Liner notes for Genius Envy
Ron Horton is an unpretentious man: kind, quiet, thoughtful, and, as in the word "mindful," "earful." Ron knows music — especially jazz — and he knows how to play and write for it. That's probably why bandleaders from Andrew Hill to Jane Ira Bloom to Frank Kimbrough prefer Ron's trumpet playing and easygoing person in their ensembles.
Ron is the quintessential musician's musician, appreciated by insightful musicians in New York and internationally. But that same unpretentiousness is perhaps why this album Genius Envy is Ron Horton's first as a leader at 39 years of age. Though he did make a record when he was 29 which was never released, Ron reveals "I would have been thrilled at the time, but then looking back on it, I think I would have been embarrassed if that had come out...."
Even the story behind the title track "Genius Envy" lends insight into Ron's thoughtful, no nonsense approach to creating his art — he extends it quietly rather than recreating the music of others. "I'm annoyed that folks are so enamored of people in the past that they fail to see that we're surrounded by geniuses today," rails Ron.
Not that Ron has not admired and learned from the greats. His ears and head know who the rightful geniuses of the past were. His hang-up is when appreciation bloats into blinding envy, stifling the very foundation of jazz: creativity.
Born in 1960 in Bethesda, Maryland, Ron attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston between 1978-80 and moved to New York in 1982. He has performed in groups led by Andrew Hill, Jane Ira Bloom, Phillip Johnston, Frank Kimbrough, Ben Allison, Ted Nash, Allan Chase, Andy Laster, Matt Wilson, Walter Thompson, Peggy Stern, and in the East Down Septet. He has been a member of New York's renowned Jazz Composers Collective since its inception in 1992, and under the Collective's aegis, leads his own group playing Andrew Hill's music and performs in the Herbie Nichols Project. In addition to live performances, Ron has recorded on over a dozen albums as sideman.
Ron's writing, like his playing, is melodic, engaging the listener while still taking their ears to new musical places. Ron believes his melodiousness was in response to his training at Berklee. Learning technique and running scales were one thing, but Ron says he "realized that melodically there was a lot to be desired there. So I spent a lot of time listening to real melodic players like Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Miles and people like that to get a stronger melodic thing going...."
Listening to his pieces and his playing, you can tell Ron has invested a lot of time in making things "just right." His tunes and arrangements, like his soloing, have a very natural, comfortable, almost familiar feel, though the process can be arduous for Ron.
"Composing usually doesn't come quickly to me," explains Ron. "Some people can ride on a subway or a bus and get an idea, but I can't. I really have to take something and play it over and over and over and over and think about it and add a little bit and take away a little bit and shape it. It's a long process for me."
Even his titles are telling of the craft that goes into creating "jazz miniatures," as Ron calls them. For example, "Carla Blake" was written on a day Ron finished a recording session with saxophonist/composer Michael Blake, at a time when Ron was listening a lot to Jimmy Giuffre's genre-redefining Thesis and Fusion albums (released by ECM as 1961). In "Carla Blake" Ron asks a hypothetical question involving keyboardist/composer Carla Bley and saxophonist Michael Blake. "Long-term Memories" and "Short-term Memory" is a musical picture of Ron's growing obsession over losing his memory. "I sometimes feel as if I'm losing it faster than everyone else. I don't know if that's true or not, but remembering names and remembering faces — things that seem to be easier for other people — are becoming harder and harder for me."
"Claude's Petite Bicyclette," the most humorous and cinematic piece on the album, was inspired by sources as diverse as Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat (the source of what Ron calls "a kind of French vibe") and the music of composer/musicians Phillip Johnston and Andy Biskin, who according to Ron, "have the funniest, most unique outlook on the world. They're both wonderful composers."
Two of his most stirring and melodic pieces are both dedications. "For Thomas Chapin" was written the day Ron learned New York alto saxophonist and composer Thomas Chapin died prematurely in his early 40s from leukemia. (One can feel that strength and vulnerability interwoven in the sweeping lines of the piece.) And "Embrace" is for Reba, Ron's girlfriend of many years, according to Ron, "capturing that feeling of still liking to give each other a hug once in a while, and it still feels (even if we haven't seen each other for all of three hours) as warm and inviting as the first time. It's amazing."
"Happy and Out of It (on the Beach)" is Ron's take on the boogaloo, an obligatory track for the debut album of someone who bought nearly every album Lee Morgan made. Confesses Ron, "Had I known the number of record dates he did, I wouldn't have pursued it as much, but I couldn't get enough of him." Ron fuses that "funky butt groove" (as he calls it) with another fad of the time, beach music. "In my mind I visualized that kind of beach fun, but with an angular twist," explained Ron.
Genius Envy? Muses Ron, "Duke Ellington would come back and say 'Man, what are you doing playing my music? You oughta be playing your music.'" Ron is. See if you like what you hear.
[Read the complete Ron Horton interview, including more on the title track, Andrew Hill, Frank Kimbrough, how Ron really feels about Louis Armstrong and more.]