Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher
Publisher’s note: This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2006 edition of Drum Corps World. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the group’s “Time For A Change” CD, call me at 1-800-554-9630 for a special price of $10.00 plus shipping. This price is not available on the DCW Web site.
I have to admit that I’ve become a huge fan of High Brass, the big band based in the United Kingdom that is made up primarily of aged-out drum and bugle corps members. The group has been going for several years and has released three compact discs, two of which are still available through the DCW Web site — www.drumcorpsworld.com, click on “Current CDs” in the store icons on the front page — or see ad below).
Their third CD was so good that High Brass was among only a handful of groups invited to appear at the International Jazz Educators Conference in New York City back in January. I enjoyed the “Time for a Change” recording so much that I flew out to hear the concert.
After the concert, I followed the band members, and some of their family who came along on the trip, to an Irish Pub located near their hotel (I think they must have already scoped out the location ahead of time). I got to speak with many of the members and learned that a number of them had marched with American drum corps before they aged out and almost all did, in fact, march in a variety of corps in the U.K.
The leader of the band is Chris Jones. He and I have been corresponding for several years and it was a pleasure finally getting to meet him during my visit to New York. If you are interested in reading my article on the trip, it appeared in the February issue of DCW (volume 34, number 17).
“Time of a Change” is full of excellent tunes, most of which have been staples in the drum corps repertoire both in the U.S. and the U.K. Six of the 10 selections on the CD were arranged by Bob Curnow, a former member and arranger for the Stan Kenton band.
I’ve been encouraging Drum Corps United Kingdom and Drum Corps Europe to find time in their programs to have High Brass play for the drum corps audiences and hopefully that will happen in September when both organizations hold their championships.
I thought the story of how the group got together was an interesting one that I wanted to share with the readers of DCW. So Chris and I got together to discuss the details.
Steve Vickers: How and when did all of you get together?
Chris Jones: The idea for the band had been a “what-if” for many years. With the unfortunate demise of drum corps in our home town of Warrington in the late 1980s, I guess there were a lot of players left with “unfinished business,” myself included. Many great players opted out of the drum corps scene and found opportunities to develop their playing in areas such as big band, orchestra, etc., while many continued their drum corps experience outside of the town as players and instructional staff.
The Warrington Drum Corps Alumni was formed in the summer of 2000 and a reunion was planned later that year to bring together many people who had been a part of the drum corps activity in the town and to celebrate our many achievements and share cherished memories.
The opportunity to at last bring together a group of players and perform at the event was taken on by Mark Geraghty and myself, with the encouragement of Greg Small who had successfully taken on a similar project in Glasgow, Scotland. My wife, Julie, and I raised money to fund the purchase of second-hand instruments by way of a car-boot sale (yard sale). The rest of the instruments were loaned or donated by corps from all over the U.K.
The evening was a massive success and the band was so well-received that we were invited to play in Glasgow for the annual Scottish Drum Corps Alumni event. The following year we played at the internationally-acclaimed Wigan International Jazz Festival, with a number of players still using old two-valve G-bugles!.
SV: Many of the members marched over here. Can you list the ones who performed with an American corps and in which years they participated?
CJ: In the six years High Brass has been together, we have had many players in the band who have experienced competing on the DCI circuit, including: Tez Smith, Madison Scouts (94-95); Adam Butt, Blue Devils (01); Chris Jones, Colts (88-89); Mark Geraghty, Watkins Glen Squires (81) and Colts (85 marching, 86-88 staff); Michael Lewis, Vaqueros (79-81), Colts (82) and Phantom Regiment (84); John Flannery, Colts (88); Jason Meades, Sky Ryders (87); Rich Swindell, Colts (87-88); Adam Doherty, Crossmen (91); and Craig Sherratt, Crossmen (91-92).
SV: Now list all the band members who marched in the activity in the U.K.
