The Canadian Brass
WWBW: One of the many remarkable things about Canadian Brass is its branding. I'd think you are one of the most well-known chamber groups in the world.
CB: I think a lot of fortunate things, you know looking back, I don’t think we could have done it much differently or been much luckier, but things fell in place in very nice ways. We were on the ground floor of brass chamber music when we started in Canada. There was no professional career path in 1970, so it gave us the latitude to kind of create it as we went along, creating the repertoire and our presentation style particularly. We were very fortunate.
WWBW: Is there a template you use to select repertoire or is it completely open-minded?
CB: We follow our tastes, and for a brass player, that’ll always be very wide because we’ve played in concert bands, orchestras, stage bands, marching bands, from a very early age so we’ve been introduced to lots of music. And then, of course just being a child of the time, being in school, you’ve got the regular influences and all the pop influences and so forth. We were just able to reach into those areas of interest and the prevailing one concept that we always maintained was a masterpiece approach. If we were going to borrow a piece of music, we made sure it was the very finest and that’s how the story evolved.
WWBW: The very finest within its type you mean?
CB: If we’re going to do Bach, we’re going to do really brilliant Bach really well. Same with Handel. You know, very careful what we’re picking and choosing. Same with pop music.
WWBW: Is there a mix that you try to follow of transcriptions relative to original works?
CB: The problem with original works is we really don’t have a catalog of masterpieces. Valves were invented just at the beginning of the big Romantic orchestra era, so as soon as we’re able to play chromatic scales, we were in the back row of the orchestra. So Mahler, Bruckner, so forth, they weren’t thinking of these so much as solo instruments or chamber music instruments. We missed Beethoven and Haydn, the string quartet era, the chamber music era, so we need to borrow a lot of the music that we played, our repertoire. At the same time, we were commissioning very heavily. We commissioned over 100 works, major compositions for brass over the years. But as you might expect, the likelihood of a real masterpiece coming out of that is very slim — a very small number that have stayed out with the test of time or that might be considered a very special brass repertoire.
WWBW: Now apart from this overriding masterpiece philosophy, you do have some presentation tendencies that are, let’s say maybe a little outside the norm of what you might expect from classical music. There’s precedent for it, too: PDQ Bach, Victor Borge. Comedy in classical music seems to be a marriage made in heaven to a degree. Is it is a slippery slope? Is it something that your audience expects?
CB: Well, we were very conscious of the fact that when we were in the concert environment, these people have made an effort to come. We’re really grateful. Now it’s our responsibility to make sure that they have a really nice experience while they’re there, meaning they hear some of the greatest music ever written. They’re also entertained. They might even see something that’s a bit outlandish or a bit funny, but it’s a balance and it’s really to take great music in front of our fans and our friends. For whatever reason you can listen to a string quartet for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, two hours and it seems to make sense. Brass can get a little tedious. So we’re very conscious that, maybe because of the power of brass, we’re conscious of the fact that we want to vary the experience. So we kind of make the effort of being sure to play Bach, but we also do early American jazz and we also have some fun with the opera, Carmen. So the variety is inside of the programming that we do.
WWBW: So apart from variety, there’s essentially some comic relief in it. I mean right down to the sneakers, right?
CB: Well, the sneakers -- I don’t know. We take those pretty seriously. They’re very comfortable.
WWBW: I’m sure. [laughter]
CB: Well, we did a tribute to the ballet. We were, in the very early years, we all played in the National Ballet Orchestra in Toronto. Swan Lake and The Spring. We loved the music so we had a set of the pieces put together and we were playing the music and we felt something was missing. Surely people would expect to see dance.
WWBW: So you had a trombone player doing his arabesque and pirouettes out front?
CB: Absolutely. And so we asked our friends in the ballet what did we need to do and the first thing they said is we had to go out and get Capezio jazz ballet slippers. And they were pretty comfortable, but people thought we were wearing running shoes and we thought, well, you know, they’re even more comfortable and they think we’re wearing them anyways. So we changed to running shoes and it took a little time during the concert to change so we decided to change at intermission so we wouldn’t have that awkward break. It was so comfortable, we said, “Well let’s just wear them for the whole show when we’re doing the ballet.” And then we thought, well we’re not doing the ballet but it was so comfortable, let’s just…and then it became our trademark.
WWBW: So now you can’t show up at a gig without your athletic shoes.
CB: Yeah. We’re very lucky that way.
WWBW: Now have you managed to parlay that into an endorsement? I would think that Nike would be knocking at your door.
CB: Well, so would we, but apparently Nike is recommending that we wear New Balance.
WWBW: Speaking of equipment, what is your instrument preference? What do you play?
