Chops are nice (and required) in the world of instrumental music, but the Ohio-born and Brooklyn-based Huntertones aren’t necessarily playing for their fellow musicians when they take the stage. They don’t want just a segment of the audience; they want the whole thing.
“I love to hear somebody melt my face off with a 10-minute incredible solo, whatever the instrument may be,” trumpet player Jon Lampley said. “That’s awesome to witness and behold, but personally, I can’t sit through an entire concert of that. On my playlist I’ll have John Coltrane, Snarky Puppy, John Mayer, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor – I need something that’s gonna be engaging and simple enough to keep my attention. Even being a musician who studied jazz, I understand that you need that. And when we’re writing music, I think we keep that in mind.”
So Lampley laughingly admits that there were no fistfights in the rehearsal room as the songwriters for the band – Lampley, saxophonist Dan White, trombonist Chris Ott – put together their first self-titled EP (scheduled for release on November 20). No battles over who gets the longer solo or who gets featured on a particular track. It’s all about the songs, and making sure that if you catch them live tonight or on September 25 at Rockwood Music Hall, or at Penn Plaza on September 9, you’ll leave with some tunes in your head.
“In the world of instrumental music, we stand out because we’re not necessarily trying to do the jazz thing or the heavy fusion thing,” Lampley said. “We’re trying to create music that appeals to those people, but also appeals to the people that are just going to a rock concert or that listen to the radio. We want to have something that’s catchy enough for them to enjoy, but also with a little something behind it for the musicians and jazz fans to enjoy as well. I think over the years we’ve learned how to find the line, especially in our live shows.”
That line is a difficult one to walk, especially in a culture of immediate gratification where if artists don’t hold their audience’s hands and tell them when to sing along or wave their hands in the air, the music doesn’t go beyond the internet or the club where the band is playing. Lampley is well aware of being in a situation where – to use a sporting analogy – his band is playing soccer while the rest of them are playing football. There are no touchdowns in instrumental music, which makes getting subtlety across a little harder.
“A lot of bands that play instrumental music, whether it be jazz, which is the leading genre of that, or even bluegrass stuff where it’s all instrumental, there’s a specific audience that enjoys that and focuses on listening to that sort of music,” he said. “And then there’s this mainstream audience, especially here in America, where it’s like ‘I can’t listen to something unless there are lyrics to it.’ It’s almost like when we’re writing or coming up with arrangements to do, it’s a challenge, because how do you create a melody that may not have lyrics, but is just as catchy, so that when somebody’s leaving the show, they’re singing that in their head as if they were to sing one of their favorite songs.”
In response, Huntertones mixes their original compositions with cover songs that audiences can instantly gravitate to.
“A lot of what we do are arrangements of popular songs, whether it’s pop songs or music from movies,” Lampley said. “We did an album under our old name (the Dan White Sextet), that was called Play, and it was 11 kids’ songs totally rearranged and flipped to where they were catchy and you didn’t feel like you were listening to a kids’ CD. It’s choosing songs that people recognize and flipping them so it’s like, yes, the way that we play them, they’re not going to be the words, but you recognize the song. We have a version of the Vanessa Carlton song “A Thousand Miles,” and everywhere we play it, the whole bar is singing along. But our arrangement is very far from the original.”
The band is gaining traction in their adopted hometown, where they’ve lived since March of 2014, and it’s funny, but if you listen to them, they sound like a New York band, and not a bunch of folks from Columbus, where you might expect a gritty, rust belt type of sound.
“We changed the name of the band to Huntertones shortly after moving to New York, and there are a lot of people that just met us or have known the band since we’ve been in New York, and they’ll just assume that we’re a bunch of New York horn players who started a band,” he said. “So we definitely get some of that. In Ohio, we did a lot of horn section work with Columbus bands and in there’s a lot of blues-rock, gritty bands there and in Ohio in general. But for what we do, it’s really interesting. Me, Dan and Chris, we all write for the band, but I grew up in the gospel tradition, and we all went to school for jazz and Dan grew up listening to a lot of jazz. And then Chris comes from the world of listening to jazz, but he’s also really into acapella music and really interesting vocal arranging stuff. So when we started to write music for this band, it wasn’t a conventional style, or something that was conventional to what was around us in Ohio.”
So it was off to NYC for the Huntertones, and they’re ready to take their music even further than that in the coming years.
“We were coming from different worlds and trying to create a sound that was something different and kind of cutting edge,” Lampley said. And in New York, people have been really into it. It’s a band where’s you’re going to hear fusion stuff and original music, but also really, really interesting arrangements of songs you would never expect to hear in this format.”
The Huntertones play Rockwood Music Hall in NYC tonight, August 27, and on Friday, September 25. For more information on both shows, click here.
The band also plays at One Penn Plaza in NYC on Wednesday, September 9 at 6pm. For more information, click here.