Now & Then Brett Baker (trombone), featuring Chris Houlding and the Black Dyke Trombone Ensembles – Review by Paul Hindmarsh for the British Bandsman

This well-filled and wide-ranging double album continues Brett Baker’s production line of recording projects devoted to the repertoire of his instrument. Is there a more dedicated explorer of the trombone repertoire? Dr. Baker is joined by regular collaborators, pianists Ruth Webb and  John Wilson and his friends and colleagues of the Black Dyke Trombone Quartet.

The first of the CDs focuses on Brett Baker, the intrepid repertoire explorer. Opening with one of Arthur Pryor’s less well known solos, The Patriot, sets the tone for an eclectic selection of items ranging over 150 years. The reason for the title becomes immediately when we hear the Star Spangled Banner in the introduction and later a reference to My Country ’Tis of Thee. This is followed by a Pryor favourite, O Dry Those Tears (Teresa del Reigo), which Brett Baker came across on one of his American tours. Columbia Polka is a light-hearted confection, originally for cornet, with which the Sousa’s trombone section post-Pryor used to dazzle their audiences.

Of the three major works on CD1, the oldest and by for the most well-known is the Concerto for Alto Trombone (1769) by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. Brett Baker elegantly performs down a fourth on tenor trombone in the edition for tenor trombone and piano by Michael Clack. Whether intentional or not, the somewhat out of tune piano gives the work a curious period charm! In his informative, if somewhat inconsistently edited programme notes, Brett Baker informs us that the Russian trombonist and teacher Vladislav Blazhevich, who was Principal Trombone at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, composed no fewer than13 trombone concertos in the 1920s. This fifth example juxtaposes the heroic and romantically inclined lyrical character of the instrument in a single movement for which the title concert piece might be more appropriate given its conventional virtuoso style. Freidebald Gräfe composed his modest two-movement concerto in 1897. Its style seems to echo classics of the trombone repertoire, like Ferdinand David’s 1837 Concertino and the Rimsky-Korsakov concerto, but lacks their spark of imagination and intrinsic quality. Nevertheless, it’s good to have a window opened on historically significant aspects of the trombone repertoire.

The shorter works on CD 1 are more interesting musically. In Bruckner’s sublime motet Locus Iste, beautifully performed by the Black Dyke Trombone Quartet, we hear a miniature masterpiece. The quartet also plays an arrangement of Parry’s noble hymn-tune Repton (‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’). This is credited in the ‘by-line’ as Traditional, which it isn’t. Alexander Glazunov’s Song of the Minstrel (1900), originally for cello and orchestra, sounds as though it could have been composed for trombone, given Brett Baker’s heart-felt performance – gorgeous! Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs (1945) is in a similar nostalgic vein and is the most recent item on this selection.

The three major offerings on CD 2 ‘Now’ present performances of outstanding quality from Brett Baker and his pianists of music which engages the ear for its range, colour and invention. For this listener the performance of Martin Ellerby’s Trombone Sonata, with the excellent Benjamin Frith partnering on piano, is the highlight of the whole collection. Composed for the 2012 International Trombone Festival held in Paris, this work pays homage to the musical world of the mid-20th century, with echoes of the wit of Poulenc and the music hall parodies of Les Six. Ellerby weaves in a number of other musical references, including Manuel de Falla in Burlesque, the second of the five concise movements, after opening with a mock-serious Hindemith inspired Declamation. The pianist in Soren Hyldgaard’s 13 minute Rhapsodia Borealis is unacknowledged, but, as in the Ellerby, the piano sounds so much better than much of the rest of the disc, with trombone and piano clearly equal partners in an outstanding performance.

Nino Rota’s reputation as a composer for film (The Godfather 1 & 2, Romeo and Juliet etc) has perhaps outshone his stature as a prolific composer for the concert hall and opera house. His 1966 Trombone Concerto, with its clean, neo-classical spirit and expressive and technical range has become a modern classic of the trombone repertory. The clarity and precision of Brett Baker’s delivery, partnered by Ruth Webb, is exemplary, as is the Scottish flavour he brings to Alan Fernie’s nostalgic miniature Home.

This second CD opens with a rather lugubrious version of Ray Steadman-Allen’s fine march from the 1963, Silver Star, from the Black Dyke Trombone Quartet, which also contributes four further tracks including Alan Fernie’s toe-tapping version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which bass trombonist Adrian Hirst has cleverly adapted to feature himself, Barry Gott’s popular Light Walk, featuring Paul Woodward and Terry Camsey’s song, also popular in The Salvation Army, This I know, which Ian Jones has turned into a lively cakewalk.

At the heart of disc two is a trio of tango inspired tracks. Brett Baker gives a haunting account of Astor Piazolla’s Oblivion and he is joined by Christopher Houlding for Peter Meechan’s terrific Duet Scene of the Silver Plate. What a well-matched duo they make in this economical but intense movement! The album is completed by a contribution from the rising stars of the Black Dyke Youth Trombone Quintet, whose precise delivery of Liber Tango is full of youthful energy and bags of style.
Paul Hindmarsh

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