Few, if any, chamber music ensembles have had more direct contact with student musicians than has Dallas Brass. Performing with and inspiring thousands each year, they have captured and distilled Americana and the musical traditions of our great nation and her bands. Founded in 1983, Dallas Brass initially infused ragtime and jazz rhythms into a line-up that would include a bass trombone (in place of the tuba), and a distinctive sixth member-percussion. They have embraced professional blocking, incorporated hand rhythms and produced grand musical gestures from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to “American In Paris”- all with the forces of six dedicated musicians. When combined with local musicians, the synergy of the Dallas Brass and their mission are an irresistible joy. davidbrubeck.com is ecstatic to present Dallas Brass as the second installment of our salute to chamber music, “FIVE!” tm.
What are the pluses and pitfalls of the road?
First, we all appreciate the opportunity given to us to be doing what we love. It’s a privilege. Having said that, the road, by definition, is very demanding â€” flying, driving, packing, unpacking, new hall every day, clinics, rehearsals, performances, and lack of practice time. For me personally, the road experience is maximized when I have the necessary “space”, which is the foundation of balance in every part of my life. With that is the rare communion with nature we may happen upon at moments unexpected. So with such a demanding schedule, I have to make choices to protect my personal time as much as possible so I can bring my “A Game” everyday.
How do you structure your time when you are off the road?
Life off the road consists of quality family time, quality practice time, and as much rest time as can feasibly occur. I also do some instrument repair work, teach lessons, and do some free-lance work as well. In the summers I have been doing pit orchestra work at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Tuachan Center For the Arts in Southern Utah.
How do you play differently when the arrangement calls for three trumpets as opposed to two plus a horn? What color differences do you hear?
I prefer to approach my role in the trumpet section as a single voice when there are two parts- striving constantly for a balanced blend and similar tone/articulation concept to the other part. When a third trumpet enters the equation it is very easy to become “top heavy” in the group thus a change in tone concept is generally in order in those cases- towards something more blending and warm depending on the style of the music being played. The key is being aware of how your sound fits/influences the ensemble – which brings to light the importance of harboring a unified sound/style concept constantly in the group.
What are your secrets to fostering chemistry? How important is it?
I’d like to start off by saying that Michael Levine, founder of Dallas Brass, has always made it a top priority to have healthy group chemistry. It’s essential that anyone coming into the group understands and shares the mission, purpose and philosophy of Dallas Brass. It’s not enough to just have great players; the compatibility must be there, too. Even with compatible people it still takes constant work to maintain that chemistry.
We have all heard stories of people who play in ensembles with great disdain for one another and to this I say “we ARE the music”. Yes, one may choose to hold onto dislike, judgement, resistance of a colleague and try not to let it bleed over into the music every day, however in Dallas Brass, the quality of life so vital to our general well being hinges upon acceptance and respect for each other. This doesn’t mean we have to like everything each other does all the time, but acceptance is disarming by nature and effectively opens doors to creativity, spontaneity, and harmony â€” and that’s what it’s ALL about!!
We all just need to be aware of what we are creating each and every moment â€” and remember it is supposed to be and IS FUN!!!
How hard is it to memorize the show? Compare memorizing melody with harmony.
It is not that hard for me because I have a pretty good relative ear and I memorize the sounds/fingerings/rhythms at the same time. So basically I learn it mostly by ear with visual help. The harmony is a very important aspect of the learning process because it helps me to know how to adjust the intonation of the different pitches depending on their function in the chord structure (major or minor third, major or dominant sevenths, etc.)
Were you surprised how well ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ works with reduced forces when you experienced it? What is it like to perform that as part of your set?
I think it works really well. I am not surprised because Mike is a good arranger. It sounds a bit like the original orchestration which was a much smaller ensemble than the more common orchestral version. And fortunately, we have the piccolo trumpet to cover the famous clarinet lick at the top!
We always look forward to having a guest artist and playing Rhapsody fits our program beautifully.
How important is the choreography?
We actually refer to it as blocking, more than choreography. But either way it is very important as our goal is to entertain audiences, regardless of their background, and the visual aspect of a performance is as important as the musical aspect to serve this purpose. The ongoing challenge is to find a good balance between these two. We always want the visuals to serve the music and not the other way around.
