Another superb Doyen disc, this time showcasing the collective brilliance of trombonist Brett Baker and the ever-remarkable Black Dyke Band, with seven works by seven different composers A comment in passing: they are all white middle-aged or older men. Are there really no women or minority composers writing for brass band? But putting that aside, this really is a terrific disc. Baker's musicianship and virtuosity is little short of astonishing. He is backed up by band playing of the very highest order, all caught in Doyen's typically demonstration-quality sound.
The disc opens with Kenneth Downie's ebullient Trombone Time. In many ways this sets the tone for the disc. It is easily engageable music written with real understanding for the medium and the solo instrument. This is light classical music in the best sense, tuneful, energetic and skilfully scored. Indeed, all of the works here – with the exception of Jan Van der Roost's Contrasts – fit the genre of light music. For me this is in no sense a pejorative description. It applies to music of excellent craftsmanship, technical skill and musical memorability. There are many works that strive for something all-together more lofty and serious which fail miserably by those criteria.
The colourful English-only liner gives biographical information about each composer and the genesis of his work. Downie, for example, taught music in a Grammar School before going into the jewellery business. The affinity for brass writing by Downie and several of the other composers represented here is clear: they are commissioned to provide test pieces for various band competitions.
Gordon Langford may be the most immediately familiar composer here. His Rhapsody for Trombone was written for big band leader Don Lusher to premiere in 1975 at the National Finals Gala concert. The longest work here, it showcases Lusher's (and Baker's) ability to play long lyrical melodies. There is an unmistakable nod towards Lusher's jazz background with swinging rhythms and the playing of lines which encourages some idiomatic smearing of notes and a subtle and utterly appropriate warm vibrato. Less overtly virtuosic in the opening pages at least than some of the pieces on display here, this still takes a master technician to make the music sound as relaxed and easy as Baker does. So enthralling is his playing that for once the Black Dyke players take a back seat – not that the Doyen engineers have done anything except provide an ideal sound stage and balance between lead and ensemble instruments. Although presented as a continuous twelve-minute piece, this Rhapsody is in effect a series of linked miniatures which cover a range of styles from smooching jazz to a kind of swinging circus march, and culminate in a cinematic/romantic “big finish”.
Peter Graham's The Guardian is another rhapsodic piece which, in the style of the others here, alternates energetic and lyrical passages – perhaps with slightly less individual impact than in the case of Downie or Langford. John Golland's Serenade for Trombone is predominantly a reflective piece. It is the shortest work on the disc but it packs the most emotional weight. Again, this is instantly accessible music but Golland writes in a more inward and reflective manner. This is not music of the conscious weight and rigour of, say, the multi-disc Doyen survey of Edward Gregson's music for band but that does not diminish the sincerity and worth of the piece. It is all the more telling from the brief biographical note which relates that Golland died aged just 51 after a long illness. This is one of four of the pieces presented here receiving its first recording, and well-worth the wait it is too. Again, this showcases Baker's phenomenal legato control of musical line.
Gareth Wood's Dance Sequence is another work to make use of the idea of contrasting sections that flow together in a single movement. This was another Don Lusher inspired work and this shows in the jazz-influenced mood of much of the music. Another feature is the aptness of the writing – it sounds so well for the chosen ensemble. A result, I suspect, of Wood's many years in the double bass section of the RPO – players develop a practical insight into what 'works' and what is effective.
There follows another premiere recording, Stephen Roberts's Trombango written for Brett Baker. This is the real showstopper on the disc. Roberts was the horn and founder member of the Fine Arts Brass. Again, he is a composer/player who knows how to get maximum effect from the experience of being inside an ensemble. What a stunningly fun piece! Think Piazzola goes to Yorkshire. Argentinian New Tango is the primary influence but superbly transported to the medium of Brass Band and solo trombone. I love the stalking Euphonium lines so characteristic of the genre. Yet again Baker makes light work of what sounds like a terrifyingly tricky solo part. I could imagine this being (or becoming) a cornerstone of a trombonist's repertoire and bringing the house down in any performance.
The final piece in this well-planned programme is another premiere (Trombone Time was the fourth). As mentioned earlier, it is also the most overtly serious work on offer. It is another piece written for and dedicated to Brett Baker. The Contrasts of the title are in the form of the two widely differing movements. The opening Sounds has in the description of the liner notes: “a somewhat dark and sombre atmosphere… the overall mood is rather serious and loaded”. It is important to note that there are internal contrasts within the movements too. Sounds deploys a variety of mutes and effects for the solo instrument in particular. This transforms the usual sound of the trombone in intriguing and often surprising ways, again demonstrated with brilliant aplomb by Baker. The shorter second movement is called Caprice and is described as “light-hearted and almost humorous character”. Van der Roost gets his soloist playing some positively gymnastic figurations and indeed the entire band have demanding writing throughout this score. The percussion writing in this piece is more interesting than in much of the rest of the programme where they are deployed in more of a rhythm-section manner.
Throughout the disc, the direction of Nicholas Childs is wholly sympathetic, apt and supportive of the soloist. As mentioned before, the Doyen engineering is a model of its kind. Baker's solo lines are always clear and present without ever dominating the accompanying part writing. This really is an excellent disc, a rich and rewarding showcase for the exceptional talents of Brett Baker, the ever-excellent Black Dyke Band and seven engaging, impressive and memorable scores. All-round excellence and thoroughly enjoyable.