First-Rate Brass Band Defies Stereotypes
First off, there are two things about The Saint Louis Brass Band that need to be said: this isn't really jazz, and you need to hear it anyway.
The "Old Europe" Brass Band tradition evolved separate from jazz, but the two species share a lot of DNA. In some cases, brass bands are indistinguishable from early jazz, swing, or sweet orchestras. The instruments are obviously the same, and many skilled musicians can adapt to either conception. Further, brass bands and jazz bands have historically served the same social purposes of entertainment, nostalgia, local pride, and building community. Obviously, strict brass band scores exclude improvisation, but well-written solos can be almost as inspiring.
If your idea of a brass band is confined to sepia photographs of bourbon-soaked back-woods Civil War veterans, the 32-member Saint Louis Brass Band will make you think again. Strike Up the Band sounds more like pops night at the Symphony Orchestra or an exciting John Williams film soundtrack. Despite being a voluntary regional band, there is nothing "amateur" about Saint Louis Brass Band's full, rich tone and perfect timing and intonation.
Director, conductor, and arranger Dr. Keith M. Wilkinson is the real deal. He grew up in a family of Salvation Army Band musicians and was the Principal Euphonium in the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. Wilkinson grew up to be a highly acclaimed bandmaster on both continents. Frequently, The Saint Louis Brass Band is directed by another celebrated English conductor and musicologist, Dr. Colin Holman, but he does not appear on this recording.
Though Strike Up the Band is The Saint Louis Brass Band's debut CD, they have been wowing audiences several times a year since their formation in 1998. Past successes have included "A 1904 World's Fair Re-Creation," "Holiday Brass Spectacular," "Majestic Brass" and "Hymns and Hurrahs" programs. The award-winning ensemble places annually at the North American Brass Band Association competition. They also support a youth band and a professional 10-member ensemble which is more feasible for public park or church concerts, parties and business functions. The Saint Louis Brass Band is supported by Anheuser Busch and several regional arts commissions. They are frequently broadcast on local classical radio, and are the "Official Brass Band in Residence" at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Aside from the local Salvation Army Band and the DKV Deutschmeister Brass Band (sponsored by the German Cultural Society,) there are no other opportunities for Midwesterners to enjoy authentic brass band music for quite some distance.
It was high time for The Saint Louis Brass Band to release a CD. In addition to several brass band classics, Strike Up the Band features wildly diverse arrangements of classical music, opera, a Broadway show tune, a Sousa military march, and jazz standards. Jazz purists will be most interested in the unique arrangements of Erroll Garner's masterpiece "Misty" and the fitting finale, "St. Louis Blues." "Simoraine" is A British quick march by Clive Barraclough, but blues fans might call it a tightly-syncopated "call-and-response." Remarkably, there are three heart-breakingly beautiful ballads: "One Fine Day" from Puccini's Madame Butterfly with a cornet solo by Mary Weber, traditional "Londonderry Air," and Dvorak's "Songs My Mother Taught Me" with a lovely baritone solo by Edward Jacobs. "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables features the gorgeous and seemingly effortless upper range of cornetist Erica Sparks-Bough.
Strike Up the Band is a well-rounded and thoroughly listenable CD, highly recommended for fans of large ensemble instrumental music. For the full experience, do your best to see The Saint Louis Brass Band perform live and in person!
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.