For Juan Berrios-horn
How do you like the ‘peck’ horn?
I really love the Eb alto horn, or, as I first got to know it, the tenor horn! I actually played tenor horn for a couple years in the Brass Band of Central Florida before I even heard that nickname at a horn workshop. Playing tenor horn has been a huge part in my development as a player and a musician. I think it’s a beautiful sounding instrument and I really enjoy playing it. It’s a very expressive instrument with a warm and velvety tone. Of course, like any instrument, it depends on who’s playing it, but I personally don’t think there’s anything ‘pecky’ about the tenor horn, especially when you hear it played by the players in the world’s greatest British style brass bands!
What in your background allows you to switch so effortlessly from horn to trumpet to alto?
I think it’s safe to assume that having doubled on certain brass instruments for a long time makes it easier to switch back and forth. I doubled on horn/trumpet all the way through high school and have been doubling on horn/tenor horn since my 2nd year in college. I guess in DB I’m a tripler!
Mike plays a slightly smaller and brighter trombone than most quintet players. The horn often plays trumpet or flugelhorn. What colors does this allow you as a quintet to add with TDB?
Because DB’s repertoire requires us to play a considerable amount of jazz/commercial music, we have to change our sound accordingly. I think Mike’s medium bore trombone allows him to be more versatile when changing styles with just one trombone, as opposed to having a large bore tenor trombone for the “legit” stuff and a straight tenor for the commercial stuff. As far as the horn goes, there are also ways to change the color/character of the sound, specifically the use of hand position variations. For example, if I’m playing a jazzy/commercial tune on the horn and have a unison lick with the trumpets, I’ll use a much more straight and open hand position to match their sound better. This way we’re able to experiment and achieve specific colors for specific tunes. It also gives us more options when it comes to arranging!
Which groups and experiences inspired you to start TDB?
My inspiration for Dallas Brass goes back to my first love in music as a kid, which was Broadway musicals. I loved the whole production idea. As much as I also love symphony orchestras, I felt too limited in that environment. I wanted to interact with the audience and reach people who would not typically go to a symphony concert.
Having said that, when I first formed Dallas Brass, it never occurred to me that we would do anything beyond some weddings and other local gigs in Dallas! Once we started playing around town (mostly background music settings), I started to get the itch to play concerts. Between a lot of hard work and some nice breaks/opportunities that came our way, we were able to turn it into a concert group.
Both Canadian Brass and Empire Brass were my two biggest “brass” inspirations. I was particularly intrigued with how Canadian really connected with the audience and made it fun and entertaining. Another big influence was the Kings Singers! I really admired the class and elegance which they displayed.
How did you choose the instrumentation? Why did you change it?
I suppose the main thing that separated Dallas Brass in the early years was the full time use of a drummer. I didn’t add the drums to be different than other groups. I just thought it would sound good. We were playing casual gigs around Dallas and besides a few classical pieces, mostly we were doing more lighter material (i.e. Joplin rags, Sousa marches) and it just occurred to me that having a drummer would be a great fit. Our first drummer just read the tuba book and played whatever felt good to him. It opened up the whole sound of the group and there was no going back. Eventually, we added mallets, too. I’ve always said brass and percussion is like peanut butter and jelly. They go great together!
We’ve done some experimenting with the brass over the years as well. At one point we replaced the Horn with Alto Trombone/Bass Trumpet. I liked the idea of getting all the bells out front. There is no question that balancing a traditional brass quintet is always a challenge â€” with three cylindrical instruments pointing forward and two conical instruments pointing in other directions â€” and particularly that middle voice. It worked great â€” esp. with the players we had in the group â€” Jeff Thomas was the first guy to do it; then Jay Evans. Both were fabulous.
Then we had a season where we brought in an Eb Alto Horn to cover the book â€” still conical and pointing up but it was a neat timbre. All this time I still missed the color of the French Horn on certain pieces. Now we have Juan Berrios who plays Horn, Alto Horn and Fluegelhorn, depending on the piece. It’s a great combination and Juan nails it!
On the bottom voice, we had Dan Satterwhite with us for a number of years and he played bass trombone and tuba. Once again, it was nice to have the choice depending on the style of piece. Nat McIntosh joined the group several years later and he doubled on Sousaphone. That was really fun!
