Monthly Archives: December 2012

French Horns, Octaves, and Marvin Gaye

As I continue working on The Top Shelf’s upcoming spotlight on Marvin Gaye and Tina Turner, I find myself thinking about French Horns, and in particular, dramatic octave leaps by a section of French Horns.

I love writing for the French Horn.  It’s capable of such plaintive beauty as well as intense excitement … especially when octaves are involved.

Theme from Peter Gunn

Consider these two snippets from the Theme from Peter Gunn

Now that’s cool!  I bet the players on the session (from 1958) weren’t expecting to get to play *that* when they arrived at the studio.

Les Misérables

I had the very good fortune of seeing Les Miz opening night on Broadway.  I remember thinking, as I was listening to a killer ballad in the first act, that I really wanted to hear a French Horn play an octave leap.  Yes, really.  That’s what happens when I listen to music.  In any case, the composer and orchestrator did not disappoint, as evidenced here.

I Heard it Through the Grapevine

So, what does all this have to do with Marvin Gaye and Tina Turner?

Well, it has a lot to do with trying to get Marvin Gaye “right”.  As with What’s Going On it’s essential to have a great lead singer and a great rhythm section, but to really do the arrangement justice you need those elements that take the performance to the next level, and one of those critical things is  — you guessed it — a French Horn octave leap.

Doesn’t that just kick ass?

So, are we going to have a French Horn section at our January 10th performance at DROM?  Well, we already have 12 people in the band so the answer is “No,” but I promise we’ll get this ever-so-cool lick into the live performance.

I hope you will swing by on January 10 and see (and hear) for yourself.

Have a “Top Shelf” when you hear The Top Shelf

We officially launched the signature “Top Shelf” cocktail at our performance at DROM last week and it was a huge success.

Congratulations to 12 Grapes bartender Maria Andrea Prando Barrutia for her amazing Van Gogh Blue Vodka-based creation.  We received more than 40 cocktail recipes from which we selected five finalists.  We then posted a poll on FaceBook and Andrea’s submission took top honors.

Here’s a video of Andrea making a “Top Shelf”.

3 basil leaves
3 wedges of lime
1 oz. St. Germain
1 oz. Orange Juice
2 oz. Orange Vodka
Splash Club Soda


Place the basil leaves with the lime wedges and St Germain into a glass. Using a muddler, crush the basil and lime to release the flavor. Pour into a mixer glass with ice and add orange juice, vodka, and a small splash of club soda. Shake the mix with ice and strain into a Martini glass. Garnish with a small basil leaves and a lime wedge.

The “Secret Sauce” for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

I don’t know anybody steeped in Soul and R&B that isn’t enthralled when they hear Marvin Gaye’s rendition of this song.

Just what is it that makes the recording so special, and why is it so hard to reach that level of transcendence when bands attempt to perform this live?

Let’s look at some of the components that make up this truly special sauce…

Marvin and James
A crucial component of what makes this song “feel” so good is James Jamerson’s perfect bass line. It’s relaxed yet it propels the song forward.  Here’s a wonderful YouTube clip of Gaye’s vocals with Jamerson’s isolated bass line.

There are two guitar parts on the recording.  Here’s one of them and it, too, drives the song forward.

There are three string tracks on the original recording.  Here’s the track that’s panned in the center.  Note that the strings don’t come in until a little more than a minute into the song.

When I play this isolated track for my keyboard-playing friends they are usually surprised as how sparse the part is.  Indeed, it’s this simple part (which doubles the vibraphone) that adds nuance to the song.

Many more ingredients
There are many more parts that go into the mix (e.g., saxophone, finger snaps, background vocals, and so on).  Separately, some of them don’t sound particularly good, but when combined with the other parts they all sound amazing together.

Performing this live
So, just how does one perform this live and create something that is, well, special?

First and foremost you need a great band and a great lead vocalist, but how do you add those critical pieces that make the sauce so special  — and how do you do it live, and without hiring 30 musicians?

Come see Steve Wexler and The Top Shelf at DROM on January 10 and we’ll show you.

An Appreciation of 21st Century Soul

If I had to choose only one decade from which I could listen to music it would be the 1960s.  Indeed, I challenge anyone to find a decade that was more tumultuous — or that had a better soundtrack — than the 1960s.  Especially with respect to Soul and R&B.

That said, over the last ten years there’s been a wondrous renaissance of new artists that are producing truly world-class R&B and soul.

On December 6th Steve Wexler and The Top Shelf will pay tribute to some of these stellar artists when we perform at DROM in NYC.

In the meantime, here’s a taste from three of the performers that we plan to salute.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Jones, the Dap-Kings (including one of my heroes, bass player and music director Bosco Mann), and the Dapettes earlier this month.  Here they are performing “100 Days, 100 Nights”

Eli “Paperboy” Reed

Here’s Neo-Motown wunderkind Eli “Paperboy” Reed performing “Doin’ the Boom Boom”.


Shemekia Copeland

The Top Shelf has been performing this one for a couple of years now.  Here Ms. Copeland tears it up on the Steve Cropper-produced “Who Stole My Radio”.