Formats: Akai S3000/Audio+WAV CD-ROM.
Score: **** 4/5 stars.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Andrew Love (sax) and Wayne Jackson (trumpet), better known as the Memphis Horns. Since 1964, these guys have played on more than three hundred hit records, including classics like 'In The Midnight Hour', 'Soul Man', 'Knock On Wood', 'When A Man Loves A Woman', 'Dock Of The Bay', 'Shaft', 'Sledgehammer', etc. With a discography boasting names like Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Peter Gabriel, Sting and U2, I'm inclined to give them five stars just for showing up.
I was a bit surprised to find that the world-famous Memphis Horns consists of only two blokes, but the duo fatten up their recordings by layering their performances and panning them to create a section sound. Their musical approach is deceptively simple; the players listen to a track and make up parts on the spot. Harmonies are rapidly worked out, and before you know it — bingo! Highly effective brass parts appear out of thin air.
These performances feature a combination of melody lines and chordal riffs which evoke the golden age of soul. The musical ideas are inventive and unpredictable, with urgent, funky riffs contrasting with more relaxed, gentle moods. Spinning in the phrases over a sequenced backing immediately made the music sound more alive and organic, and I found that the brass phrases worked equally well as supporting parts or lead lines.
The 90 bpm Punch is a typical Memphis Horns lick; it starts off with a declamatory, syncopated sax and trumpet riff reminiscent of their unforgettable intro to Sam and Dave's 'Hold On I'm Coming', then ends with a couple of cute, dancey little chord stabs. Wherever practical, such phrases are cut in two and presented on the CD-ROMs in both full and cut-up versions, and although this means that much of the material is in effect duplicated, it gives a lot of flexibility in use.
Unison lines are usually voiced with the tenor sax playing an octave below the trumpet, and harmonies tend to stay simple, though there are some jazzier major 7th and 9th voicings. Light relief (essential when you're auditioning 2500 samples) is provided by the trumpet player's commendable impersonation of a laughing horse. The timbres are quite varied; the trumpet adopts a prickly '30s-style muted growl tone on a few performances, while others feature the far smoother sound of multitracked saxes. Some phrases are major, some minor — in all, there are 153 performances, each delivered in a choice of five keys (usually C, E flat, F, G and B flat). Considering that most are double, triple or quadruple tracked, that's enough blowing to inflate at least six bouncy castles!
The library progresses through fixed-tempo bands of 70, 80, 90, 100, 120, 130 and 140bpm. For anything in between, you can use a program like Acid to adjust the samples' tempo. Due to an oversight, nineteen of the phrases are listed at the wrong tempo — correct details appear on www.ilio.com. There are no single sustained notes, but there are some unison double-accented hits, along with unlooped chordal multisamples of fast/slow sustains, fast/slow swells, short notes and falls, chromatically spanning an octave and offering major, minor, major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th flavours. A selection of solo licks played on straight and muted trumpet, flugelhorn and sax struck me as highly useable. The audio discs contain audio versions of the phrases only, plus WAVs of all the phrases and multisamples; the sample edits presented on the Akai CD-ROM are not replicated in WAV form.
Towards the end of the CD-ROM, the lads push the boat out with some Stravinsky-esque staccato chords, atonal stabs and clusters. Showing a musical imagination beyond the world of commercial hit-making, they also perform a number of colourful, atmospheric mood pieces which sound like film or cartoon short cues. All this occurs in sections titled MH Noise and Noise Menus — it may be noise to some, but it's music to my ears.
The playing is soulful, laid-back, punchy where it needs to be, and rhythmically accurate. Hardly surprising — Love and Jackson's telepathically tight phrasing and dynamics have developed over nearly forty years of collaboration. For this money, you get not just a sample library, but a direct line to two great musicians who have made an indelible mark on the world of popular music. In the words of the immortal Aretha Franklin song, 'Respect'! (Yes, they played on that too.)