CJ: High Brass is built on the strong tradition of drum corps; one of my main aims for the band is to act as a vehicle for age-outs to continue to develop as players in an environment in which they are comfortable. I am proud that the vast majority of our current and past membership have marched drum corps in the U.K. Our current line-up’s history is as follows: Tez Smith, Stoke BB, Sunrisers, Kidsgrove Scouts; Wayne Cooksley, Black Cross, Sunrisers; Ian Blundell, Avengers; Andy Gutteridge, Avengers; Phil Rutter, Imperial Skydivers, Warrington Corps, Northern Alliance; Adam Butt, Cadence, Spirit of Bristol; Simon Marsom, Imperial Skydivers, Warrington Corps, Valley Sound; Chris Jones, Phantom Corps, Valley Sound, Southern Aurora; Matt Williams, Pheasey Cavaliers, Beechmen, Valley Sound, Poynton Commodores; Mark Geraghty, Green Lancers, Blue Barons, Sentinals, Valley Sound, Poynton Commodores; Chris Billington, Lowton Trojans, Green Lancers, Valley Sound, Poynton Commodores, Free Spirit; John Thornbury, Green Lancers, Warrington Corps, Northern and Conquest Alliance, Free Spirit, Poynton Commodores; Steve Hutchison, Poynton Commodores; Rob Warrilow, Stoke BB, Sunrisers; Dave Ainsworth, Beechmen, Valley Sound, Poynton Commodores, Anchormen; Lee Newson, Saxon Shadows, Sunrisers, Kidsgrove Scouts and Distant Thunder.
SV: I know that’s not everyone in the band . . . there’s a bass guitar and piano player to fill out the sounds and your percussionists and one of the trumpets didn’t come from the activity either, right? Who else is involved and what is their background?
CJ: That’s almost right. Our percussionist, Lee Newson, has drum corps experience and is currently writing and instructing for Distant Thunder, but the rest of the rhythm section has no drum corps experience.
Pete Watson, our keyboard player, studied at Liverpool Institute of Performing arts, our bass player, Gaz Twist, studied at Bimingham University, and drummer Simon Coupe, studied at Cheethams Music College and continues his studies at Middlesex University.
The trumpet player you mention is our only female member of the band, Nikki Coupe. She is Simon’s sister and is in her final year of studies at Leeds University, but their family has a drum corps connection; their mum, Josie, was once on the brass staff at the Avenger Corps.
Inviting non-drum corps players into the band was a big step and a decision I struggled with for a time, but it was a move I am glad we made and I like to think that we have all learned from each other’s approach to making music.
It is very rare you find a band with the work ethic or the focus and attention to detail as ours, yet, despite the rigidity our background sometimes dictates, we seem to have relaxed into the music much more and have a lot more fun in the process. Drum corps is definitely the strong foundation on which this band is built, regardless of the structure above it.
In all, the development of the band in the last 18 months has been phenomenal and the title of our most recent album embraces this. “Time For A Change” is true on so many levels, whether it be the personnel, the arrangers, the instrumentation or simply the approach toward our music. 2005 was a challenge for us, but ultimately we succeeded and we’re very proud of our achievements.
SV: You’re using regular B-flat, front-bell instruments just like the drum and bugle corps over here and over there. Is that something that you always intended to do or was it just easier to find the equipment in the beginning? Describe your unique instrumentation.
CJ: If I’m honest, it was a decision we never consciously took. As I explained, the band was put together for one, possibly two performances only. The instrumentation was chosen because the charts we wished to play were written for drum corps instrumentation in G. I remember at some of the early rehearsals we used B-flat trumpets with the third valve depressed to play the G charts.
The acid test I suppose was when we played to our first non-drum corps audience at Wigan International Jazz Festival in 2001. The response we got, according to the organizers, was the best they had ever witnessed for an opening act in the festival’s history.
Due to the age and condition of some of our instruments, upgrading was always a high priority for the band. At some of our early gigs, I remember asking the audiences to donate money and tried to explain that some of our members couldn’t even afford a third valve — which got people digging deep in their pockets.
The change to Bb/F was a natural progression, but it meant re-charting and re-learning over three hours of music.
The uniqueness of our instrumentation can be a double-edged sword; trying to explain to an event organizer or gig promoter is extremely difficult — we’re not a big band, we’re not a brass band, we’re not a drum corps — yet when we play, people can’t seem to get enough of us and the interest shown following a performance can sometimes be overwhelming. However, it’s always the instruments everyone wants to know more about, not the players.
SV: Bob Curnow is a very well-known name in jazz circles because of his association with the Stan Kenton band. How did your collaboration come about?
CJ: I purchased a copy of the recording Bob Curnow made in 1994 titled “The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.” The CD featured wonderful interpretations that Bob had written for his LA Big Band. We chose four of these pieces for inclusion on our second album, “Higher!” The pieces chosen were (It’s Just) Talk, First Circle, In Her Family and Dream of the Return.
At this point we had not made contact with Bob and all four of these pieces were arranged in-house by the very talented Chris Billington. We were so pleased with the response we received from the live performances and the studio recordings, John Flannery, a founder member of the band, contacted Bob for his reaction.
