One would think an industrious horn man that has traveled the country with the spacious indie-pop of Beirut, toured the world with the anthemic rock presentations of Arcade Fire and cracked the cosmos with his own indie/avant jazz adventures would have pretty much scaled the peaks of what popular music had to offer.
But that was before Kelly Pratt met David and Annie.
Pratt is a Lexington native that has juggled a succession of daring musical projects since graduation from the jazz studies program at the University of Kentucky. His latest is perhaps his most involving – playing trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn and flute on a collaborative recording and subsequent tour by David Byrne, the musical journeymen forever known as the frontman for Talking Heads, and Annie Clark, better known to today’s pop multitudes as St. Vincent.
“I feel strongly about the music we’re making,” said Pratt, who serves as co-musical director of the Byrne/St. Vincent band and, more specifically, chieftain of its eight-member horn team. “In some ways, it’s not the most audience friendly music. It’s a challenge for the audience as well as for us. But I’ve always enjoyed being part of things I feel are operating outside of a particular genre or pushing the boundaries of art. This music really doesn’t sound like anything else.”
Among Pratt’s own musical endeavors upon moving to New York in the late ‘90s was a jazz collective called Bright Moments, which released a recording last year on Luaka Bop, a label founded by Byrne. Taken with the album, Byrne contacted Pratt to join a legion of celebrated horn players that were orchestrating the askew pop tunes the singer and Clark had been composing for nearly two years.
Pratt wound up playing on three songs from the Byrne/St. Vincent project, released last fall as Love This Giant, and was asked to write the horn arrangement for the sleek pop reverie Dinner for Two. When plans were drawn to tour behind the album, Pratt was enlisted to assemble a horn section that would bring to life music from Love This Giant as well as works from the back catalogues of Byrne and Clark.
“This was an altogether different process than the record, one I was much more involved in,” Pratt said. “The set-up for the band was to be David and Annie, a drummer, keyboard player and eight horns. I already knew that I had to tone down the album arrangements because a lot of them had 13 or 15 horn players. So I took the guys I thought would be good to be on tour with, were capable of playing the music and in several cases, myself included, were capable of playing a lot of different instruments.”
Among the first recruits was Nitro, West Va. native Bryan Murray, who Pratt studied jazz with at UK under Miles Osland from 1993 to 1997.
“I knew Kelly from the University of Kentucky,” said Murray, who plays saxophones and clarinet in the Byrne/St. Vincent Band. “After school we both ended up in New York. It got to be where I hadn’t seen him for a bit when Kelly emailed me one day and was like, ‘You want to go on the road with David Byrne?’ I was like, ‘Uh, absolutely.’ It scary how these things seem to work out.”
The challenges in playing behind Byrne and Clark weren’t limited to the music. The duo’s current concerts are designed to keep the music – as well as everyone playing it – in motion.
“When Kelly asked me to do the gig, I imagined wearing all black and standing in the back of the stage playing horn parts from a book – you know, just kind of being out of the spotlight,” Murray said. “Instead, after a few rehearsals, I heard someone say, ‘Meet the choreographer.’ I think everybody at that point was like, ‘What?’
“The rehearsals were really intense,” Pratt added “It was like a week-and-a-half of rehearsals eight hours a day. Not only did we have to learn the music and play it well, we had to memorize it because we had choreography to learn.
“I can’t dance at all. So that was a whole different challenge. The first few days were really about trying to figure out how much we could do realistically without compromising the music. I’ve had a lot of marching band experience, but there you’re doing a show that’s 12 minutes long. Our show now is two hours long.”
For Pratt, the tour also came with a bonus. On the third and current leg of the tour, he was asked to write a horn arrangement for one of Byrne’s final Talking Heads hits, Wild Wild Life. While the Love This Giant material satisfied an artistic urge for something fresh and innovative, Wild Wild Life let the trumpeter saddle up to a tune he grew up with.
“What we do doesn’t sound like the original Wild Wild Life,” Pratt said. “It sounds like a huge horn section playing Wild Wild Life. That tends to be the case for Annie’s songs, too. These are not faithful interpretations. But playing them has been a really unique experience.
“I’m coming from the horns. That’s what I’ve been doing the last 20 years of my life. To have to opportunity to work in this very horn-centric ensemble has been a real blessing. It’s an honor to be part of it.”
David Byrne and St. Vincent perform at 7:30 p.m. July 2 at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, 502 West Main in Louisville (7:30 p.m.; $35-$75) and 8 p.m. July 10 at the Taft Theatre, 317 East 5th St in Cincinnati. 8 p.m.; $35-$65). Call (800) 775-7777 or go to www.kentuckycenter.org for the Louisville show. Call (513) 232-6220 or go to www.tafttheatre.org for the Cincinnati performance.