Drummer/Composer Phil Haynes Revisits Music of Quintet 4 Horns & What? in New Album

The album will be released on June 14, 2024.

By: Apr. 20, 2024
Drummer/Composer Phil Haynes Revisits Music of Quintet 4 Horns & What? in New Album
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In the midst of reflecting on his long and varied career for his acclaimed memoir Chasing the Masters: First Takes of a Modern Drumming Artist, drummer/composer Phil Haynes lingered on revisiting the music he’d made with his audacious quintet 4 Horns & What? during the early 1990s. The band featured a shifting but always stellar line-up including key Haynes collaborator/mentor Paul Smoker on trumpet and multi-reedist Andy Laster alongside a rotating cast that included tenor saxophonists John Tchicai and Ellery Eskelin and brass players Herb Robertson and Joe Daley, but has been largely forgotten due to its brief tenure and record industry misfortunes

Convinced that the band deserved to be more widely heard, and as part of his ongoing mission to champion the mastery of the late Smoker, Haynes has assembled The Complete American Recordings, a comprehensive collection of the music that 4 Horns & What? created and captured in their home country. (Haynes is aware of some long-shelved recordings made during European festival performances and hopes that they, too, will reemerge one day.) 

“Revisiting this music, this band became a great joy for me,” Haynes shares. “Maybe we weren't as far off as we thought. It turns out this was quite a striking ensemble, we just never quite received the attention I thought we warranted in America.”

Due out June 14, 2024 via Haynes’ Corner Store Jazz imprint, The Complete American Recordings compilesthe two studio albums that 4 Horns & What? released during its lifetime along with a previously unheard live recording from Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Alternative Jazz” series in October 1995. The set is revelatory, each session an unbridled and joyous exploration of jazz’s history-spanning possibilities, evoking the buoyant polyphony of early New Orleans styles as readily as the contemporary avant-garde of the era.

Haynes began to conceive the band’s idiosyncratic instrumentation in late 1986, as he recounts in his liner notes for the set. “I was trying to reconcile an interesting set of aesthetics: I wanted a band that would play most situations without amplification, a band that could whisper one moment and turn around to raise the roof the next, an ensemble built around the intimate dialogue that happens in a good duet, a small group of improvisers with wide instrumental color, a big band-inspired contrapuntal ability, and a concept where I would be challenged to assume equality with the front line players.”

A tall order, but one which Haynes (who casts himself in the role, as he points out from the stage of BAM near the end of the collection, as the “What?”) achieves out of the gate on 4 Horns & What?, the ensemble’s self-titled 1991 debut. The album roars to life with “A ‘lil Iowa Get Down,” an avant-Midwestern fusion of Eric Dolphy and Aaron Copland that would become the band’s unofficial theme song (it also pops up early on Live at BAM). The remainder of the album is diverse but always spirited and good-humored, whether shifting from sparse atmospherics to ebullient free-jazz freakout on “El-Smoke” or casting a lush Ellingtonian spell on “Ballad for Heike” or swaggering with giddy Second Line fervor on “Corner Store Strut” (named for Haynes’ long-defunct Brooklyn storefront performance space).

Downtown linchpin Herb Robertson steps in for Daley on the follow-up (and final) album, 1992’s Four Horn Lore. “Holler 4 Horns” coheres from an uncharacteristic stillness, summoning a deeply rooted blues feeling inspired by field hollers and capturing something mournful yet determined. “Out of the Bowels” follows with a blistering ferocity, before “Goofus’ Step” parades into the arena with choose-your-own-target political satire. (This initial recording was penned during the first Bush administration, but is updated on Live at BAM as a “Bill Clinton / Bob Dole two-step.”)

The third album in the set is also the most exhilarating, a true unearthed treasure. Not only had Haynes not heard Live at BAM in the three decades since the original performance, he hadn’t even remembered asking engineer Jon Rosenberg to record the date. It’s fortunate that he did, however, as it's a thrilling and adventurous performance highlighted by John Tchicai’s sole outing as one of the 4 Horns. “He absolutely inspired the band, as you can hear,” Haynes exults. “He surely inspired me.”

Curated by clarinetist Don Byron, “Alternative Jazz” was BAM’s first attempt to integrate the style of jazz that Byron termed “left of Lincoln Center” in the New York Times into its annual Next Wave Festival. 4 Horns & What? opened the series, sharing the bill with Paul Bley’s trio with Steve Swallow and Paul Motian. They proved a hard act to follow, from an even more bracing rendition of “Holler 4 Horns” to the blistering intensity of their 15-minute closer, “Eclipse.”

The two studio dates disappeared following the dissolution of the German-based Open Minds label not long after their release, making them nearly as rare as their unreleased companion. Whether approached as rediscoveries or newfound favorites, all three albums in The Complete America Recordings boast inspired and electrifying sets that merit far greater attention. 

Phil Haynes

Veteran drummer/composer Phil Haynes is featured on more than 85 releases from numerous American and European record labels. His collaborations include many of the seminal musicians of this generation: saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Ellery Eskelin and David Liebman; trumpeters Thomas Heberer, Herb Robertson and Paul Smoker; bassists Mark Dresser, Ken Filiano and Drew Gress; keyboard artists David Kikoski, Denman Maroney and Michelle Rosewoman; vocalists Theo Bleckmann, Nicholas Horner and Hank Roberts; violinist Mark Feldman; and the composers collective Joint Venture. His outlets include the romantic “jazz-grass” string band, Free Country; the saxophone trio No Fast Food; the classic piano trio Day Dream, featuring Steve Rudolph; and his breathtaking solo project, Sanctuary. In 2023 he published his captivating, wide-ranging memoir, Chasing the Masters: First Takes of a Modern Drumming Artist, hailed by Boston’s WGTE as “an engaging blend of insight, curiosity, humility, and humor.” 

4 Horns & What? – The Complete American Recordings

Corner Store Jazz – CSJ 0132/0133/0134
Recorded Jan. 1989, Nov. 24, 1991 & Oct. 13, 1995
Release date June 14, 2024


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