Remembering John Denver: Jim Horn on horns
ASPEN – By the late ’70s, Jim Horn must have thought he’d seen most everything, and added the woodwind part to almost all of it. From the first hit record he played on – Canned Heat’s 1968 folk-blues “Going Up the Country,” which featured his prominent flute solo – Horn stayed firmly at the center of the popular music realm. He played on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and albums by Steely Dan, Jackson Browne and Jos Feliciano. Horn didn’t exactly have a niche – his contributions were too widespread for that – but if he did have one, at least in the early ’70s, it would have been “saxophonist to the English Invasion.” He toured on Joe Cocker’s notorious Mad Dogs & Englishmen romp around the world; played on the Rolling Stones’ “Goats Head Soup”; and recorded with all of the Beatles, but had a particularly close relationship with George Harrison, playing on the “Dark Horse” album and in the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden. “They just wanted to hit the American sound, and use American musicians,” said Horn, who had grown up in Linwood, outside of Los Angeles.But the offer Horn got around 1977 represented something new. Renee Armand, Horn’s girlfriend at the time (and later his wife), was singing in Aspenite John Denver’s band. Armand introduced her boss to her boyfriend, and Denver invited him to join the group. Folk was not exactly Horn’s thing, just as it would be somewhat foreign terrain for most saxophonists; Horn had gotten hooked on sax as a 12-year-old, listening to Fats Domino and other r&b and early rock acts. Denver had something very different in mind.”I’d been playing all the pop stuff. I was playing baritone sax on Motown records, so this was a different kind of music. When John told me what he wanted me to do – emulate the sounds of the rain and wind and the water – I saw it was something different for me,” Horn said Thursday morning at the Wheeler Opera House, just before rehearsal for the 13th Annual Tribute to John Denver concerts, on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 8 and 9. The concerts include Bill Danoff, co-writer of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado”; comedian/musician Gary Mule Deer, who opened shows for Denver in the late ’70s and early ’80s; former Denver bandmates Alan Deremo, Chris Nole, Herb Pedersen, Jim Salestrom, Richie Garcia and Denny Brooks; and Mack Bailey, Jim Curry and Mollie Weaver. Also appearing as guest banjoist is Jim Horn’s son, James.Being with Denver seemed to become a surprisingly comfortable fit. Horn – yes, he swears that horn is the name he was born with – stayed in Denver’s band for 17 years, a musical bond matched in depth only by Horn’s relatinship with Harrison. (Horn would go on to play on the late Harrison’s 1987 solo album, “Cloud Nine,” and also on both albums by the Traveling Wilburys, Harrison’s side project with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.)Being in Denver’s band was like being thrown one big curveball for Horn; it required close attention to subtleties. “I said, I’ll listen to the lyrics and go from there. I just played things I thought would work on the songs,” Horn, who has made annual appearances in the tribute concerts dating back to 1998, the year after Denver died, said. “You have to adapt yourself to the feel of a song, what it’s about, and go with it, decide which instrument – flute, sax, recorder – would sound best.”Horn knew he was getting comfortable when, during a performance of “Sunshine on My Shoulder,” he pulled out the soprano saxophone. Horn’s acknowledgment was a big smile from Denver; it was the introduction of saxophone into Denver’s sound.Still, the artistic challenges kept coming. And after a few years in the band, Denver told Horn that he wanted to do a tour of Europe that would include just a trio of Denver, percussionist Richie Garcia, and Horn. “That was a little harder,” Horn recalled. “With just Richie and me backing him up, you couldn’t make any mistakes.”The close, long-lasting partnership with Denver didn’t prevent Horn from compiling an enormous list of other collaborators. He had recorded with Toto and Garth Brooks, U2 and Warren Zevon, Billy Joel and Christopher Cross. And while he remains busy – for the past several years, he has led the horn section for country star Kenny Chesney’s band, and also does frequent session work in Nashville, his home for 25 years – it can’t be anything like the ’60s, when Horn was being called in for three or four sessions a day in L.A. studios.”You might work with Frank Sinatra in the morning and afternoon, then the Beach Boys in the evening, and then the Mamas & the Papas would call you to come in real late, maybe midnight,” he said. “It was different every day. Sometimes you’d walk in and not know who you were going to work with.”The Denver years were marked by a mellower predictability. Horn said that touring with Denver was always a first-class experience, and that Denver was easy to please – those smiles for surprising musical choices were a frequent occurrence. After the concerts, when some of the entourage went in search of nocturnal activity, Horn was Denver’s regular companion in searching out the best curry in the vicinity.Horn said that part of Denver’s slide in popularity in the later part of his career had to do with the subject matter of the songs.”He was writing songs about, Why are we making weapons – that turned people off,” Horn said. “His songwriting changed, and I think that hurt him a little bit. People wanted to hear his love songs. ‘Annie’s Song.'”firstname.lastname@example.org
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