For his latest recording, “Shout!”, Brett Baker is accompanied by the Polysteel Band conducted by Philip Harper. This was the band that he joined way back in 1989 under their former name of Flowers, which title they have readopted since making this recording.
Brett is a fervent advocate of new music for the trombone, and has included several recent additions to the repertoire, with a number being recorded for the first time.
The title track “Shout!” was written for Brett by Rob Wiffin, former Director of Music with the Royal Air Force, and himself no mean trombone player. Including a couple of unaccompanied sections, it is a Latin-jazz piece that is also influenced by the tradition of including a “shout” chorus towards the end of a jazz arrangement. It calls for an agile soloist and the solo line covers a very wide range.
Barrie Hingley also served with distinction in the RAF, and he has contributed “Fantasia for Trombone“, described as “a ‘light-hearted’ piece that might be enjoyed by the trombone and band enthusiast as well as the concert-goer”.
Whilst not following a specific thematic plot, the work allows for continual interaction between soloist and band, much as an actor of comedian may interact with the audience, encompassing a wide range of technical challenges for the soloist to overcome.
There are two settings of melodies by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, from “Sunset Boulevard”, and “All I Ask of You”, from “Phantom of the Opera”, arranged by Bill Geldard and Chris Mowatt respectively.
Noted exponents of the trombone in their several fields, their inside knowledge ensures that the qualities of the instrument are exploited to good effect, with the sympathetic arrangements ensuring that the long melodic phrases are never swamped by the accompaniment.
Although he composed four symphonies and a spectacular “Konzertstuck” for four horns, exploiting the potential of the newly devised valve system, Robert Schumann was perhaps at his best when writing miniatures, either for piano or for voice. One of the most popular of these is “Traumerei”, and whilst it may not initially appear best suited to the trombone it works well here, due to a combination of Brett’s restrained approach and Howard Snell’s sympathetic setting.
One of the more unusual items is James McFadyen’s trombone trio “Everyday Light”, described by the composer as “essentially a duel between trombones and band”. The work incorporates various styles and techniques including elements drawn from popular music.
The short, repetitive phrases beloved of the minimalists add to the cumulative build-up, and the music is very aggressive at times. With an apparent reference to the theme from “The Godfather” it may not appeal to all listeners, but it is good to see exposure given to another new composer.
Stamina and control
Bruce Fraser’s “Ballade and Spanish Dance” was written for Paul Kiernan after he had won first prize in the Scottish Solo Championships, this being the first recording of the work with band accompaniment.
The contrasting sections call for the soloist to demonstrate both stamina and control in the expressive “Ballade” and also technical expertise in the allegro “Paso Doble” style dance. It makes for a fine display piece, with the clean articulation of the semiquaver passages being particularly impressive.
Darrol Barry’s “Triptych for Trombone”, as the title would indicate, consists of three contrasting (untitled) movements, the first incorporating a “Rondo” alternating solo passages with tuttis. The central “Berceuse” has an almost elegiac quality to it, and the lively finale ends decisively with an upward sweeping glissando.
Carl Vincent’s “The Last Judgement”, a concerto for trombone and brass band, was written specifically for Brett and the Polysteel Band in 2007. The three-movement work was inspired by the 15th century frescos of Luca Sinorelli which can be found in Orvietto Cathedral in Italy.
The first movement included here is entitled “The March to War” and features an opening quasi-recitative passage for the soloist, the solo line frequently being in the upper register. The accompaniment is very lightly scored in places, the soloist often joining in duet or trio passages with soloists from the band.
There are a couple of instances of less than perfect intonation between cornets and flugel in the quieter sections, but on the whole it is an impressive contribution to the repertoire, with vivid and expressive writing.
Perhaps the most striking work in the programme is Gavin Higgins’ “Freaks”, inspired by a 1932 film of the same name, and depicting various participants in a freak show, and their ultimate revenge on Cleopatra, the beautiful, but evil, trapeze artist.
The scenario allows for a variety of styles, and the accompaniment is extremely colourful and vibrant, although the recording does not seem to have quite the same impact as a recent live performance. Both soloist and band are pushed to the limit at times, Brett being forced to project over quite a full accompaniment, and his extrovert side is displayed in some soaring figures and wide slide vibrato to achieve the desired effect.
The lilting waltz of the trapeze artist, the exuberant festivities of the wedding party, the rip-roaring circus music and the relentless winding up of the tension towards the end all contribute to what is a real tour de force. The cornet section are even called upon to take up kazoos, and the final climax, with the music building up quickly from basses to soprano, culminates in a duck quack from the percussion and a scream from the band as the horror of the now-transformed Cleopatra is revealed.
The one item that seems to sit a little awkwardly in the programme is the middle movement of Philip Sparke’s “The Year of the Dragon” – yes, it does have one of the best known trombone melodies in the brass band repertoire, but hearing it out of the context of the whole work seems somehow unsatisfactory, despite the best efforts of soloist and band. Maybe it would have been better to have included Carl Vincent’s work in its entirety, rather than having two incomplete works.
Philip Harper and the Polysteel Band offer sympathetic support throughout the disc, and the presentation is well up to Polyphonic’s usual standard, apart from one unfortunate error in one of the titles.
The repertoire is attractive and varied, and whilst only time will tell how many of the new pieces go on to become established programme and recording items, they are all worth hearing, with “Freaks!” and Barry Hingley’s “Fantasia” being among the highlights.