On Thursday, January 12th, I had the pleasure and honor of seeing High Brass perform live at the IAJE convention in New York City. Before the concert I spoke briefly with Chris Jones, director and one of their four mellophone players. He was very gracious and personable and gave me a nice shout-out during the performance.
As for the performance, all I can say is that the recordings do not do the group justice. There's a sonority High Brass has that I have never heard from a traditional jazz band, combining the jazz sound with power of a drum corps. The band played for about an hour, performing selections from their album, Time for a Change.
I can't gush enough about this group. Aside for being one of the few non-marching ensembles who uses mellophones, they have a tightness, energy and sound that is phenomenal. I wish them the best of success and look forward to all of their future recordings and ventures.
Al: Tell me about your personal background as a mellophonist.
Chris Jones: CJ: My 'career' as a mellophone player didn't really start until the end of 1986. Before that I had played mainly trumpet and flugel horn, originally being taught to play on an Eb bugle at the age of 8 by my local scout band.
As with most players who find themselves playing mellophone, I was introduced to the instrument through marching band (drum corps). I played mellophone (in the key of G) for Valley Sound in the UK drum corps competition circuit and with Colts from Dubuque, Iowa when I was fortunate enough to experience drum corps in the USA.
Through high school I played French horn and was encouraged by my music teachers to play in the school orchestras, brass groups and swing bands. I took my grades and lessons on the French Horn rather than trumpet/flugel.
I moved back onto Bb trumpet when I was through with marching but upon the formation of High Brass in 2000 I found myself playing G mellophone once again. In 2003 the band upgraded their G instruments to Bb/F.
Al: What predicated the formation of "High Brass"? How instrumental (no pun intended) were you in that process?
CJ: In the late 90’s, I hosted a web site for my old drum corps; Valley Sound. It was on the discussion page of that site that the first seeds were sown about forming an organization to celebrate the rich heritage of marching bands in our home town of Warrington. Early in 2000 the Warrington Drum Corps Alumni was born; the first project embarked on was a reunion scheduled for November of that year.
Mark Geraghty and I met for coffee one afternoon in the early summer of 2000 to discuss this idea in more detail and agreed that it would be a great idea to pull together a few brass players to perform at the reunion. High Brass were formed to play this one gig, however, such was their impact they were immediately booked to play two weeks later at a similar event in Glasgow, Scotland and the following year at the 16th Wigan International Jazz Festival.
Despite being the catalyst behind the creation of High Brass I am proud to say there are eight founder members of the band still playing in the current line-up of High Brass; Dave Ainsworth (Tuba), Chris Billington, Mark Geraghty, Steve Hutchison, John Thornbury (Baritone), Phil Rutter and myself (Mellophone) and Tez Smith (trumpet).
Optional quote – it may not be relevant to this question!
I have always felt strongly that musicians who have received their informal music education in the marching activity should have an opportunity to continue playing in an environment in which they are comfortable. High Brass is a dream come true for me and I’m as proud of our humble past as I am of our current achievements.
Al: As you know, the mellophone sometimes has a sketchy reputation, but you and your group have really thrust it into the mainstream. What are your thoughts on the role of the mellophone in music today -- outside of drum corps and marching band?
CJ: Well, firstly I would question whether or not High Brass are actually mainstream – we take the view that we have uniqueness that sets us apart from the vast majority, if not all, present day big bands and jazz orchestras. Admittedly there are one or two bands in the UK who have formed under similar circumstances as ourselves, but I don’t know any UK bands that employ mellophone players who have not come through the ranks in the marching band activity.
My view is that the mellophone is very much a specialist instrument here in the UK. You would be hard pressed to find many people outside of the marching activity who know much about the instrument, perhaps with the exception being fans of the music of Stan Kenton.
There is a big band based not too far from ourselves who play only the music of Stan Kenton, I have been to watch them on numerous occasions and often informed the band director of High Brass, and in particular our use of the mellophone. The look on his face the first time I told him was a picture! His initial reaction was overwhelmingly positive and the suggestion of using the four of us to help him perform Stan Kenton’s “West Side Story” was put to us very quickly indeed.
