Jazz lets Jim Rattigan be more creative and talk to the audience

    The French horn player, touring this month with his jazz and strings outfit, talks about the jazz-classical relationship, improvising and instrumentation

    Jim Rattigan. Photo courtesy jimrattigan.co.uk

    Like many players of less common orchestral instruments, Jim Rattigan’s introduction to the French horn was a result of making up numbers in the school band: “I’d never seen a French horn before. I saw this funny shaped instrument case on the floor and asked what was in it. They said it was a French horn and if  you can get a note out of it you can play it. I love a challenge. Got a note out of it and never looked back. There was no one willing to have a go and they needed a French horn player for the school band. So I did it. 

    “It was a school in Dunstable, near Luton. It’s gone now, knocked down. It wasn’t great – I hated every minute. But it was back in the day when there were free instrument lessons for all kids. It was a very rough comprehensive but I got to play a French horn. Life saver. I didn’t have a horn teacher. I learnt from a book I found.”

    So how did an autodidact make it into the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he served for six years? “I went to a sixth form college in Cambridge when I was 16. Lived in digs. I had three great years there and was taught by Tony Gray – a professional horn player.  Different planet. Did the grades  then went to Trinity and the  Royal Academy.”

    What/who were your influences as a jazz improviser?

    I loved Oscar Peterson – still do. He was my idol as a teenager. Stan Getz also and Joe Pass. There are many now but I am fortunate to play with amazing improvisers and am inspired by the people I play with. I am very lucky.

    Did you follow/study jazz before leaving the RPO? What was your entry into jazz awareness?

    I listened to jazz all the time. Being in the RPO meant touring at least six months of the year so plenty of time on buses to listen to music. I played the piano a lot – just for myself, for fun. When I was 16 someone played me Oscar Peterson’s Night Train and I was hooked. Then later on Thelonious Monk, who I found mesmerising. I was into jazz piano at the time – I never thought of playing jazz on the French horn. Then I joined Hans Koller’s band on French horn and bang! That was it. Life changing.

    ‘I have had a wonderful classical career. I like to be more creative though. Stretch boundaries. I also like talking to audiences and engaging with them. You can’t do that during a Mahler symphony!’

    How did you learn to improvise, given the difficulties one hears some classical players have in adjusting from following a score to improvising?

    I don’t think you really learn to improvise as such. In a way it wouldn’t then be improvising. Personally, it feels more natural to me to improvise than to play from a score and reproduce exactly what is on the page. I improvised all the time as a kid. Played by ear. Learnt tunes by ear. I believe most people who start playing music as kids are essentially improvisers. We are later required to pass exams etc and a lot of that natural skill is lost over time. For me it feels very natural. But being a French-horn player I felt I had to join an orchestra as that is what you did as a French-horn player. Which is a marvellous thing to do. I have had a wonderful classical career. I like to be more creative though. Stretch boundaries. I also like talking to audiences and engaging with them. You can’t do that during a Mahler symphony!

    What instrument(s) do you use? Are there any specific characteristics of your instrument, modifications, customisations for jazz?

    No – I play the same mouthpiece and instrument for jazz as I would for a Brahms symphony. Bach 3 mouthpiece and a Paxman model 33 french horn. It is very important to me that the sound I make is recognised as a French-horn sound. Not anything else. For me that is essential.

    How if at all do you amplify the instrument?

    I love playing acoustically. That’s the best. Some venues need some amplification so I use a stand mic. I put it behind me as I point backwards! It’s better than one that clips on the bell because I can go on and off mic. It’s better to go off mic to get a nice, sizzling natural loud sound on long high notes and then go nearer the mic for faster passages and solos.

    Are there any difficulties in trying to play jazz on the French horn, say in comparison to trombone?

    The challenge is the rotary valves and the length of tubing. The French horn is about 12 foot long, all coiled up so lots of hazards along the way. Also it has rotary valves as opposed to piston valves like the trumpet. This means it is less “notchy”, so you have to articulate more by tongueing more to achieve more clarity. If you don’t do that it can lack definition. In a way it is in between the trumpet and the trombone in its set-up. Also the fact that it faces the wrong way brings its own unique challenge! This is where amplification can help.

    ‘I have found there is a mutual respect among jazz musicians and classical musicians about what each type of player does. Huge mutual respect’

    How do you sense the underlying harmony when improvising? Do you follow jazz-type chord symbols (different syntax typically from classical), or play by ear or by melody?

    I play by ear a lot. Listen closely to the rhythm section. I also use the melody when I can. I play a lot of new music, therefore they are not tunes you are familiar with so you need chord changes to follow. All the music on my album When has chord changes that we improvise over. Very different to classical music where your job is to play the exact notation. I have found there is a mutual respect among jazz musicians and classical musicians about what each type of player does. Huge mutual respect.

    Do you have any favourite amongst jazz French-horn players? Any favourite solo or piece?

    Probably John Clark. He played with Gil Evans band. Also Tom Varner. Of course, Julius Watkins, who was a real pioneer of jazz French horn. He couldn’t get a job in an orchestra because of racism so he went into jazz. There is a solo he plays on a slow blues with the Quincy Jones big band while on a tour of Belgium and Switzerland in 1960 which is pretty amazing. It was filmed, thankfully.

    Have you played French horn as guest with any jazz groups? Like, sat in on jam session, etc?

    Not many jam sessions recently due to Covid-19. But yes I have sat in on many jam sessions. I have played with many different groups also such as Mike Gibbs band, Carla Bley/Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, Michael Brecker Quindectet. I really enjoy playing other people’s music, especially if the band leader is the composer/arranger. I find it inspiring. When I started playing in Hans Koller’s first band, Magic Mountain, it was literally magical.

    Do you play any other horn or other instrument?

    I only play the French horn and only the horn I mentioned above. I find it very difficult to chop and change. I play the piano a lot mainly for my own enjoyment. It’s good to have some piano chops when you write music. I also play the piano accordion. I have played that since I was a kid.

    Having kicked off their tour at the Pizza Express, Dean St, London on 8 January, Jim Rattigan and band play as follows this month:

    26th January 2022 – Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton
    27th January 2022 – Albany Club, Coventry
    28th January 2022 – 1000 Trades, Birmingham
    29th January 2022 – Bishop’s Castle Town Hall, Shropshire
    30th January 2022 – Ashburton Arts Centre, Teignbridge

    More details, of lineup, etc are here.