For those in the brass band world, Brett Baker is the face of Rath trombones. His arrangement with the company includes the positions of ‘Featured Artist' and ‘Clinician', and his other job – as principal trombone of the Black Dyke Band – ensures the company the best publicity that money can buy. I only mention this because the liner notes to this CD skate over Baker's relationship with Rath in a bracketed clause of small print in his bio, which seems disproportionate considering the title of the disc, and considering that the cover shows Brett Baker's face peering out from a letter ‘R' in the distinctive font of the company's logo.
But whatever the sponsorship machinations that keep the top bands afloat, this is a fine CD. Listening to Brett Baker it is clear why Rath want him representing their company, and equally clear why he is the principal trombone of one of the world's most respected brass bands. He has a rich, mellow tone that virtually never falters, whatever the extremes of tempo, tessitura or dynamics he executes. The world of brass band trombone solos seems to divide between the fast, flashy ones and the slow, lyrical ones, and Baker excels at both. Stylistically, he achieves that curious balance of being able to perform convincingly in almost any idiom while always sounding like a brass player. Listeners from outside of the brass band movement may have some trouble with this; a legato trombone sound that is half way to a euphonium could be considered an acquired taste. And this is a performing environment where vibrato is de rigueur, so Baker's (relative) restraint in that respect should be commended. He makes a bit of a point out of the vibrato in ‘I loves you Porgy', but that's the exception rather than the rule.
Most of the works are recent, so I suspect that most of the acrobatics in the solo part are written in. One effect that Baker uses a lot is slide up or down the harmonics on the lip. The eponymous Rathamataz uses that effect a great deal, in fact to the point where it becomes part of the musical fabric. Elsewhere it is clearly decorative, and in the case of the two Arthur Pryor works, Annie Laurie and Fantastic Polka it must surely be a later addition. Pryor was the trombone soloist in Sousa's band, and while he was reputedly skilled at the fast passagework, these kinds of lip flexibilities are from a later age. In fact, the later additions made to Annie Laurie (the arranger is Keith Wilkinson) make it something of a compendium of soloistic trombone devices. There are multiphonics, fruity pedals, lip trills…you name it.
For those who, like me, are most familiar with Brett Baker's superhuman fast playing from his various youtube appearances, he is even more awe-inspiring when heard on a proper recording. That said, there is little hear of extended, unadulterated virtuosity. It's a brass band recording, so variety takes precedence over all else. There are a few longer works though, the most involved of which is the Concertino for Trombone subtitled (Nightmare) by Derek Bourgeois. Those familiar with his test piece Blitz will know what to expect from this: relatively traditional brass band figurations, but given energy and edge through sharp, rhythmic articulations and plenty of percussion.
Other big names from the contemporary brass band scene are represented in the slower numbers. Peter Graham's A Time for Peace uses his trademark tuba and euphonium support to create a warm, sustained chordal accompaniment for the soloist. Philip Wilby's White Knuckle Ride demonstrates the composer's uncanny ability to create a wide range of colours and textures from the brass band without any of the players doing anything particularly unusual. It's not a very virtuosic solo part though, especially considering the title. Even Don Lusher makes an appearance, his DL Blues a skilfully comic turn of waa waa mute, glissandi and growls.
The Black Dyke Band are on form thoughout, not that there is much to challenge them in this repertoire. They are put through their paces in Rathamataz, but cope with the unusual scoring magnificently and (most importantly) without upstaging the soloist in the process. The sound is good. There is a bit of an abrupt edit at the end of the introduction in Rathamataz but otherwise it is a proficient post-production job. All in all, the disc deserves to do well, and certainly to do better than the specialist niche market to which even the best brass band recordings are destined.