“The trumpet is the instrument of the gods,” said master musician Marcus Belgrave in a recent interview about his Detroit Jazz Festival trumpet summit (which I took part in this past summer). Now if these gods happened to descend from the heavens in an ornate spaceship, complete with all the trimmings out of a sci-fi movie (imagine Close Encounters or Men in Black), and brought with them a horn in its likeness, they might have given us PJLA Music’s Phaeton trumpet. The instrument need not leave the display case for you to know the Phaeton ain’t your daddy’s Martin Committee.
The Phaeton 2000 series of professional horns is available in five stylish finishes: gold lacquer, silver plating, eye-catching rawbrushed brass, black-onyx matte and 24- karat gold plating. The aesthetic standard referenced here is definitely Monette, but the Phaetons have their own look. They feature wide, swooping braces, thick, heavy valve caps and pomo-style finger holds. The curves are extended, graceful and sexy, and the edges seem thick. Overall, it looks “big,” which screams dark, heavy, flugelhorn-esque sound. The trumpet certainly fits in with the standards of a beautiful light fixture or perhaps a vase in a hip SoHo pad, but the question any prospective professional buyer will be concerned with is: Does it play?
In terms of the more substantive qualities of a musical instrument, the marks are fairly good. Chicago trumpet guru Wayne Tanabe largely designed the trumpet, and it does play nicely. It is intended to look like a heavy horn—which is all the rage—but to play and feel lighter. This is accomplished to an extent. The horn feels very solid and supportive of the air when blowing. It is sturdy and substantial but is, in fact, remarkably light. Like a heavier horn, you can get a nice, full, resonant vibration when you push the volume and airflow. It is a typically modern-sounding horn, without a whole lot of edge and a great deal of roundness. The horn also features heavy gold valve caps designed to provide some gravity to the finger-stroke. After working them in they do feel good, though you do have to prefer that weighted-valve feel, as opposed to featherlike, Dizzy Gillespie/Clark Terry-style valves. Last, in favor of the horn, it plays very well in tune. The low D below the staff and the A right above the staff are remarkably on pitch.
I tested two of the finishes mentioned: the rawbrushed brass and the bright silver-plated Anniversary model. The main difference in sound was, as expected, the brushed brass added a mellowed darkness to the sound. I actually found the silverplated version easier and freer to play, and it cut as well as any good horn should; it also worked well for an acoustic set and also sounded good through a microphone. The main qualm I had with both horns was that they did not feel nearly as responsive at medium to soft volumes as when played loud. While the strength of the horns’ playability was in their richness of sound at full volume, softer playing did not yield the same resonant canon of overtones. In other words, to experience the depth of these instruments’ timbre, you really need to blow. These horns would best suit the small group soloist who wants to be able to really blaze without coming across as brash or excessive.
So the Phaeton paradox is a success: make a horn that’s fairly light, looks heavy and sounds dark. With a few small limitations, the 2000 series does just that—and it looks hot! In a market that is dominated by old giants of the trumpet industry, only time can tell what is in store for the relative newcomer. Pete LaPlaca at PJLA Music is quite proud of the trumpets and that they are made mostly in America. He has every reason to be satisfied.