Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti is coming to Merrill Auditorium on Sept. 29, and I listened to some of his work to find out why he has become the best-selling instrumentalist in today’s recording industry.

One of the most striking things about his performances is their melodic quality. He manages extremely high notes that could well be the climax of a virtuoso trumpet concerto, so they seem an integral part of the melodic line rather than some instrumental triumph.

His tone manages to be smooth, cool and exciting at the same time, with an uncanny likeness to the human voice.

With their background in jazz improvisation, Botti and his band can take the tried and true, like “Ave Maria,” and make it seem fresh and somehow different each time.

It was not always thus. From time immemorial, trumpets have existed not to sing but to make noise, sometimes loud enough to bring down the walls of Jericho.  

Along with the drum, it is the military instrument par excellence, calling both ground troops and cavalry to arms, as witness the charger in Job: “He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

The flute appears to be the oldest musical instrument, with bone examples from the Stone Age, but I wonder if the trumpet might even pre-date it. All it takes is a hollow object — a termite-excavated eucalyptus root, a ram’s horn or a sea shell — and a surface against which the lips can vibrate. The trumpet is actually a double-reed instrument, with the lips serving as the reeds.

With the advent of the Bronze Age, the metallic trumpet arrived. Two — one copper and one silver — were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, and were still playable. In fact, their (very loud) sound was recorded by the BBC in the 1930s (bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13092827).

It is interesting how much the metal of the body affects tone quality. I wonder what a gold or platinum one would sound like?

A natural trumpet, such as Tutankhamen’s, can sound only the notes of the harmonic series. To reach those in between, the player either had to switch instruments or add extra tubing in the form of a “crook.”

This did not prevent composers such as Bach from writing for the instrument, apparently relying on virtuoso performers to somehow shade into the missing notes. One reason Bach and others used the higher register of the instrument is that the harmonics get closer together the farther up the scale you go.

Not all composers have liked the trumpet. The young Mozart is said to have run from the room when one was played.

There were many attempts to offer a full musical scale, including a slide trumpet (like a trombone), but none really caught on.

Finally, just in time for Wagner, two Germans invented the trumpet valve, later perfected by Adolphe Sax, Perinet and J.P. Oates. According to the “Oxford Companion to Music,” its first use seems to have been in Halevy’s “La Juive” (1835).

With all notes available and equal, the trumpet became a more versatile and important member of the orchestra, and could also be used in more intimate settings, such as jazz clubs, if not in chamber music. It is there that it learned to sing, like Botti’s Martin Committee 1939 large-bore Handcraft trumpet.

And Botti uses (shades of Tutankhamen) a No. 3 silver-plated mouthpiece from Vincent Bach made in 1926.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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