Byron Wallen - Trumpet

Byron Wallen will always remember his first trumpet teacher. He takes up the story. “In the very beginning I was having difficulty playing the trumpet, so I went to see my teacher. He told me that that my lips were too big and maybe I wasn’t meant for playing the trumpet,” Wallen says, laughing. “But you know, in a way I have to thank him, because that really motivated me to have a go at it.”
Wallen’s childhood was immersed in music. “My dad was a singer and my elder sister Errollyn was a pianist who has since become highly respected in the classical world. My first instrument was also the piano and I remember doing all the grades”. At the same time Wallen became a member of the Boys Brigade, “they gave me a euphonium,” he says laughing again. “Then shortly after that I saw Louis Armstrong on TV and I just thought, wow, this is amazing. His whole kind of presence, the trumpet and his playing.” Active Image

This led to Wallen getting trumpet lessons at school. “They handed me a basic B&H student model and I really got into it. Then when I was about 13, I remember my uncle [he was brought up by his aunt and uncle] buying me this very beaten-up brass thing with an old mouthpiece. It only cost him around £20, but hey, it was my first trumpet and it was great.” Wallen remembers watching video recordings of late night jazz programmes featuring artists such as Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Wheeler. “I would rewind the tape and play back my favourite bits and I remember thinking – I could play like this.” A friend who also played trumpet, put Wallen in touch with a teacher called Peter Ruderforth. “He was a great teacher,” remembers Wallen, “and told me what I needed to do with my embouchure. So I used my summer vacation with my parents in New York to get it sorted and when I came back, I went to see Peter and he said ‘I have never seen anybody change their embouchure so quickly’. I had literally been on it everyday – in the mirror!’

At the time Wallen was playing a Blessing trumpet, but he soon graduated on to a Spanish Atomvi trumpet. ‘That wasn’t a bad horn. Then I part exchanged that for a second hand Schilike with a detachable bell – mine was a normal silver plated – and that was a really great trumpet. Mind you, I remember going through a lot of instruments in the store before I found the one I really liked.”

After Wallen had left university with a degree in psychology he went back to see his parents in New York. “Although I was happy with my trumpet, it wasn’t giving me the sound that I was hearing, so I went down to this music store in Queens which had loads of different trumpets. I had done some research and I knew that players whose sound I really liked, like Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham, all played a Martin Committee from the 1930s. They have a medium bore, but they’re extremely easy blowing. So when I went into this shop I tried every Martin Committee that they had... and in the end walked out with one.”

Soon afterwards Wallen got to play on Terence Blanchard’s Monette. “I was looking for a bigger sounding horn that didn’t need a mike when I was playing acoustic sets and the Monette was fantastic. Then I found that there was a company in England that makes these ‘heavy’ horns. Andy Taylor runs his business out of Norwich, and I was so impressed with his horns that I not only bought a trumpet but also a Phat Boy flugelhorn and had a custom Taylor mouthpiece made. They have a great sound, but sometimes the intonation is difficult and sometimes I had to work very hard.

“Then I met Noel Langley and he put me in touch with Leigh McKinney from Eclipse trumpets. When I played on the Eclipse horn, it was so much lighter than the Taylor and I was astounded by the way it played so easily, which is partly due to the fact that the tuning slide is not at the front, but instead comes off the main bell at the back, so there’s less resistance in the horn. However, it wasn’t as big or as fat a sound as my Taylor.”
So McKinney and Wallen decided that they would work together on producing a trumpet with a heavy bell. “I’ve called it the Snakehorn, because it has a snake wrapped around the tuning slide at the end. But you know, I still missed that big heavy sound of the Taylor. I wanted a horn that was lighter and didn’t give me the problems that I had with the Taylor. Leigh suggested that he make a horn with an extra large bore. So I got together with an architect friend of mine and we came up with a design for this horn that has three Snakeheads on it. The project took a whole year, but in the end it was worth it. That’s the horn I’m playing on now.”

Wallen has been through his fair share of mouthpieces. “In the early days I used a Bach 1 1/2, before I went on to the custom Taylor. From there I moved to Monette Brana B2. But now I use a newly designed heavyweight Denis Wick IC on my Eclipse trumpet and a Denis Wick 2FL on the Flugelhorn. The moment I tried it I fell in love with it. It works much better with the Eclipse horn than the Monette ever did, and it’s much, much cheaper.”
For the last 10 years, Wallen has been collecting conches, shells. “I became fascinated by conches and wherever I have gone, be it Mexico, Indonesia, Africa, I try and pick up as many as I can. I’ve made them into trumpets by putting holes in them and each will have a different mouthpiece. With some you have to chop off the end, while others will need to be carved or have pieces chipped off them and then filed down; it’s incredible what you can get out of them. With most shells you can get within the range of a fifth, but with some of the smaller ones you will only get a third. I also sell them!”

Wallen has also recently been getting into the flute. “I just love that sound,” he says. “It’s a different kind of pressure, you learn how to control the pressure and become a lot more sensitive. But you know, if I could have the sound of the shell with the flexibility of the trumpet, that would be perfect.”

David Gallant

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