CB: Well, we’re working with the Bach, you know, the Conn-Selmer Company. When Conn-Selmer really became the umbrella of all the great North American labels, it gave us a lot of latitude.
WWBW: So you were able to accommodate the individual tastes of the players and still remain absolutely true both artistically and commercially to your obligations to your endorsement companies.
CB: I love it. So it’s pretty true. You know that Bach is the standard. Anybody that makes a trumpet gets compared and you’re either going to be better than, just as good, not as good, but the gold standard is the Bach. With French horns, of course, the Conn was back in the day, there wasn’t a kid that didn’t want to have a Conn 8D which still is a Hollywood horn of preference. I started way back when, when I was in junior high, I started on that Conn. Actually, I’m a trombone player, my first Christmas I was given a Conn Constellation. So it goes way back.
WWBW: Nice. Do you still have that?
CB: I do not. It was a small bore. Of course, I was embarrassed into getting a large bore. By then, I was ready to change to tuba anyway [chuckles]. You know musicians, man. You got to have the right equipment. Back in the day, I had a Conn 2J. It just happened to be a very small compact instrument and the tuba, American tubas, which were the absolute best. You know, you can’t name a York, Buescher, Holton, Conn team. I mean it was just a treasure of instruments and that whole tradition was lost. Fortunately, the Conn and [King] Company have the bones of the instrument. For me, the instrument of choice. I think we’re about halfway there now. The instrument I have out on tour is about half Conn and then I had an old 2J that was made in the ‘50s. Actually, my tuba — and I bought it out in L.A. Oh, there’s a fellow out there. I wish I could think of his name right off. He’s a trombone player and he ended up, he’s got a little company going selling trombones and contrabass trombones and one thing and another. He got a hold of this Conn and he said that it was — this is third-hand, I can’t be held responsible, but apparently, it was Elvis Presley’s bass player’s tuba.
CB: How about that?
WWBW: Yeah, that’s an interesting double. You know, I know several real good bass players, electric bass players, who also play tuba.
WWBW: It’s just you know bass lines. It’s a certain way of thinking, as you would know.
CB: Well, it used to be obligatory. Apparently in the band era, the ‘30s and ‘40s, there'd be a tuba sitting on the stand and the bass player would, you know, for certain tunes they'd also play the tuba.
WWBW: Sure. I don’t know if you Bonnie Raitt’s old bass player, Freebo?
WWBW: Great, great player of guitar, songwriter, but he was also a monster tuba player. You’d go see Bonnie Raitt and sure enough Freebo’s busting out the tuba on two or three tunes. Something about tuba and bass in pop and R&B and the New Orleans music that it’s my favorite bass. I mean it just moves along.
CB: It’s coming back. It’s coming back big time. Probably the most recorded bass player in history I think is a fellow named Tony Levin.
CB: He was…
WWBW: Peter Gabriel, etc.
CB: Exactly. Well, I was in school with him. He was actually a tuba player through school and there were a couple times exactly with Peter Gabriel where he would bring out a sousaphone.
WWBW: Let's move on to recording. I mean over the 40 years, do you get a deal with a label and then that expires and you look for another label? I just, over the course of poking around through your discography I noticed you worked with several different labels.
CB: When we were working with the majors, they really didn’t fully understand what we were about, again because there’s no repertoire. It’s not logical that an A&R director, say RCA Red Seal would have any idea what a brass group is going to do. So they gave us a fair bit of latitude but they were very happy. I think we worked at RCA for three years and they were just delighted with the results and we were saying but we wanted to do more. It was like confusing to them. You guys, this is amazing what’s going on here. So we found our upward mobility by kind of leap frogging. We went to CBS, which became Sony and then Phillips, and then back to BMG when it was starting to get dark at the majors. We like to say we turned the light out in the classical division. Well, when BMG dropped their prize-winning pianist and then they dropped their string quartet and then they dropped, I think Jimmy Galley went away. He started doing something else. We said, “You know we’re sort of the classical, we’re the last classical group standing.”
WWBW: So the state of recording and music sharing is changing dramatically. How is Canadian Brass adapting?
CB: Certainly for me, we were listening. We were watching and listening when we were working with the really great masters, producers and so forth and we had an opportunity in around 2000 to start our own indie label in Canada. There’s a program here called FACTOR, Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Recording. FACTOR has made it possible for us to carry on uninterrupted. We’re still recording something like two recordings a year and we have a lot -- they will actually loan us the money to make a recording, which is so helpful in this day and age. Then by having our own indie label, we can be very selective about how we market it and where we take it and how we deal with it and not only selective but conscientious.
WWBW: So you are booking the studios and going in and doing the recordings, selecting the engineers you’re working with and all of that as you pulled off of the label influence?
