a visual art. Everybody on stage should be bigger than life.
WWBW: Holding a big shiny chunk of metal is a real stage opportunity. It’s a big part of any floor show that has a horn section.
HK: Exactly. Every band I’ve been in, and again this dates back to Vegas, moving on stage is important and to me showmanship works best when there’s engagement in the music. The music starts to flow. You start to feel it. You drop your inhibitions and people enjoy watching a horn section that’s having fun.
WWBW: There are sometimes a lot of measures of rest, and I’ve worked with horn players who remain unengaged. As soon as it’s time to play they’re back in, but—
HK: Well to me, nothing gets me more ticked off than watching a performance video or something and the horn players are having a conversation.
WWBW: Oh man.
HK: Gee that just…
WWBW: You’re speaking my language.
HK: They have their hands in their pockets and just looking around.
WWBW: Talking about the next gig. Or the last gig. Whatever.
HK: That was one of the concepts of Vine Street Horns is to be…
WWBW: Into it.
HK: Expressive on stage. To be expressive. If anything, because we’re not dancers professionally. Just do some dance steps and stuff.
WWBW: Horn sections who aren’t natural dancers doing a little dance. That’s right in the idiom of entertainment. It’s just cool. There’s a precedent for it.
HK: You come up with simple little steps that we can do in unison. It’s good. But the most important thing is for people to see you’re having fun. I always hear, “Don’t you get nervous when you’re up there?” No. They think you’d be nervous up there performing for thousands of people and all. And that’s what makes you bigger than life. You get up there and just have fun. I remember going to see Bruce Springsteen. I was very impressed with his rhythm section. I know they’ve been together for years but they all look like they’re having fun. Because they know the music inside out. They’ve been together for a thousand years. So, you know, that’s part of the concept of Vine Street Horns, is not to be a stiff bunch of studio musicians over there.
WWBW: So who else have you been working with lately? I would imagine a lot of your time lately has been spent preparing for the Phil Collins tour.
HK: I did five seasons of Dancing with the Stars. I was doing American Idol prior to that.
WWBW: What about Vine Street, though? Like say an artist, young R & B artist loves your sound. He’s got his record deal and he’s making his record in Los Angeles. Is Vine Street ready for hire? What’s involved in that?
HK: Mostly word of mouth. I don’t promote anymore. I kind of let word of mouth lead it. And there’s a lot of young producers, young artists that are using horn sections. I would love to play with Bruno Mars, for instance, but the chances of that are very slim to none [laughter] because it’s a whole new world now. I remember being part of a younger world coming in and then the older guys having to step aside. And I’m in that position now. There is a lot of stuff going on. I suppose if I really, you know, got out there and promoted the horn section and all this sort of thing that we would be more recorded entity, but I don’t know, I just kind of got lazy.
WWBW: I’m kind of nudging up to retirement as a writer myself and letting things go of their own pace as opposed to really trying to drive it myself.
HK: The thing that’s holding me back mostly is that, you know, five years ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer and then she passed away two years ago. That whole experience in five years just kind of took the wind out of my sails. It just, I got to a point where I just got – I lost a lot of motivation.
WWBW: What I think maybe happened is you had a different idea about what’s important.
HK: Well, could be, but –
WWBW: I’m kind of in the middle of what you’re talking about, so…
HK: Yeah. Well, I got – I’m going to say something that may not be very popular, but I’m of the belief that everything you do is really in God’s hands. You can do a lot. You could try to do a lot, but ultimately it’s in God’s hands. And acceptance and surrender is the main path towards peace of mind and peace of heart. I’ve done so much stuff and kind of am still doing it. I don’t like the competition that’s out there right now. Everybody’s scrambling for the same gigs and I feel at this point in my life I’ve been there, done that, and doing just fine, you know. I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t have the energy or the tolerance.
WWBW: You certainly have the sound. I listened to that “For Miles” concert that you did. Your sound is beautiful.
HK: Thank you. That’s one of the things that I want to focus in the years to come. I would like to do more lecturing. I have a lot of concepts that people want to hear. Mostly it has to do with finding work and developing a concept for horn section playing, pop horn section playing and ethnic music horn section playing. Because there’s no market – the market’s wide open for that because everybody’s talking about either classical music or big band and all the trumpet players that are doing stuff are high note players. So I don’t talk much about the actual physical trumpet playing because there’s plenty of guys out there who talk about that and do it well. My stuff is mainly about horn sections, lecturing and teaching people what I know.