I only hope that the more exposure we get in the “mainstream” the more people’s awareness of the mellophone is raised. It’s a double-edged sword you know; you’d think our uniqueness would intrigue promoters enough for them to take a gamble and book us but it’s often the opposite. That is until they hear us, and then they can’t get enough!
Al: A "specialist instrument"? Ooh, that hurts! I know it's true, but it hurts! With any luck, we can change that status some day.
CJ: Haha. Ok, maybe I should have said ‘minority instrument”, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in any way elitist! Maybe the more exposure we get in the “mainstream” the more people’s awareness of the mellophone will be raised. It’s a double-edged sword you know; you’d think our uniqueness would intrigue promoters enough for them to take a gamble and book us but it’s often the opposite. That is until they hear us, and then they can’t get enough!
Al: Speaking of “getting enough” -- what's next for you and High Brass? Anything on the horizon?
CJ: There’s lots on the horizon! The band has recently commissioned a lot of new charts, two of which will be previewed at our next concert. “Strawberry Soup” taken from the Don Ellis album “Electric Bath” with will make a return to the set; it has been painstakingly re-scored by Tez Smith to feature our fantastic rhythm section. The mellophones feature quite heavily on this chart. The second piece is a brand new bespoke version of Arturo Sandoval’s “A Mis Abuelos” which has been arranged by Tony Booth. This is the first arrangement Tony has written for High Brass and I think I am right in saying that it’s the first time Tony has written for a mellophone section but we are loving what he has done for us! I am really looking forward to the audience’s reaction to this piece, it rocks!
In terms of future projects, we are looking to record a live album in the summer and another studio album towards the end of the year too. We hope to be able to integrate a lot of new music into our pad whilst bringing back some fresh versions of previously recorded pieces to feature our fantastic rhythm section.
Obviously, we are actively looking for gigs to fill out our diary this year and beyond.
Al: I know you folks use DEG Dynasty horns. Why did you choose the DEG's specifically?
CJ: That’s an easy answer: because High Brass have a Dynasty endorsement! However, my experience with Dynasty instrumentation dates back to my days when I moved from an Eb bugle to a Piston/Rotor G bugle, I later switched to 2-valve G flugel horn, 2-valve G mellophone, 3-valve G mellophone and now an F mellophone with, thankfully, 3 valves!
I have played both Kanstul and Yamaha mellophones in the past too, however one thing I have noticed that they all have in common is they were all built for marching first and playing second. However, the improvement and development of the instrument has been a significant, especially with the recent move to the key of F. They are a much nicer instrument to play now but the role of the horn within the band has also had to change.
Al: How do you feel the role has changed?
CJ: Well, due to its pitch in relation to the Bb trumpets and Bb baritones, the instrument is able to bridge the gap much more effectively between the soprano and tenor voices. The Bob Curnow arrangements that were commissioned for our last album were wonderfully written, for the whole ensemble but especially for the mellophones. Speaking from a mellophone player’s perspective, Bob’s charts are a joy to play and they’ve taught us so much about how versatile the mellophone voice can be.
As a section we now very often find ourselves playing in four split parts, rather than the traditional two that we were used to in drum corps. The fourth part, which I generally play, is so low at times, I often find the lead baritone is playing over an octave above me! The lead mellophone has to cope with anything up to an F (on the ledger lines) so you can see the range we are covering as a section has also increased greatly.
When you see the band line up on stage with the three rows of instrumentation, you would be forgiven for thinking that the baritones simply take the trombone role and likewise the mellophones the saxophone role, but that is not strictly true. There is a lot cross-over between the voices and you will often find yourself teaming up with a unison melody in the trumpet line or as a voice within a baritone feature. It’s been a big help in getting us to listen through the brass ensemble rather than across the line and that has had a big effect on our intonation and tightness as a band in general.
Don’t get me wrong here, we’re still the hardest working section of the band and we have a lot of fun with the tunes that call for a mellophone feature. Pieces such as “Riverdance” really show the dexterity of the instrument (and the players!) and the unison melodies in “Time For A Change” are fun too. We still have the occasional unison ‘rip’ that mellophone players love to play that little bit too loud! Check out the end of “Scorpion Dance” and sections within “Malaguena” – they are a mellophone players dream come true.
High Brass in Concert at the IAJE Convention