The Hornheads got its start when, in 1991, the horn players accompanying Prince and the New Power Generation began jamming together on the side.
“We would get together to play and stay sharp,” said Michael Nelson of Minneapolis, a trombonist, composer and arranger. “I started expanding it into longer licks. ... I thought it sounded cool and I wanted to make it work on its own.”
Soon enough, the sound they made just among themselves took on a life of its own, and “it became our signature,” Nelson said.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the five-piece a cappella jazz-funk horn ensemble is still going strong. And although it still maintains a relationship with Prince, the Hornheads have forged their own path, recording and performing with standout artists from around the globe.
The players, several of whom live in the west metro, also frequently appear at jazz festivals, concert halls, universities and other venues.
Right now, the Hornheads are recording their fourth album, slated to come out later this year. The two-volume album, titled, “Everything Blows,” will feature a mix of original music and cover songs, according to Nelson, who leads the Hornheads.
Nelson writes plenty of fresh material for the group. “One of the first songs I wrote for the Hornheads ended up as a horn feature on a Prince song,” he said. “That was an introduction to our pop sound.”
At the same time, the Hornheads also play a wide variety of recognizable tunes by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Leonard Bernstein and Stevie Wonder, among others. “Everyone knows that music so they can lock into how to listen to the group,” Nelson said.
What makes the group so distinctive? While brass and wind quintets are common, “the instruments and the repertoire we have is fairly unique,” Nelson explained.
Brass quintets tend toward the classical. In contrast, the Hornheads bringstogether contemporary instruments, like the trumpet, trombone and saxophone. “It’s unique to play a cappella that way,” which, in this context means “without accompaniment, so in our case it’s without a rhythm section,” Nelson said.
The funk aspect, which shows the Prince influence, sets the group apart, as well. It involves plenty of improvisation, but “it still has a real strong structure around it,” he said.
“A lot of virtuosity”
Besides Nelson, the group is made up of Dave Jensen, a trumpet and fluegelhorn player; his wife, Kathy Jensen, on the alto and baritone saxophone; Steve Strand, lead trumpet and fluegelhorn player, and Kenni Holmen, who plays tenor and soprano saxophone, flute and piccolo.
Each of the musicians encounters the others in other settings, as well. Often, they individually play with Broadway shows passing through, pop concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra and commercial projects, and all but Nelson teach.
Despite their busy schedules, the players have always made the Hornheads a priority. Whenever an opportunity comes up, everyone “makes a real effort to work their schedules around it,” Nelson said.
He said the players appreciate the fact that “We’re doing something that nobody else is really doing quite like this… they’re making a unique contribution to music.”
Likewise, the Hornheads have found a niche audience, and the gig has brought them everywhere from the Tokyo Dome in Japan to a jazz festival in Brazil to Bollywood.
Over the years, the Hornheads have recorded with Prince, Chaka Khan, the Jonas Brothers, Jimmy Jam, Mandy Moore, Pedro Abrunhosa, and many more, as its website states.
Recently, the group did a joint venture with Wayne Bergeron, a lead trumpet player with the Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, who is based in Los Angeles, Nelson said. Bergeron does a lot of movie work, he added.
As a part of that collaboration, Nelson wrote a James Bond medley for Bergeron’s big band plus the Hornheads. The Hornheads recorded its part locally, while Bergeron is separately adding the other sounds to the mix. The finished product will come out this summer.
Part of what makes the Hornheads successful is the fact that “when you play together that long, there’s a symbiosis that happens,” and things come together quickly, Nelson said. “We don’t have to talk about the technicalities, like, ‘How long is that note?’ or ‘How is that phrased?’ ”
Furthermore, when he arranges the music, “I make a real point to write to everyone’s strengths. Everyone gets a chance to have their voice be heard as a soloist and ensemble,” Nelson said.
“In tune with each other”
Trumpet and fluegelhorn player Dave Jensen, of St. Louis Park, said that Nelson is so familiar with their playing that he’s able to “basically find the most beautiful things that we do,” and write to that, just like what Duke Ellington used to do for his musicians. “It’s such a pleasure, such flawless work,” he said.
Nelson pays attention to the so-called little things, too. For example, whenever the group is recording, his home studio is set up so “we each have our own spot with a music stand at the height we want, and a mike set up how we want it, everything,” Jensen said.
Probably because everyone is so seasoned, they’re able to “align the overtone series of our instruments. It’s up above the actual sound of our instruments, the tone colors of everyone … that creates a sound that’s amazing,” Jensen said.
Through the years, the group has learned to “naturally play perfectly in tune with each other,” he said.
It’s fun to work with his wife, Kathy, too, “to have somebody to share these experiences with,” he said.
Just before he joined the horn section, he’d been on tour with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, which took him away from home a lot over the course of three years, Jensen said.
Minnetonka resident Kenni Holmen agreed that the group offers much more than a paycheck. “There is something special with the chemistry of this group,” he said via e-mail.
When they get together, it’s like being with family. “We really enjoy working and laughing together,” Holmen added.
For more information about the Hornheads, go to www.hornheads.com.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.