Tuesday, March 23, 2010


No collection of ensembles that employ unconventional tuba playing would be complete without a plug for one of the most recognizable New Orleans jazz-funk groups, the Dirty Dozen. The octet combines the tradition of New Orleans street playing with straight-ahead bop, and Parliament-esque beats.

One reason for the group's unique sound is, in my opinion, their choice of bass-oriented instrumentation. Outside of the two trumpeters, all the remaining instruments are from a lower tessitura: tenor, baritone, trombone, sousaphone, guitar, and drum kit. In accompaniment, the band produces relentless, interlocking grooves. As soloists, each member is a risk taker with a different style than his bandmates.

Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen was the group's original sousaphonist and his energetic playing made that role into one of the band's trademarks. Kirk Joseph later played with the group, taking a leave of absence due to tour fatigue and eventually returned to record with the group numerous times. Julius McKee has also appeared on albums and currently tours with the band (I have been fortunate enough to see him live) and is, to my ears, the best sousaphonist yet to play in the group. McKee has been featured on NPR and in Bass Player magazine (as a sousaphonist!)

Since incorporating in 1977, the group has recorded or performed live with a diverse swath of musicians including Dr. John, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, Elvis Costello, DJ Logic, Norah Jones, Danny Barker, Widespread Panic, Modest Mouse, John Medeski, Dave Bartholomew, Eddie Bo, Olu Dara, Government Mule, and Robert Randolph.

You can listen to the Dirty Dozen cover Stevie Wonder. Maestro Wonder is no easy cover.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Up a Lazy River

Sam Pilafian is a household name for tuba players - adoration well deserved given his musical and pedagogical contributions. However, many tubists are unaware of Prof. Pilafian's collaboration with jazz guitarist Frank Vignola in the group Travelin' Light. TL specializes in early jazz standards (some of their work can be purchased at Amazon ) of the Carmichael, Berlin, etc. variety.

I can't locate a YouTube video of the group, but I do enjoy this duet by Sam Pilafian and Catalin Rotaru.

Opus Four

While the ITEA's professed view of the tuba in jazz indicates a renewal of popularity, acolytes of Charles Mingus know that the tuba never really went away to begin with. Mingus' legacy in jazz as a bassist, bandleader, and composer is nothing short of monumental (he was the only person ever fired by Duke Ellington), so it shouldn't surprise anyone that blazing a new trail was par for the course with Mingus, who notably included a tuba in his big band horn section - a role currently filled in the 14-piece group by Earl McEntyre.

Other notable tubists who worked with Mingus include Bob Stewart and, originally, Howard Johnson (who famously manufactured a wah-wah mute out of a toilet seat per his boss' request). Mingus also scored for tuba in his somewhat cryptic masterwork "Epitaph".

While I have neither the time nor energy to devote to discussing the significance of Charles Mingus, I can direct you to NPR for an engaging profile.

Listening Presentation

Here, in no particular order, is what we heard on my listening day.

ABEL LISTENING – Patrick Bigsby

1.) Mini Overture – Witold Lutoslavski – Triton Brass Quintet
2.) Bolero – Ravel – BLAST! (Star of Indiana)
3.) Sinfonietta Mvmt I Allegro – Janacek – Michael Tilson Thomas, London Symphony Orchestra
4.) Prague/Ride on in Majesty/Go to Dark Gethsemae – Moravian Trombone Choir of Downey
6.) Passameze from Terpsichore - Praetorius – ABQ
9.) Brass Bonanza – Hartford Whalers/UConn
10.) Kazi Baba – Boban I Marko Markovic Orkestar
11.) Missy Sa-Sa – Slavic Soul Party
12.) Music for Brass Octet Mvmt I Allegro – Anthony Plog –
13.) Tómame o Déjame – Banda el Recodo

For further information, feel free to contact me.

Historical Perspective Paper

In case anyone really wanted to read my paper:

A Historical Perspective on Moravian Trombone Choirs
By Patrick Bigsby
February 15, 2010

"In my opinion, the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments, which I have named the 'epic' one. It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outburst. Directed by the will of the master, the trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful lament, or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices."
--Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz, beyond being one of the most influential composers of the Romantic era, is known to music historians for his 1843 orchestration textbook, Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes. Assuming Berlioz’s expertise on the various instruments of the orchestra, his aforementioned endorsement of the trombone should be considered high praise.
But further analysis of the trombone’s character and history reveals it was destined for success well before Berlioz issued his affidavit. For starters, it was among the first fully chromatic wind instruments, was manufactured in various sizes to correspond with the human voice, and was capable of a wide dynamic range. For these reasons, the trombone came into favor with church composers and musicians – no more so than in the Moravian Church.
Students of European history will recall that that the Moravian movement arose following John Hus’ protest against Roman oversight of Christian outposts in what is now the Czech Republic.2 Although Hus was executed in 1415, his vision came to fruition with the formal organization of the Moravian Church in 1457.
Music played a key role in Moravian services and it was common for each parish to have their own posaunenchor, or brass ensemble. Instrumental music became particularly prominent in Moravian traditions; at a time when most Christian faiths emphasized vocal music, Moravians saw the various trombones as analogous to human voices and quickly found them to be more portable than a pipe organ. While these groups could have any variety of brass instruments, it was typical, as the term indicates, for trombones to predominate. The ensemble’s duties including calling the congregation to services, announcing holidays, mourning deaths, and other various ‘public address’ performances.1
When Moravians began to settle in North America in the eighteenth century, the trombone choirs came with them, marking the beginning of what is likely North America’s oldest brass tradition. Composers from inside and outside the church began to write both sacred and secular for the trombones and these works joined the older chorales and hymns as part of the standard oeuvre.1 Major composers for the group include Antes, Cruse, Leinback, Gregor, Wolle, La Trobe, Graun, and Forsyth.4
The instrumentation of the modern posaunenchor contains all sizes of trombone imaginable, from sopranino in Eb through the BBb contrabass.5 It stands to reason that makers of the high-end harmony trombones like Miraphone and Thein are manufacturing these instruments with Moravian music in mind given that they are rarely called for elsewhere in Western music. The Moravian Trombone Choir of Downey (California), one of the most prominent such ensembles in America, utilizes a twelve-player system of one sopranino, two soprano, three alto, three tenor, two bass, and one contrabass trombone. This arrangement effectively balances to the middle tessitura of the group, emphasizing the most idiomatic trombone timbre.3
Today, Moravian trombones can be found in roles that are very similar to what John Hus could have heard. The aforementioned Moravian Trombone Choir of Downey, founded by Jeffrey Reynolds, is a leading proponent of new music for the ensemble and has commissioned or arranged several works. Reynolds, who served as the bass trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly thirty years, also recorded several traditional Moravian pieces with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Trombone Ensemble.4 Another active performing group is the Bethlehem Area Moravian Trombone Choir (Pennsylvania). Located in America’s best-known Moravian enclave (and the site of Moravian College), this group, founded in 1754, is credited with being the first such posaunenchor in the New World.1
The Moravian trombone tradition has also begun to appear in other Christian denominations. In antebellum North Carolina (a hotbed of Moravian settlement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), trombones began to appear in Baptist and Pentecostal services and fused with black gospel and spirituals to give way to shout bands – trombone choirs that embrace jazz musicianship as a part of praise music.1 Examples include the Sweet Heaven Kings of Washington, D.C. and Kenny Carr and The Tigers of Charleston, South Carolina.

If you want to see a bibliography, contact me.