I could see myself letting that snowball in the future for me. So I hope that will fulfill me because it seems like fun. It has been fun to get up in front of people and tell them about how to bring a whole note to life, for instance, in a chart and how to become indispensable by the way you interpret a chart. So if you go to a gig you have your horn section, like I was saying before, certain notes get more action from the others. Certain notes you could put a little bend on. You could do this. You could do that. And it’s all about feeling the music and then personalizing it and then you play it that way as a section. It sounds great. Then the next time around they use another horn section and they’ll say, “Why doesn’t it sound right?”
WWBW: Yeah, what happened?
HK: This is part of becoming indispensable; so they call you back. It’s all about music. The written note is great in most circumstances as a musician, but when you’re getting into music in other worlds that may be jazz influenced, personality is really important. A lot of people think that personality just pertains to individual players, but you could add a lot of personality as a horn section. When you get four or five horn players doing something together that’s not exactly written that way, they go, “Oh, I love that. Do it again.”
So those are the – I don’t want to call them tricks, but those are some habits that I’ve gotten into since the beginning. I remember writing out Chicago charts or whoever it might be and then saying but let's not play it that way. Let's do it this way. So just to have some variety and creative outlet in music. I don't think that horn players, section players experiment enough in order to satisfy a creative need.
Let's play this note long. Let's play this note short. That's the usual stuff. But let's but a bend here, let's put an accent here. Let's fall here. Those are the things that also bring personality to a horn section. Let's play this note longer than it's written. This is the kind of stuff I talk about when I talk about concept, horn section concept. that's what makes a horn section special. You should always try to do that.
WWBW: You can really hear it in Vine Street. it has its own fire and personality that I hear right away. What do you play for a trumpet?
HK: I've been playing a Bach, they call it the anniversary model. I was at ITG in Atlanta, July of 2016. And when I go to these things I play every horn I see. And this one just jumped out. First time in years, because I do that at the NAMM show, too. I just walk around and play every horn I see. But this thing just jumped out at me. The ease to play the high register with a really good sound was impressive to me.
WWBW: Where are you on mouthpieces?
HK: I kind of play a Frankenstein mouthpiece. When I get the opportunity if I'm in a music store I just grab every single mouthpiece that's there and I blind test every one of them and I play exactly the same thing on every one of them. And every once in a while, something jumps out at me. About ten years ago I did that at a music store and I played this mouthpiece that had a great sound and was really easy to play. The idea of blind testing is that if I would have looked at this mouthpiece before I tried it I would have put it aside because it's a very odd-looking mouthpiece. It turned out it was a local mouthpiece maker by the name of Pablo Garibaldi who was making mouthpieces for mariachi bands. And what this particular thing was a Parduba double cup copy and with a wide rim.
WWBW: Really? That's the Harry James mouthpiece, right?
WWBW: I have one of those. I can't make heads or tails of it.
HK: Yeah? Well, send it to me then! (laughter) So then I experimented around with some of his other mouthpieces. I use two of his mouthpieces. The rim I use is a Bob Reeves rim and I use, I think it's a 6.75 Bob Reeves sleeve on it.
WWBW: You get into Bob's shop once in a while?
HK: Very often, yeah. I like Bob. I've known him since '69. He's a really great guy. But here’s the thing about this mouthpiece is that it's a great lead mouthpiece. Then I have another Garibaldi mouthpiece that I just switched the rim on. He calls it an RL7. I guess it's kind of like a 7C but shallower. I use that actually for more delicate playing and then I use the Parduba cup for just about all the other playing.
WWBW: So you've been pretty steady with that mouthpiece for 10 years?
HK: Pretty much.
HK: It's an odd mouthpiece. But mouthpieces are very personal. That's how I got to a point where I stopped trying to figure out stuff about mouthpieces.
WWBW: It's a very deep rabbit hole. People get obsessed with it and they figure they're going to cure all their problems with a mouthpiece.
HK: Well, you know, the thing about mouthpieces is there are so many variables. I spent many, many thousands of dollars tweaking and doing this to a mouthpiece. Nothing ever really works the way you think it's going to work. So then I decided I'm going to start this blind testing stuff. I don't want to know what it is. I don't want to know measurements. I don't want to know nothing. I just want to pick it up. I don't even want to look at it. Pick it up, put it in the horn and then I play it. And yes, this argument about magic mouthpieces, I discovered that sometimes you find mouthpieces that suddenly open up a new world for you. It opens up a door and it raises the ceiling. Like you might fall into a rut. You just practice and practice and it doesn't seem to get easier or better.
