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I had a baffling experience the other day as I listened for the first time to the 1955 record “Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins.” The album, which I had just downloaded, came without liner notes. Of course I could have gone online and found out about the recording, but I hadn’t got around to that yet. So, beyond the presence of Monk and Rollins, I didn’t know who else was playing.

The first four tracks of the album all featured Rollins as the only wind instrumentalist. On the last track, however, a tune called “Friday the 13th,” I heard an instrument that I had trouble identifying. What it mostly sounded like to me was a trumpet player with an odd sound, and at first I reacted a bit negatively. It was such a strange trumpet sound; I wondered if I was hearing a trumpet player using a bucket mute, perhaps.

After I heard this track, I went online to find out who was playing what. Well, the “trumpet player” was French horn player Julius Watkins! Now, I listen to a lot of music, and I’ve listened to a lot of horn players and trumpet players, and believe me I know what each instrument sounds like. But, having no visual clue or foreknowledge of what I was hearing, I was completely fooled as to what instrument I was hearing!

I guess horn is such a rare instrument in jazz, especially in small-ensembles, that my brain looked for other options. It’s amazing what we can fool ourselves into thinking we see or hear, given certain circumstances. When I listened to the track again, what I heard sounded clearly and obviously to me like a French horn (well, duh…).

And also, let me say, Watkins’ playing was excellent. On this tune, he trades fours with Rollins and totally keeps up with the sax master. Watkins may not have had a good trumpet sound, but he sure had a great French horn sound.

By Rob Tilley

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