Gil Evans’ use of french horn
The french horn is an interesting beast in the jazz ensemble setting. It has a warm creamy tone that allows it be almost as gentle as some of the woodwind family. On the other hand, it can’t articulate as clearly and lead an ensemble like a trumpet or trombone can.
Traditionally in ensemble passages the horn is utilized as a “blending” instrument sitting right in the middle of the vertical sonority, bringing together the disparate timbres of the woodwinds with the homogeneous strings and brass. Its use in solo passages is effective if not overused and the background texture is sufficiently light.
Gil often uses the horn in a traditional fashion using it to “blend” the woodwind and brass, and sometimes as a lead instrument with and without woodwind doublings.
Kennan and Grantham sum it up nicely in their book The Technique of Orchestration:
“Although in construction and technique of performance the horn is clearly a brass instrument, its tone is capable of blending almost equally well with either woodwind or brass, and it is very often used as if it were a member of the woodwind family. Its bore is substantially conical in shape, with the result that its sound is less sharp-edged and incisive than those of the trumpet and trombone,”
Here is a full tutti voicing from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (measure 316). Observe the position of the french horns.
French horn use in ensemble passages
Blues for Pablo – bars 12-16
In this beautiful phrase before Miles’ entry the horns are nestled neatly between the trombones and woodwinds.
Here is another example from later in the piece.
When the alto sax has a higher melody and is supported harmonically by the trombones, the horns are are the perfect timbre to bind the distant sounds together.
Miles Ahead – figure J
Horn as a lead instrument
Moon Dreams – bars 23-23
Here is an example where the horn is leading the ensemble. Listen for how soft and “unfocused” the sound is in this section, especially when compared to the sections with trumpet in the lead. The texture is sufficiently light in this section so the melody isn’t concealed.