CB: Yes, correct.
WWBW: Do you like that? Do you like that part of it or is it nice being managed by a label?
CB: No, I actually love it. Because we were doing a lot of that with the majors. Basically, we were having to AR our own products because again, quite frankly, after they recorded the Hummel Trumpet Concerto a few hundred times and they’ve done the Haydn and then, yeah, I guess that’s about it. You know, they run out of repertoire and they don’t know what to do. We were always in charge of our own destiny, but from underneath. Now we actually can make decisions. No, you know, we have the latitude to – well, make a good or a bad decision all on our own, which is really fun.
WWBW: Now I have to think that a chair in the Canadian Brass has to be among the best gigs in classical music, not just in Canada, in the world. And you do rotate through members to a degree. I mean, some people have the gig for 10, 12, 15, 20 or more years. But I mean when, say someone gets ready to move along, there must be a tremendous clamor to be on the audition list.
CB: Well, it’s not an unknown talent we’re looking for.
WWBW: Okay. It’s maybe kind of like professional level baseball where the managers know who’s around.
CB: That’s right. There’s a lot of that. Then what we have to be concerned with, as you might well know, if not certainly lifestyle becomes so important. So after we found our brilliant player, it has to be someone that we can spend this kind of time with and work with and feel like we can grow together musically and so forth. It’s almost half of the component.
CB: And in this day and age, and I’m not saying anything that people don’t know, there’s a tremendous population of really wonderful players, so the difficulty is not finding brilliant players. It’s finding brilliant players that also share the dream, really want to play chamber music, want to go meet people on that kind of personal level. We’re not a rock band. I know there are some groups that can live pretty hard. But we don’t and it’s pretty important that all five of us share that to some extent. It’s not a rigid thing. It’s not like we have a checklist kind of thing, but it’s pretty obvious when your lifestyles don’t match. So that’s very much on our mind.
WWBW: For tours, do you guys all travel in the same bus?
CB: Yes, we’re very much coordinated and we really have to because what we’re trying to do — again, it’s sort of repertoire based when you get right down to it. A string quartet, if you or I or a violinist, we pretty much know exactly what we have to do to be in a string quartet, period. Show up and play great and here’s the music. What we’re doing is more... in a sense it’s a little more like the pop world, where personality is very much part of it and yet it’s repertoire-driven, but the repertoire is changing. We’re building a repertoire. We’re at the threshold of the brass age where string playing is fully developed, as is orchestra. Every orchestra member, you know what excerpts to learn. You know exactly what to do for an audition. So I would say it’s a little more like finding a new Ringo Starr for your rock band, you know? Somebody that not only knows the music but loves the music and wants to experiment and wants to try things, but is also willing to throw in. Basically each one of us at certain times in a concert, we’re standing out all by ourselves. It’s just like a soloist, but then you’re in the group and you’re very much a supporting character and you have to be comfortable in both those roles and it’s constant.
WWBW: Fascinating. What’s next for Canadian Brass? What do you have planned for the spring and summer?
CB: Well, we have a really nice European tour coming up. Just now we're going back to Italy. You know you have career dates, like you’re going to play Carnegie or you’re going to play the Disney Hall? These ones are in the mountains in northern Italy and you say…yes, the answer’s yes. We’re going.
WWBW: Any plans to come to L.A.?
CB: Yes, there are and I don’t know if it’s…I know they’ve been talking to Disney Hall. We’ve played Disney Hall twice and I think they’re in conversation. So it’s always on our mind and we love coming to West Coast.
WWBW: So Chuck, I think you’ve given me plenty for our needs. Is there anything you want to be sure that our readers know about Canadian Brass?
CB: I think we’re pretty visible. Especially with the younger players in the group, they’re tight They're on Twitter. They have YouTube channels, a Facebook presence and Instagram is turning out to be really useful. This whole era, there’s been a lot of pain amongst certain artists with the Internet era. They feel like it's cut their income and it’s changed their life and all that but we really love it. We have communication now. We’re in direct communication with fans in places we’ve never been. Analytics show that we have this tremendous following in South America. We’ve only been once in Brazil and once in Venezuela, yet it’s a constant flow of communication back and forth with all these fans that we’ve never actually appeared yet that much publicly.
WWBW: You probably wouldn’t have even put together a plan or considered doing that unless you had received that kind of verifiable empirical evidence.
CB: Sure and I think this is what the opportunity is fantastic for musicians now to reach an audience. I wish some of this had been around in the early years and we had to slog it out the hard way. So maybe for me, I’ve seen it both ways and I’m finding this to be a fascinating period of time. For the younger players, this just is the way it is, period.