After making a splash in 2011 on Toronto’s jazz scene with their debut LP, Don’t Bring Me Down, The Heavyweight Brass Band celebrated the release of their sophomore album, Brasstronomical, on March 6 at a packed Lula Lounge in Toronto.
The band, bringing the jazz of New Orleans to Toronto, features six accomplished brass players, each with diverse backgrounds: Christopher Butcher on trombone, Jonathan Challoner and John Pittman on trumpet, Paul Metcalfe on saxophone, Rob Teehan on sousaphone and Lowell Whitty on drums. The combined accomplishments of each member is astronomical and they have only just begun to learn how to play together as a group.
“You see more repertoire coming in that’s influenced from the experiences of the band being together,” said John, commenting on their newest release. “[You’ll hear a] 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.”
To understand the band’s sound, in ways, it is important to understand Toronto – the Heavyweights Brass Band’s identity being very reflective of the culture of the city in which five of the six members live.
“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,” said Jonathan. “I was able to play with salsa musicians, pop musicians, different tiers of jazz musicians. . . it’s a really inclusive place.”
“What I like about the Toronto scene, I think about it like a buffet where you can pick or choose whatever flavour of whatever music you want to be involved in or check out,” adds Rob. “There’s thriving scenes, many different scenes, maybe a lot of fragmentation in some ways, but 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 further describes Toronto as an example of the “modern city moving into the future, it’s sort of taking from everything.”
Such as the culture of Toronto incorporates a wide range of music, so does The Heavyweights Brass Band. Along with original songs, the band’s music features energetic covers of various styles of music ranging from rock n’ roll in Rush’s ‘YYZ’ to a traditional 1890’s jazz song in ‘St. James Infirmary’. There is also a ’90s R & B cover of R. Kelly’s hit, ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, along with the spicy rhythms of Latin America in ‘Misterioso’. The latter of which helped diversify the evening at Lula, featuring Jane Bunnet on flute and internationally renowned Luis Obegoso on conga drums. The song got people on the floor doing some salsa dance and was definitely a crowd favourite.
The band seemed to have the most fun with ‘YYZ’. After Christopher announced to the audience that the Rush instrumental would be their next song, he looked over at Lowell on drums, who cracked a devilish smile before kicking off the energetic track.
“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,” said Rob. “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.”
“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 show stopper – really hard, fast tunes where everyone showed off their stuff,” adds Jonathan. “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.”
Their original music is much more prominent on this album compared to their debut, which includes the three opening numbers – the self-titled ‘Brasstronomical’, followed by ‘Booze Hounds’, featuring legendary musician Jay Douglas, who showed up at the Lula Lounge and completely owned the stage with his infectious energy and smooth vocals. Lastly, there was ‘I Think I’m Going Crazy’, one of the highlights of the evening. The first quarter of the twelve-track set reached its first peak when the band collectively and repeatedly proclaimed ‘I Think I’m Going Crazy’ into their mics, elevating the energy of the already highly energetic evening.
Things were slowed with their fourth song, a cover of R. Kelly’s 1996 hit, ‘I Believe I Can Fly’. It was obvious that, even though things were slowed down, the band wanted to maintain some kind of energy. ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ allows for a cool, easy-going rhythm for the brass players; however, on drums Whitty was going absolutely nuts, performing hard and fast and sometimes sounding out of tempo. A little bit more subtlety would have been nice, and a less powerful drum part in ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ would have been the perfect way to achieve that.
Nevertheless, each accomplished musician was given a chance to show off their skills throughout the set, breaking out in awesome solos here and there. The infectious energy and showmanship of all six members makes them a delight to see live.
The band also took some time to announce the winner of their Roll Call Giveaway. Through the giveaway, they encouraged students from schools to attend their shows, and the school with the most students at their shows would win a prize package. The prize included a Yamaha trumpet, a performance from the band at the school, $500 in brass and woodwind repairs and 10 per cent off a Music Members International workshop. The winner was Lawrence Park C.I.
The giveaway was implemented by Christopher and John, who is a teacher himself. The trumpet player and teacher shared an experience of his time growing up in Winnipeg and watching his high school band rehearse. One day he was invited to perform with them and he described the experience of sitting there with the band as inspiring him and helping him reach “another level of musicianship.” The experience was, as John described it, invaluable, and he expressed how he hopes to pass that on to young kids himself.
“It’s really important, I think, to continue to share music,” said John. “Giving them the opportunity to go out and see a live show, to come to a venue in the city, and to experience live music – it’s very important.”
Jazz music is generally not something that is as accessible as mainstream pop music or hip-hop or rock, and it is especially an important type of music to expose to the youth, a sentiment emphasized by Chris.
“So much of the music kids check out is because there’s a whole machine of the music industry pushing this music on people. The thing about jazz is that sometimes it’s hard to get – it doesn’t matter to me what you like, if you like Eastern Europe music, or if you like Sting – but the thing is children don’t have access to check out different types of music because you turn on the TV, what’s on MuchMusic? So one thing is just, we have to push this music, too, I think.”
Chris Butcher is also leading Street Brass!, which is a community horn ensemble that learns songs of the Americas. They accept musicians of all levels from high school students to professionals. The workshops are free, paid for by the Toronto Arts Council and the Uma Nota Festival. For more information visit Chris Butcher’s website or the group’s Facebook page.
At the Lula Lounge, Chris came out with around two-dozen horn players from the Street Brass! to showcase what they learned, and it was quite a sight to behold – young horn players and veteran horn players were all united on stage, and having a great time together.
The night with The Heavyweight Brass Band was not only highly entertaining, but inspiring seeing first hand the efforts they make to share their music and give to the community.
“What your musical diet is going to be [you learn] when you are young,” said John. “If you are open to a variety of things then you are open to a world of possibilities. It’s good to be able to help expand someones experience of life.”
For more on The Heavyweight Brass Band, visit www.heavyweightsbrassband.com and check back for our upcoming interview with the band!