WWBW: I'm familiar with that.
HK: Then you find a mouthpiece that all of a sudden allows you to do these things, to get better. That's why I believe that you constantly search. Especially if you're me because I'm not a natural player, you know. I had difficulties with this and that. So I'm always searching for new stuff.
WWBW: Mouthpiece can do a little bit of the work for you.
HK: And you know there's guys who've been playing their mouthpiece 30, 40, 50 years. But obviously, they had no problems with it. I have some limitations in my abilities that I always have to look for help, either in the mouthpiece or in the horn. And I have found that -- not very often, but every once in a while, you come up with something that blows away what you were playing before. And it's worth the search to do it because it makes life so much easier. It opens, like I said, it opens the door for improvement again, and ease.
WWBW: Do you play much flugelhorn?
HK: I do. I play a Besson Brevette flugelhorn. I love those flugels. As a matter of fact, one of my back of my mind lists is to find an old original Besson Brevette because I played one once and it was spectacular. I’ve never been really good at playing smaller horns. I kind of lean towards playing a bigger flugel. It seems to work for me and I haven't spent enough time. Actually, I don't play enough of it to spend time hunting for a really great flugelhorn.
WWBW: What about road cases? Do you stick with the stock case or do you get any more heavy-duty cases for travel?
HK: For travel I just, I carry a gig bag because I usually only need the trumpet. But that being said, Vine Street Horns has a gigantic trunk that goes -- it's our road case. It's for alto sax, trombone, tenor sax...
WWBW: Everything's in there.
HK: Yeah. All that stuff goes in there so we don't have to carry it around with you. It's important to take spare horns on the road in case something happens, and it does. One time the trombone player smashed the slide up against the guitar player and his trombone, the slide got frozen. So he ran to the case and got out the spare trombone and --
WWBW: -- finished the gig. Nice.
HK: Yeah. So it's good to have a spare horn.
WWBW: So Harry, you've given me a mountain of stuff to work with on the section, your history, philosophy and equipment. Is there anything you feel like I missed and that you want someone reading about Vine Street Horns to know about what you have upcoming or anything else?
HK: I would like to tell you why I chose to do a horn section. Like I said, I’ve been part of horn sections just about all my career. I found working with a really great horn section, including like the Phenix Horns, which was the original horn section with Earth, Wind and Fire.
WWBW: Oh, okay. Is that Michael Harris?
HK: Michael Harris, RahmLee Davis, Lou Satterfield and Don Myrick. they go way back to pre-Earth, Wind and Fire with those guys. You know, we did a lot of recordings with different international artists. And one thing I notice that working with a horn section was much more effective than just going around and around and trying to get gigs. If you go out there and say, I'm Harry Kim. If you ever need a trumpet... you know. But now at least you say I have a horn section. It seems to strike a different thing in people's minds. They consider you a band. When they hire you, of course you make your deal and you include the horn instruments on it, and then they feel very comfortable. So now they're hiring a band. Oh, Vine Street is coming. So you kind of do away with all that stiff sort of business rigidity that comes along. It's a pleasure. Because I've been always very band oriented. So you make your deal and you and then you focus completely on the product. You're not looking at the clock. And we get treated like an artist. Like you might have a ten o'clock downbeat at a session. You get there and they say hey, have breakfast first and they have breakfast lined up for you. Nice lunch breaks. They give them lunch. It's a different level of working. You're not just a trumpet and a sax. You’re a band.
WWBW: A band within a band.
HK: Yes. So I always liked that. And then of course you walk in with confidence because you know what this thing is capable of. I write the charts. I know these guys can play the heck out of it and impress. But more than that we'll add a lot to the music.
So I found it a lot easier to solicit work for a horn section than it was for myself as an individual., With the horn section, I stood out. And not in an ego sort of way but sort of like people say, oh, we've got to hire this horn section again.
WWBW: So I think we're ready to go. I'm going to call your Dan Fornero now, and I've already talked to George. So thanks a million. Why don't you give me your address? I'll mail you that damn mouthpiece, that double cup.
WWBW: I'm not kidding. I got it for twenty bucks. I’m going to send it to you…