I suppose there are plusses and minuses with all combinations, but it’s really all about being committed to balance and blend â€” and even more so when adding drums into the mix!
What have been the high water marks for the group? What do you most enjoy?
The whole run has been a ‘high water mark’. I am proud of the fact that Dallas Brass has been around 30 years. I’ve gotten to work with many phenomenal musicians along the way â€” each has brought something unique and special to Dallas Brass. There are certain highlights like performing with Bob Hope, playing at Carnegie Hall and playing for several U.S. presidents, but every time we get to walk out on a stage is a privilege no matter where it is. Years ago, an elderly lady came up to me after a concert in South Florida and told me this was the first time she had gone out since her husband passed away a few months earlier and that she had such a wonderful time and couldn’t stop smiling. That was one of the most rewarding moments of my career. Those are the type of things that matter most to me.
And the chance to work with kids…I have no idea what the number is, but we have been bringing 100 – 200 kids on stage to perform a piece with us on almost every concert for over 20 years. There are no words to describe how gratifying that is.
What are the duties of a tubist in a brass quintet as compared with a wind band?
In a quintet, you are a section of one and you are often a rhythm section of one (except in Dallas Brass where we have drums as well). This is a much more active role than in a tuba section in a band. There is a lot more playing in a quintet as there is usually a very active bass part. In band literature there are many passage where the tubist will not play, but the bass part will be covered by the bass clarinet or bassoon, etc. Also, there are more agility challenges as the tubist in a brass quintet may need to be playing a solo above the staff in one measure and have a pedal pickup note to the next bar. Also, since there is only one tuba and it has such an important role in a quintet, there is a much greater demand for accuracy than in a wind band where there are many people often playing the same part.
In many ways, the tubist’s job in a brass quintet is closer to playing bass in a jazz combo or electric bass in a rock back than it is to playing tuba in a wind band.
What size tuba do you use with group, and why?
Right now I’m using a 4/4 CC tuba. It is a Meinl Weston 2145. I used a large F tuba (Perantucci PT-16) for my first 3 years in the group, but our repertoire has changed over the years and right now a CC tuba makes more sense. Also, a small CC tuba is a “do everything” instrument and I find it easy to play in any style with this instrument. I miss the F tuba sometimes because it was so easy to play with great clarity, but the depth and color of the CC tuba makes it the better choice. When picking a tuba for a quintet, it is really important to consider what repertoire you will be playing as well as how the trumpets and trombone play. Tuba is pretty easy to blend with nearly any horn, but if it doesn’t blend with a trombone or the trumpet concepts, it can be a lot of work for everyone.
How do you separate your soloist style from your accompaniment style?
When I am the soloist, it is time to sing and shine. When my part is accompaniment, it is time to support. I think it is important to distinguish that there is a big difference between supporting and following. When you are accompanying you are not unimportant- you just don’t have the most important thing at that moment.
For me, I think about being a vocalist when I am soloing, but a bass player (or cellist in a string quartet) when I am accompanying. There are always exceptions depending on what we are playing, but it is always important to sound as beautiful as possible and get into whatever the musical situation is at the time.
Do you accompany trumpets differently than trombone or horn?
Yes and no. When accompanying anyone, it is important match articulations. When it is just trumpets and myself, I try to hone in on matching the front of their notes, where the front of the note is usually a little thicker with trombone and horn. Also, I try to match their color which is brighter than the lower brass. At the end of the day though, the tubist’s role is to provide a solid foundation for the ensemble rhythmically and harmonically and make their jobs as easy as possible. Hopefully, this can be done with as virtuosic a voice as possible.
c. 2014 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. davidbrubeck.com
Interested in more “FIVE” tm interviews?
Canadian Brass 2014, Windsync 2014, Boston Brass 2015, Mnozil Brass 2015, Spanish Brass 2014, Dallas Brass 2014, Seraph 2014, Atlantic Brass Quintet 2015, Mirari Brass 2015, Axiom Brass 2015, Scott Hartmann of the Empire Brass 2015, Jeffrey Curnow of the Empire Brass 2015, Ron Barron and Ken Amis of the Empire Brass, Meridian Arts Ensemble 2015, Berlin Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet 2015, American Brass Quintet 2015