Ken Wiley

Solo Recording Artist / Studio Musician

Ken Wiley’s “Cuerno Exotica” serves to showcase French horn sound

By Dodie Miller-Gould - October 26, 2018

Ken Wiley’s “Cuerno Exotica” is the French horn player’s latest album. The release has the potential to change listeners’ perception of the French horn as they hear the instrument used in soundscapes that are pure jazz and Latin-infused. “Cuerno Exotica” is a mix of originals and cover tunes. Tracks like a version of Ravel’s “Bolero” and the original “Gato Magico” demonstrate the various moods that the French horn can be used to create.

The French horn is an instrument usually relegated to marching band performances and television sit-com jokes. But in the hands of seasoned practitioners like Wiley, the instrument becomes something else entirely. It can be used to create long, sustained notes in smooth jazz, or jazz that is infused with other styles, such as the  way Wiley uses Latin notes on “Cuerno Exotica.”

In addition to the French horn, Wiley also plays piano on the album. He is joined by Bernie Dresel on drums for most tracks, Rene Camacho on bass, Dominick Genova on bass, Dave Loeb on piano, Mark Leggett on acoustic guitar, Luis Corte on percussion, Kevin Ricard on percussion, Dan Higgins on tenor sax, flute, alto flute, piccolo and clarinet, and Bolero horns are provided by Gary Grant, Larry Hall, Steve Holtman and Dan Higgins.

There have been few French horn players in jazz since the middle of the 1950s, starting with Julius Watkins. They can literally be counted on two hands. Wiley follows in that legendary path. Played correctly, the sound of the French horn augments and accents various types of music just right. The gentle, persistent blare of the French horn is a unique sound that adds a certain dynamic to jazz pieces.

About Ken Wiley

Wiley completed his musical education at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. But most of his life as a professional musician has been spent in the Los Angeles area. In Los Angeles, Wiley is known as a top studio musician and has worked with a number of well-known groups, including Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, tenor-saxophonist Charlie Rouse, guitarists Grant Geissman and Mike Miller, and bassists John Patitucci and Jimmy Johnson, and others. Wiley also has a solid reputation for being an ensemble leader. “Cuerno Exotica” is the latest in a career that includes several albums. Including “Visage,” “Highbridge Park” (where he expertly mixed French horn with Afro-Cuban and South American rhythms) and “Jazz Horn Redux” (which was reviewed here on LemonWire). In addition, Wiley is known for his work on movie and television soundtracks. Wiley’s approach to making music includes a refusal to repeat himself or to repeat himself. As a result he refuses to stay in one musical lane for too long. Listeners of “Cuerno Exotica” will find dynamic moodiness and an unexpected verve on the album.

“Bolero” by Ken Wiley

The song opens with a blare of traditional jazz horns. They soar atop a soundscape full of Latin beats and nuanced bass. Then, the French horn comes in with its long, smooth notes, and still, the other horns play lines reminiscent of smooth jazz, but when the smaller woodwinds take over the soundscape, they play atop a slightly more energetic Latin base. An almost bell-like quality chimes politely in the background as the percussion thumps out a danceable beat. The bass has its own obvious groove, while the horns’ motif becomes familiar to listeners. The song is energetic, full of movement, without being busy. In fact, it is rather relaxing, although listeners will appreciate the various textures and tones that create the song. It fades out as audiences are still attempting to figure out what is happening.


“Gato Magico” by Ken Wiley

The moody bass that undergirds the song continues throughout. This is rather fascinating as the additional sounds of horns and shaken percussion instruments seem to dance over the top of the bass. Because of the inflection of the other sounds, the bass does not sound menacing. The song’s modes move from 1960s to 1970s jazz and the horns usually found in soul music of those eras. It is a fantastic soundscape that keeps up with the tone set from the very first song. When it ends in a blare of percussion, listeners are ready to hear it again.


In some ways, “Cuerno Exotica” is important because of what it represents for Wiley’s career, and also what it represents in the use of French horn.