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 are only four chairs in that section and I have to think it’s one of the most respected horn section gigs in the country. You must feel pretty happy to have it.
Luis Bonilla: Well, sure. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve known Harry and Dan for…especially Harry, for more than 30 years because I grew up in Los Angeles.
WWBW: So, when did you first join the section?
LB: My first appearance was with Phil in beginning of May.
WWBW: And what are the plans for 2018? Is Phil going out again?
LB: The only thing I have any confirmation on up to this point is from November 11 to December 4. I don’t know. Upper management was pretty excited about the end results from end of the tour, so I think they were encouraged to try something else through 2018, but I have no confirmation on that.
WWBW: So, you’re based in New York now, right?
LB: Right. I’ve been here since 1991.
WWBW: And what kind of playing do you do in New York?
LB: I’m part of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. I play with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis jazz orchestra. I play with the Vanguard on Monday night. Most of the stuff that I do is jazz. I’m also on faculty at Manhattan School of Music and New England Conservatory. I have a couple of my own groups as well that I travel and do a lot of, mostly jazz with Corey Spiner and stuff with Jimmy Owens and Mashuk Camelo and Bob Mintzer.
WWBW: And what courses do you teach?
LB: It’s jazz trombone performance, improvisation and technique.
WWBW: Is it individual lessons or do you usually address a class?
LB: I do a couple of ensembles sometimes. But primarily just regular teaching, 101.
WWBW: Now, Manhattan, do they mostly offer BFA and MFA program or are there…
LB: No, they have a Bachelor of Music, which I have from there, an MM and then they also have a DMA program, a Doctor in Musical.
WWBW: How about equipment? Are you endorser of any particular horn?
LB: Yeah, I’m with Bach Selmer.
WWBW: Okay. And which model do you play?
LB: What I have is, believe it or not, most of the horn is the horn that I got back in 1980. Yeah, 1980. It’s a Bach 16M. I had a custom mounted 36G though onto that slide.
WWBW: So, in developing your relationship with Bach, you sound like you’d be a perfect endorser to where you can quite frankly say, “I’ve played Bach all my life or all of my professional career.”
LB: Well, I think they have their hands full with a lot of different artists. So, I don’t really expect much out of them. We have a good relationship though.
WWBW: How about mouthpieces? Do you have a particular bent on mouthpieces?
LB: Yep, they’re also all custom. Greg Black.
WWBW: Greg Black? And where is he located?
LB: He’s in North Carolina now.
WWBW: I was chatting with Dan yesterday and his mouthpiece maker preference, has this idea or process that I had never heard of to where he has you perform a series of exercises that he has sketched out that are designed to reveal personal mechanics, and then designs the mouthpiece according to that. When you say Mr. Black’s mouthpieces are custom, do you consult with him at any level? Or how does that go in selecting them?
LB: I used to play an old New York Bach 11B that was given to me by my teacher, Roy Maine, back when I was in high school and Greg basically copied the rim but we systemically dug out the cup and the bore size to its maximum depth and width. We ruined a couple of pieces along the way trying to find the maximum, so that’s basically. It’s kind of a small rim, but it’s a deep cup and large backboard.
WWBW: Cool and I think probably last on the gear list would be do you have any preference for road cases? Or do you just drop it into the stock case?
LB: I’ve always looked for a really nice case and I came across this guy who did a lot of work in Croatia. He works a lot with carbon fibers and he was making these cases for a couple of cellists in Croatia. He’s a pretty famous guy and so I asked him to make me one. His company is called Accord. So he made me two custom cases made out of carbon fibers. It’s unique and it’s light of course, carbon fiber. Really durable.
WWBW: You know, you mention that and I suddenly flashed back. I think it’s a James Bond movie in which at some point, the good guy or the good gal gets away by riding what looks to be like a carbon fiber cello case down a mountainside and ski area [laughter]. But yeah, that carbon fiber stuff is so tough, you could pretty much do that.
LB: He’s like, “Whatever you want to do. Do you have your own music?” So, I took a lot of my own music and I had a friend of mine who used to hand copy music. She copied a few of my tunes and the guy pasted them onto the case on the inside. You see it on the exterior, but there’s like a…I’m not exactly sure what the process he did is, but there’s a clear shell and then underneath that, you can see the pieces of music. It looks like it has been ripped apart and they’re like drifting apart in a puddle and then traces of the black carbon fiber beneath it and that one’s really beautiful.
WWBW: Nice. So, you’re pretty easy to spot in the airport?
WWBW: I was talking to George and he’s got the Bam cases and he’s got the cowhide one. I’m sure you’ve seen it.
LB: Oh yeah. I really like that. But he and I, I think have a little bit of a case bug.
WWBW: I bet.
LB: It’s got to be functional, but it’s got to look good and unique. I’ve never seen anything like his. His is really beautiful.
WWBW: We kind of had a little laugh over it. Say what you will about the fantastic tone, harmonic, imagination and your improvisations and intonation of the section, none of that. That’s a cool looking case, George.
LB: Of course. And you get to cuddle up to it on lonely nights.
WWBW: Yeah, isn’t that nice? So, how about your path to becoming a professional musician? When did the switch get flipped and what was your early instruction?
LB: I was fortunate enough to attend a high school that was pretty musically involved. The band director was a gentleman named John Reynaldo. He was teaching at [ELAC] high school. It was a junior high school and high school all on the same campus. I was fortunate enough to be under his tutelage for six years. He took Roger Ingram, Larry Coons, Carlos Vega, Sharon Herrada, it was just a whole bunch of folks.
WWBW: Well, I’m a great admirer of Roger Ingram. I play trumpet. I play trumpet at like enthusiastic amateur level. I can cut a R&B gig on the weekend and I play for maybe…I come home from work and I’ll play for a half hour a day.
