Last night Sandy I were invited to Columbia, approximately 4 clicks east (I keed…I don’t know how far a click is), to hang out with some folks and take in a concert in Jesse Hall on the campus of the University of Missouri given by the Canadian Brass. To my surprise, 60% of the members of the world renowned crew were the same as back in the days before I even played horn. Charles Daellenbach, Gene Watts, and Ronald Romm were all there, along with newbies to me Joe Burgstaller and Jeff Nelsen.
It is important to note that this was my first Canadian Brass live experience. My mother had been before and recommended it highly. Consider it duly noted that the entertainment value is one of the all-time highs for any live event I’ve ever been to. Daellenbach has obviously been doing his thing for decades, because he’s got an uncanny knack for delivery and having the audience on the tip of his finger at all times. He’s really dry, but he has pretty stellar timing on his jokes. Gene Watts also spoke several times, and while he’s not quite as entertaining as Daellenbach, he also has solid delivery. I have to say…he lags SIGNIFICANTLY behind his comrades in musical execution, but he still has plenty of showmanship skills.
The music for the evening was a very nice mixture of styles, as was to be expected. Some Bach, some Bach by way of Vivaldi, some Bach by way of Christopher Dedrick, and a nameless Gabrieli Canzona comprised the classical portion of the first half. The intonation and technique, while not totally flawless, were very good, and the balance was unbelievable…such are the by-products of playing together as a chamber ensemble all the time. Joe Burgstaller played the piccolo trumpet for the majority of this half, and sounded as good as anyone I’ve ever heard playing picc…my complaint about picc playing tends to be that the sound often sounds stifled and nasally, but he has a tremendously full sound, on a par with my good friend James Smock, who will hopefully appreciate that I’m genuinely not saying this to blow smoke up his ass. Burgstaller was a rock star on the technical work…really crispy, and he nailed the crap out of several high Fs and Gs, which drew a muffled gasp from me on occasion.
Also of note was the aforementioned horn player, Jeff Nelsen. Very studly player. Has a really bright sound, which those who know me know I love, strive for, and probably do to way too high a degree. The horn is the hardest instrument to play for a number of reasons, accuracy chief among them (which obviously was not a problem here), but also endurance. The horn is often left to play all the roles in a brass quintet, both as solo line, and harmonic bridge, and without nearly as many breaks as our friends. Personally speaking…I can’t always make it. Nelsen made it without breaking a sweat…the James Bond of horn playing or something.
The first half closed with three Luther Henderson jazz arrangements (it also opened with one, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”). The first was “High Society” featuring Burgstaller playing the famous clarinet solo on piccolo trumpet, which he handled to great audience delight. What didn’t receive great audience delight because it was buried texturally a little bit was when Nelsen played this same solo in the “shout chorus.” I leaned over to Sandy and whispered “oh my God” because I couldn’t believe my ears, but it made me want to quit horn right then and there. The middle song was a nice arrangement of “Deep River” featuring the tuba, which was played nicely.
The finale of the set and the first half was Henderson’s arrangement of “Beale Street Blues.” This song completely takes me back in time to the days of The Essential Canadian Brass with David Ohanian on horn…the first horn player whose name I ever remembered. I was a beginning trumpet player at the time who had recently encountered horn as a means to move to the intermediate band where there were no horns but, and this is a literal figure, 32 trumpets. I don’t remember who loaned me the disc, but I remember being completely enthralled with “Beale Street Blues.” There’s a part in the middle of the song where the horn has these glissandi from 3rd space C to high C, and the first time I heard them, I knew I wanted to have something to do with horn, because it was bad ass. It still is. I was a tad disappointed when Nelsen missed the first two high Cs, but everything else about the song was stellar, including some flutter tonguing that sounded like machine-gun fire. Music definitely has the power to take you back like that, and I had all kinds of cool memories come rushing back during this song. Thanks, 5 guys who I don’t know personally.
After intermission, or half time as I’ve been calling everything lately, they started with a tribute to Glenn Miller, which the audience loved. It’s been so long since I listened to any Glenn Miller that I completely forgot how many amazingly popular songs he was associated with. Every single song of the medley was ingrained in my and everyone else’s memories…and that didn’t even include my favorite Glenn Miller song (Little Brown Jug for the win!). Gene Watts introduced the piece making reference to a concert they gave some time ago when they said they would give a free CD to anyone who could name all the songs in the medley, but they had to stop because almost the entire crowd knew them all. Such is the power of white guys with glasses.
The Barber Adagio came next, featuring Nelsen on horn. Nothing particularly noteworthy here…this piece, while still beautiful, doesn’t really work in this setting simply because the tempo has to be picked up significantly to accomodate the obvious breathing issues. It was more the Barber Andante this time, and it doesn’t carry the same weight as the string quartet, string orchestra, or choral versions. I’m sure I sound like a dumbass for picking on an arrangement, but it is what it is, and frankly, when your group plays so many top-quality arrangements by some of the finest arrangers in the business, you notice the ones that don’t necessarily fit that standard. Great dynamic contrast, though…some tremendous soft playing at the end.
The last piece listed on the program was the Canadian Brass opera “Hornsmoke” by Peter Schickele. It was very cute…not particularly musically interesting, but a very charming ten minutes with Burgstaller playing a woman, Romm playing an outlaw, Nelsen playing a heroic cowboy, Daellenbach playing a priest, and Watts playing the narrator (I was hoping for him to start with “way out west there was this fella…fella I wanna tell you about…fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski”). Watts dominated on his narration. There was some great writing in the part, with all kinds of head spinning narrative, and he breezed through it. It was impressive and funny as hell. Lots of cute interactions between the characters and their instruments. The musical highlight was when Nelsen, Burgstaller, and Romm come to the front of the stage and sing a cowboy tune in three-part harmony. I know as great musicians I should have expected them to be competent singers and harmonize well, but I was totally shocked at how bad ass they sounded. It was incredibly cool. Obviously the audience loved this tune, as did I. Wildly entertaining stuff.
They played another Essential Canadian Brass classic as an encore, “The Saints Hallelujah” (which combines “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” for those who aren’t total nerds like myself) featuring Watts on trombone. It should be noted that he grew up in Missouri and attended the University of, so there’s that. Nice encore, great end to a wonderful performance, and an amazing start to a wonderful evening with friends. Friends who, like me, were at a concert.