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Band Geeks Unite: A Brass Music Playlist


Photo: Mnozil Brass, who’ll be in Ann Arbor on April 14, 2016. Photo by Tibor Bozi.

Perhaps I’m biased since I’m a horn player and the quintessential high school “band geek,” but the brass family of instruments is the coolest and most versatile of them all. Brass instruments are part of iconic moments in your favorite genres of music, from Shostakovich to Star Wars, and Miles Davis to OMI. Our instruments range in size, shape, and timbre, and unlike other kinds of instruments, ours only have a few valves to play any given note.

But what do brass players do when we’re not sitting in the back of the orchestra, in a jazz combo, or stepping in time with the marching band? Well, if we’re not daydreaming about John Williams or “resting our chops” (a brass player term for “goofing off”), we’re sometimes part of brass ensembles. They’re chamber groups or small ensembles, playing anything including Bach transcriptions, holiday tunes, or Top-40 Pop.

Below are some of my recommendations if you’re not sure what to expect from a brass ensemble, or a piece that features the brass section (spoiler alert: expect the unexpected). If you’re looking for the quintessential brass ensemble canon, this definitely isn’t it, but it is a wee bit of what makes this type of ensemble so engaging and fun.

Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”
New York Philharmonic

No, this is not a brass ensemble piece, per se. However, it is a classic orchestral piece for brass and percussion that, when done correctly, should blow the doors off the concert hall. To play it is unforgiving, since it’s so exposed, but it’s the limited orchestration adds to its sheer power. It’s solemn, yet imbued with incredible energy that encapsulates why I love being a brass player so much.

Excerpt of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”
USAF Heartland of America Band, Offutt Brass

Everyone knows “Stars and Stripes,” the essential John Philip Sousa march that’s as American as apple pie. Normally, the iconic trio features the piccolo, but in this rendition, the tuba plays it. That’s right, the tuba. I traveled to Europe twice with a student honors band, and the entire tuba section did this. It highlights the tuba in a way you’d never expect from their usual on-beats (the “oohm” in “oohm-pah,” if you will) and large size. This version also features a piccolo trumpet, which is equally cool and fun.

“Twelfth Street Rag”
Dallas Brass

The Dallas Brass came to my high school during my senior year, and our brass ensemble had a workshop with them. It was terrifying and also ridiculously cool. We’d been playing their arrangements of pieces for most of the year, so naturally, playing Dallas Brass arrangements in front of Dallas Brass was pretty life-changing. This is their version of the classic “Twelfth Street Rag,” a classic ragtime piece that you might also recognize from SpongeBob SquarePants, albeit in its ukulele version.

“Bad Romance (Brass Romance)”
Canadian Brass

The world-famous Canadian Brass recreated the Lady Gaga classic, giving it a faster, uptempo feel. At first, you won’t be sure if a brass ensemble playing the greatest cultural artifact of 2009 will be cheesy or cool, since the style feels more “classical” than the synth-heavy, futuristic original. But fear not, Little Monsters. The Canadian Brass rendition gets progressively more Gaga-esque and weirder as it progresses, and as with anything Lady Gaga, that’s a good thing. You’ll want to listen to this as much as you listened to Gaga’s version on your iPod (because iPhones were barely a thing back then).

“Bohemian Rhapsody”
Mnozil Brass

If you take only one thing from this post, I hope it’s this. To me, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the height of human achievement, right up there with sliced bread and the Internet. Naturally, when I stumbled upon the Mnozil Brass version, I was intrigued. The septet uses their unique performance style to tackle a song that requires a high degree of (melo)drama, musicianship, and a little bit of sass. Sure, there are fewer white satin outfits than I expected, but there is plenty of singing, quirky choreography, and, of course, a little Wayne’s World-esque headbanging.

Mnozil Brass performs in Ann Arbor on April 14, 2016.