The Heavyweights Brass Band are riding a high with the release of their latest album, Brasstronomical. Kollin spoke with the Toronto-based band about the jazz community in the city, their new album, and much, much more.
And be sure to listen to the interview below!
About Rob’s unique background. . .
Rob: My background is in classical music and I was a tuba player. I played orchestral music, I was also a composer writing classical music and I started playing jazz music because I wanted to broaden my horizon. So the easiest way to do that was to get involved in New Orleans traditional jazz. Being a tuba player, I transitioned to the sousaphone and I started just jamming with these guys and gradually got the hang of it. I approached the music in a different way because I don’t have the jazz training, but I’ve come to understand a lot about the tradition and I fell in love with the tradition of the New Orleans brass band of playing.
The challenge of the transition for Rob. . .
Rob: I think anytime you play the music of any tradition you are not familiar with you just have to come at it respectfully and openly and listen to what’s been done and try to figure out what makes it unique and special and just do some work and put in the time. It took me a few years to really get comfortable playing sousaphone even though I already had a masters in classical tuba; I could get around the instrument fine, but just the way the New Orleans players approach the sousaphone is different. It took a few years before I got really settled into the style.
How did y’all get together?
Paul: We randomly jammed together through another band. [Rob and I] both joined this other group just kind of randomly and Lowell was already in that one, it was called the Dark Park Brass Band, and there was someone in the town that started the group and we joined in. It was really the first time we heard Rob and Lowell together, they had this core that I just loved right from the start, so the leader from that band moved to New Orleans and ended. Chris came to us and said we really got to do our own group with the smaller core of us.
Rob: Paul and I actually started a Cragislist ad and that’s how we found the Dark Park Brass Band. He had moved to Toronto from Winnipeg, I had been in the states doing my masters and had just moved back to town. I wanted to start playing jazz, he wanted to play with the Toronto musicians. We met on the bus on the way up to rehearsal and said, “Oh hey, I guess we’re going to the same thing.” So for both of us it was our first playing experiences as professionals in Toronto.
Jonathan: And the rest of us actually knew both Paul and Rob’s brothers really well. The music community is very huge and you meet so many people, but at the same time it’s very close and you can know somebody who is related to somebody who has played with somebody.
Paul: And there’s a lot of school relations as well. Like I went to school with Chris back in Winnipeg and Chris went to Humber with Lowell and Jon here. John Pittman, I knew from the Winnipeg scene as well.
About the Toronto’s jazz community. . .
Jonathan: The thing I love about Toronto, because I moved away from Toronto recently – I live in New York now, which is one of the biggest jazz communities in the world, but it’s a very, very different thing – Toronto is a very multicultural city; there are so many facets to the makeup of the music world here, and one thing that I found here is that every area of the city is very inviting and so I’ve been able to play with everybody all over the place. I was able to play with salsa musicians, pop musicians, different tiers of jazz musicians. . . it’s a really inclusive place. I find a lot of places you can go there will be a certain type of player who will only play with certain people and I find that Toronto is not like that, it’s very open and eclectic community.
The growth of jazz in Toronto. . .
Jonathan: I think it is [growing]. There is one thing. . . it’s a very complicated thing as the way the music works, it’s like, now due to social media and the way we give our music out to the world is very different than it has been in the past. It’s very easy for people all over the world to hear our music or hear music from anywhere else. I hope what that means for the music is that there is a global community where you don’t have to be based in a certain place or know certain people to know a scene, but somebody can live in Botswana and check out the Heavyweights Brass Band in Toronto.
Rob: What I like about the Toronto scene, I think of it like a buffet where you can pick or choose whatever flavour of whatever music you want to be involved in or check out. So if you want to play traditional jazz, you can; if you want to play really cutting edge, modern improvisation, you can; if you want to be in an avant garde free-jazz group, you can. You can do all three of those things if you want, you can fill your plate. If you want to play music of Cuba or Brazil, or if you want to play old time jazz, you can do all those things. There’s thriving scenes, maybe many different scenes, maybe there’s a lot of fragmentation in some ways, you can sometimes feel as if you are part of many different cities in one and that, to me, is the essence of Toronto in a lot of ways.
Paul: That’s the great thing about this city; it’s not really the birthplace of anything. If you go to New Orleans, there’s a very much in the air this is where the music was created. Whereas here, it’s not quite like that, but in a way it’s a great example of the modern city moving into the future it’s sort of taking from everything.
And I guess that benefits your band because you have such different styles?
Paul: And a lot of it is because we all get the chance to play in all those different styles, and we get to bring that into our own music as well.
And in this band you have an educator?
John: That would be me, teaching a lot. I find another interesting thing in Toronto, too, is there are a lot of teachers who are out playing which is not always that common on the scene, but it’s great to be able to sort of inspire your teaching through your playing, and then, in turn, what you are doing with your students motivates you and reminds you of the roots of how you got to where you are and reminds you to keep growing and reminds you to keep practicing. It’s really important, I think, to continue to share music. . . I think that’s one of the biggest things for me is I just love sharing music with people. So whether that’s somebody in the audience or somebody in a classroom; whether they are very, very young or very, very old, it’s wonderful to share music both making it and creating it together.