LB: That’s good.
WWBW: I stay in shape enough to get in shape if anything cool comes along.
LB: The trumpet is also one of those you have to play every day in order to get away with enough.
WWBW: But I ended up buying that Jupiter XO. The Roger Ingram design.
LB: Excellent. He just graduated from high school and he went immediately on the road for a few years playing lead trumpet with Ray Charles.
WWBW: 18 years old or so.
LB: John Reynaldo has two sons that play. Doug Reynaldo, who lives in Tennessee saxophone player, and a trombone player son who lives in Hawaii named Dave Reynaldo. Dave Reynaldo is with this gentleman named Roy Main. Everybody studied with Roy Main when I was there. I was really fortunate to start studying with him. He was teaching at Cal State Los Angeles. But by that point, I was already turned on to wanting to be a professional musician. I just really took it to heart and put a lot of time and effort into practicing and studying and really kind of working on my craft.
WWBW: So, Reynaldo is a brass player himself?
LB: Reynaldo is a trumpet player from Champaign-Urbana.
WWBW: Did you pursue collegiate instruction?
LB: Yep, Roy Main was teaching at Cal State University at Los Angeles. I did my undergraduate there and while I was there, I was taught by Gerald Wilson who was teaching a jazz appreciation class there. So, I started playing with him in 1985. I was playing with Gerald Wilson, doing a little playing with Poncho Sanchez. And then playing with the New American Orchestra with Jack Elliott.
WWBW: And what were your earliest professional road engagements after that?
LB: My first real professional road gig was right after I moved to New York. I hooked up with Lester Bowie.
WWBW: Oh really?
WWBW: Did you already have an appetite for playing a little outside?
LB: Well, this was with Brass Fantasy, so it wasn’t really avant garde. It was just popular music done jazz-wise, but with a brass band. I was with the Brass Fantasy then. Then later on, I started doing gigs with a New York Organ Ensemble. I played that group as well and traveled with that group and then also my guest performance with the Art Ensemble of Chicago as well and that was a little bit more avant garde. Lester helped put me on the map kind of quickly. After that, I started playing with Astrid Gilberto. And then about the same time with a trombone player, Willie Colon. My association with Lester had a lot to do with that happening.
WWBW: I love Lester’s music and we took his passing pretty hard in the nest of vipers I run with. It must be nice playing with a great trumpeter and arranger like Harry though. He actually lives near me. We talked about having lunch sometime.
LB: Oh, excellent. He’s good company. A lot of great stories and I’ve said I’ve known more than 30 years I think. I used to do a lot of Latin jazz. I’ve known him since probably 1985.
WWBW: Well, wholly apart from spectacular playing and his high register ability, both George and Dan took care or remarked that his arranging and orchestration are really special.
LB: That is so true. He’s also very keen on personnel too. He knows what he wants to sound like. Whenever Harry has called me, whenever Art (Arturo Valasco) has been unable to do it, he’s been gracious enough to invite and include me in on things on his projects. So, we’ve done several things and so while Art is busy with Neil Diamond, I’m the benefactor of his good fortune let’s say.
WWBW: That’s good. I’ve swept up for others.
LB: Yep. It’s a very nice broom. Let me tell you.
LB: I wouldn’t mind doing a lot more sweeping, if you know what I mean.
WWBW: Yeah, I absolutely know what you mean and I certainly didn’t mean to characterize it anything but a good thing.
LB: Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I completely get and appreciate what you’re saying. Listen, the broom…I’d even mop. Might even throw that in. Because it’s a mop.
LB: And everybody’s cool and everybody’s making money. So, everybody’s happy. And at this level, like Leland Sklar, Brad Colon, Harry Kim. I mean, you get these guys that you can’t get any better, only different.
WWBW: Exactly. I am so glad you said that. You can’t really can’t get any better. You can only get different. At same point, there’s such accomplishment at the top and there are subtle differences in the sound and the approach and style and that’s what makes the difference in the selection.
LB: It’s just a matter of taste. For sure, anybody can do the job at that level, the job itself. It’s just a matter of what your own taste is, or your preference or even of course, and it’s not even so much the time that you spend on stage because I always refer to that as one that when the horse finally gets the carrot. In the meantime, the gig is making sure you’re prepared, making sure you’re on time, making sure that you’re well-groomed and making sure that you’re there the whole way. That’s the real part of the gig. The traveling and the grunt work.
WWBW: Well, that was another area that I covered with Dan, Harry and George and they all just said everybody in the section is cool. There’s never any psychological component to the touring.
LB: No. I think we all share a tremendous amount of common ground because we want it to sound not as best as it can be, but we wanted to sound even better. Part of the reason everything is easy on the road is because we all work so hard to make the section sound right. We really try to push the parameters of how good can we actually really, really get this?
Squeaky clean, tight or just loosey goosey, or just with all these incredible dynamics from every kind of music we’ve ever studied. We all have the chops to do basically anything we want to do. So now, just like having everybody tune into the same frequency and be that flexible all together. Really, it’s -- I play in big band this way, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, if you’re familiar with that band.
LB: And playing that music. It’s alive. It just breathes and everybody’s crazy. Things like that. Just incredible things. With the four-piece horn thing. It’s really, really difficult because everything’s exposed. You’re just slightly, slightly up. You’re completely exposed. And so, it’s a lot of tension because you don’t want to be that guy messing stuff up. But at the same time, it’s such a really healthy kind of thing because we’re really trying not just only to keep ourselves up but we’re really trying to support and make everybody sound just better. It’s a great environment to be around. Very healthy. Well, thanks for your interest and good luck on your article. I’ll be looking forward to it.
WWBW: I’m going to send a dozen copies to Harry.
LB: Excellent. Do you head out this way any time? Drop me a line. Let me know.