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Review: Hornheads are just as stellar live

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UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:43 pm   ::  

I’ve been a fan of the Hornheads for a while. But I’ll admit that sometimes when I listen to the ensemble’s 2004 record “Fat Lip,” I have found myself wondering if the amazingly tight sound is studio-enhanced.

So, I felt a touch of trepidation as my son and I entered the Concert Hall at College Community for the group’s matinee performance on Saturday, Nov. 10 — one of two concerts the band performed under the auspices of the Cedar Rapids Community Concert Association.

I wanted them to sound as good as the record. I wasn’t sure they could.

But the five musicians — two trumpets, trombone, and two saxes — allayed my fears almost instantly, opening with a medley of Duke Ellington numbers that revealed their prowess as both solo and ensemble players. It was a good place to start, offering as it did a set of melodies likely familiar to a large portion of the sizable crowd. Michael B. Nelson, the band’s trombonist, composer and arranger, provided a little musical history, as he would throughout the performance, setting an easy-going tone.

The band’s set was put together well. After the Ellington, they performed the Brazialian number “Chiclete com Banana” (Gum with Banana) and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” putting the audience at ease before tackling some somewhat headier Miles Davis music from the trumpeter’s 1969 “In a Silent Way” record. Kenni Holmen delivered an astonishing solo — a true solo, as his mates dropped out — on soprano saxophone during the Davis piece, charging up and down the horn with great fleetness but also shaping engaging phrases and melodies.

Holmen’s versatility was on display in the next number, “Darn That Germ,” a piece that had him playing piccolo. During the morning’s master class, some of the Prairie High School musicians asked him to play piccolo during the concert, so the band tackled the song despite having not played it in a while (“I figure we can get away with this at a matinee,” Nelson joked). Nelson’s composition is technically demanding, but the band didn’t sound rusty at all.

In fact, the band sounded nothing but stellar all afternoon. With just five horns — no drums, bass or deep sections — the musicians are faced with all kinds of challenges. Nelson’s arrangements are so well done that the sound is always big and full even when they are playing music — say, a medley of tunes from “West Side Story” — that is normally performed by much larger ensembles. The players never let the energy flag, infusing every note — whether soloing, playing tightly knit passages or comping behind other musicians — with both power and control.

And while Holmen might be the standout among standouts (in addition to the aforementioned moments, he delivered unbelievable tenor solos that stretched the horn’s capacity to make sound to incredible levels), this is a band with no weak spots. Kathy Jensen, who plays so enthusiastically that she just can’t keep her left leg from jerking around, held down the bottom on baritone sax and blew brilliant solos on alto, as well — often in the same song. Steve Strand and Dave Jensen are top-notch on both trumpet and flugelhorn. Strand can really chase down the high notes while Jensen has a flair for musical conversations with other soloists. Nelson’s leadership is the glue that binds the band together, and it is tightly bound, to be sure.

The Hornheads closed with a Stevie Wonder medley, a great way to wrap things up, as they came full circle with the familiar licks from Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” a reference to Ellington and the music that kicked off the show.

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