John: That Roll Call Giveaway thing, yeah. I was sitting right here with Chris and we were thinking about that night and what was going on and we were talking about how we wanted to encourage students to get out to the show. Especially when we were young coming up in Winnipeg there was a lot of opportunities to be inspired by musicians. The one experience that always stuck in my mind was when I was in high school, the Ron Hailey Big Band, who has been playing big band and dance music in Winnipeg for about thirty years now, they used to rehearse in my high school. So at the end of the day, once a week I would go and sit and listen to the rehearsal. And then eventually they were like, we were one trumpet short, do you want to sit in? And they were very accepting of the fact that I was a young kid and would make mistakes reading things, but being there to sit in that section helped inspired me and kept me reaching for another level of musicianship and that kind of inspiration is invaluable, you never know how that’s going to translate for a young person or a student – whether it makes them to want to continue to play to a point where they want to play professionally or whether it just continues to enrich their lives.
I have a lot of people that I went to school with, who continue to have music as part of their life because they are in community choirs or formed a rock band together, but everyone that I went to school with at that school was very much involved and so many of them are here even in Winnipeg. Like my dad is a Toronto bass player and I remember looking at his photos on the high school, and I was like, oh wow, he was here. There were lots of players that came through and we got to connect with those musicians through the education program and it takes you to different places.
At this point, myself as a teacher I’ve had the opportunity to see some students that I worked with when they were really young. One’s off in Berlin now making music, and another one is down in the Manhattan School of Music, making music professionally. Some of them are playing guitar, they have their folk band or that kind of thing, but they’re still very much involved, those experiences were ones that are valuable that stick with you for a lifetime, you never forget those moments. I can still remember being backstage before my high school’s jazz band final concerts and the conversations we had. Those are pretty formative memories that are really important for me and other people. Giving them the opportunity to go out and see a live show, come to a venue in the city, and experience live music – it’s very important.
The importance of jazz to children. . .
Chris: The thing abut that is just that so much of the music kids check out is because there’s a whole machine of the music industry pushing this music on people, and the thing about jazz – it doesn’t matter to me what you like – children don’t have equal access to different types of music because you turn on the TV, what’s on MuchMusic. One thing is we have to push [jazz] to people, too.
John: You know it’s interesting, the great piano player down in New York City, Matt Mitchell, wrote a post on Facebook that got a whole pile of commentary on it. He was talking about how his music is perceived as avant garde or that kind of thing, and the way that media talks about that type of music. It’s interesting how it spawned a conversation amongst a lot of musicians where you start to realize, oh the people who were into that were exposed to it when they were really young. I think it’s the same as anything – the habits, they inform when you’re young, the things you have a chance to be exposed to and experience – those are the things you carry with you. What your musical diet is going to be [you learn] when you are young if you are open to a variety of things then you open to a world of possibilities. It’s good to be able to help expand someones experience of life.
About the covers on Basstronomical. . .
Rob: That started on the first album back in the very early days of the band when we were just messing around. We brought in arrangements of whatever songs we felt like and the general policy is that anybody in the band can and does write original songs or covers of existing pop songs and can bring in those songs and we’ll try them out. And so we had a lot of fun covering Beyonce and Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson in the early days and so that was part of our vibe.
For this second album, we continued to do this a little bit, but I think all of us felt we wanted to stretch a little bit more as writers. So you’ll find on the record that there’s only a couple of cover songs and more original songs that the members have written. As far as the cover songs go, we chose ones that we felt we could push ourselves as musicians, that would be a good challenge to do. Like ‘YYZ’ by Rush, which is this iconic prog rock song, it’s wickedly hard to play on brass instruments, but the arrangement it really sizzles.
Jonathan: Yeah, my idea for that tune was listening to traditional brass bands they always, even from the days of sousa, would always have a tune that was like the showstopper – really hard, fast tune where everyone showed off their stuff. I was thinking how to do that, but not only work into our show, but something that can make a unique stamp. It’s one of the more famous instrumental tunes of all time, like when you listen to it you hear the sousaphone double tonguing of a Geddy Lee bass line – it’s awesome.
Jonathan: It’s fun – fun for us, fun for the audience. Something like that and then we’ll do something like ‘St. James Infirmary’, one of the oldest songs. . . it was written like maybe in the 1890s or something, an extremely old song, and we tried to find a way to make that mean something to us as well.
Rob: But that’s a song that lives in the consciousness of everybody who knows New Orleans jazz music, so we wanted to put our own take to it along side our modern jazz. And you’ll find influences of the New Orleans beat creeping in pretty much all over the music [on the album] that we’ve written and that’s our connection to the tradition, I think, is through subtleties in the modern stuff we’ve written or in more overt choices of traditional New Orleans repertoire like ‘St. James Infirmary’.
About Basstronomical, compared to their first album. . .
Jonathan: One of the main differences is that we really found ourselves as a band and we know what our strengths are, we know what things we like to do when we play live as well. We were all thinking of, when we were writing, featuring things we love about the band. So we were trying to incorporate all that into our compositions. For example, one of my [parts] was influenced by a time when we got to play with Galactic and I thought about their influence. Also, the time we got to open for Trombone Shorty; one of Chris’ tunes is influenced by an experience we had playing with the Hypnotic Brass Band.
John: You see more repertoire coming in that’s influenced from the experiences of the band being together. Collective experience of a band that’s been on the stage, travelled together, and got to know each other. There’s more of a conversation of a collective memory as opposed to a getting to know you kind of record.
Jonathan: A lot of our stuff comes from moments of inspiration while we’re playing live. If something sticks in our heads, we go like, how can I make Rob do that cool thing he did one time, how can I turn that into a tune and make him do that more, and that has a lot for how we wrote for this record.
For more about the band visit: www.heavyweightsbrassband.com.
Listen to the full interview:
‘Brasstromnomical’, from Brasstronomical
‘I Think I’m Going Crazy’, from Brasstronomical