Bob was really enthusiastic about what we were doing and proposed a fresh new project that embraced the synergy between the big band genre and the exciting interpretations of this music that has been performed by drum corps for many years. The result is “Time For A Change” and is the first project Bob has written to include mellophones since his time as arranger for the Stan Kenton mellophonium band.
SV: Your three CDs have demonstrated an evolution in the quality and breadth of the band. I understand you’ve now sold out of the first one, called “Introducing High Brass.” How have sales been and where do you market your products aside from the DCW Web site and in Drum Corps World?
CJ: Well, we must be doing something right as sales have increased with each album. We are at the point now where most people who hear our music for the first time wish to buy all three albums by the band, but as you rightly point out, our first CD has completely sold out.
We offer CDs for sale on our own Web site, www.highbrass.org.uk, and also at the concerts we perform throughout the year. We are lucky enough to have a huge following across Europe and the U.S. and recently we have also supplied CDs to Japan, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico and Canada. Our mailing list has literally thousands of people who like to keep up to date with the band and eagerly await news of new recordings and projects.
SV: Tell me how you came to be invited to the New York performance and how many groups applied for the prestigious invitation?
CJ: We were asked to send a copy of our latest CD for consideration by the International Association of Jazz Educators to perform at their annual conference to be held in New York City in January 2006. Unfortunately, our CD hadn’t been recorded at that point, so we sent an ‘unmastered’ version of the CD the day after the recording and were quickly given news that we had been short-listed. The finished version was sent prior to the final decision-making process and we heard back that we had been selected to perform.
Over 40,000 bands apply to perform at the IAJE conference each year and only a small number are selected, so it is a massive achievement and a huge honour for us to have been selected.
SV: What types of gigs do you do in the U.K. and have you done any on the European continent?
CJ: We play at jazz and music festivals all over the U.K. and organize events of our own in the local area. The drum corps reunion has now become an annual event and last year we hosted our own Christmas carol concert which was a huge success. This year we have taken more bookings for private functions than ever before and there are plans for more collaborations and workshop events to introduce a wider range of listeners to our music.
We have yet to play in mainland Europe, but, due to the correspondence we receive from the many friends we have made over there, I’m sure it would be greatly appreciated and well-attended. I hope one day we can work something out to enable us to get over there.
SV: What are your future plans?
CJ: There are some really exciting plans for the band over the next year or so. We intend to record a live album in the summer which, along with some exciting new tunes, we aim to perform some fresh new interpretations of tunes previously recorded on the first two albums.
I can reveal that one of these tunes will be a new version of Autumn Leaves, written exclusively for the band by Frank Dorritie, Frank’s original version, performed by Bluecoats in 1987 and 1988, was included with Frank’s permission on our debut album, “Introducing …”
Tez Smith has written a wonderful new version of the Don Ellis classic Strawberry Soup and John Flannery has adapted the Bob Curnow score of The First Circle for the band. A fantastic version of A Mis Abuelos has also been delivered by a new arranger, Tony Booth, who has worked closely with the band over the last 12 months and has done a wonderful job writing for our unique line-up.
We are fortunate to be working with Steven Speigl who has contributed a number of charts, including his fantastic version of Bacchanalia which Blue Devils performed a version of in 1984. We have also commissioned Steven to deliver a brand-new composition which he is presently writing for the band. Obviously we are extremely excited by this.
Our fourth studio album is already in the planning stages and on top of the pieces I’ve already mentioned, we are currently working on more great new pieces submitted by new and established arrangers. We hope to record this toward the end of this year, with a release date scheduled for early 2007.
We have also been approached by a number of established musicians who wish to collaborate with the band and we are keen to explore some of these opportunities, too. We have a massive opportunity in the planning stages for the summer of 2007, but I hope you’ll forgive me for not revealing the details at this early stage.
As I mentioned, I am keen to develop the educational aspect of the band through hosting workshops and seminars. Many members of the band are still involved in the educational side of drum corps and we have players involved as teaching and arranging staff for six U.K. drum corps, but I feel there is more that we can offer as a whole, rather than individually.
SV: Anything else you’d like to add?
CJ: Just a thank you to your staff and the readers of Drum Corps World for the support and the encouragement you have given over the years. We look forward to the opportunity to perform once again for our friends in the U.S. in the future. Any help in facilitating another visit would be greatly appreciated.
Finally, I’d just like to wish all those participating in the drum corps circuit here at home and on foreign soil the very best of luck for the 2006 season.
SV: Thanks for taking time out to do this interview and good luck on all your future endeavors. Let me know when the next CD is available. I definitely want to help distribute it on this side of the big pond.