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Chops: Musicians Discuss Unique Brass Ensembles

Bob Stewart, Jennifer Wharton, Riley Mulherkar, and Dr. Reginald Chapman get down to brass tacks

Bob Stewart (photo: Alan Nahigian)
Bob Stewart (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Taking up a brass instrument comes with specific difficulties in terms of development and maintenance. Entering the jazz sphere adds different weight and dimensions to the equation. But things don’t necessarily stop there. Going several steps further, a subset of players has managed to up the challenge by exploring (and embracing) unconventional brass-based environments: groups of multiple trumpets or trombones or tubas, either with or without other musicians.

When Bob Stewart joined Howard Johnson’s Substructure in the late ’60s, for example, there weren’t exactly any precedents for jazz tuba ensembles. “The biggest challenge in that band was getting the tuba players up to speed about what their instruments could do,” Stewart explains. “Most people weren’t asked to do very much on most gigs playing the tuba, so they didn’t really challenge themselves. That ensemble opened up windows and doors for tuba players to think differently about what was available to them. It gave them access to a whole other world for the instrument.” 

In stressing and stretching what was possible in Substructure (and Johnson’s later, better-known Gravity), these tuba trailblazers would come to deal with issues surrounding extreme registers, breath support, the response time of different-sized instruments, and general aesthetics. While working as a charter and full-term member of another singular unit, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, Stewart—along with his heterogeneous brass compatriots—was tested as he pushed past barriers and breaking points. “About an hour into a rehearsal, everybody was trying to get the blood back into their lips. Horns were being asked to act as a keyboard with a sustain pedal or organ or guitar, which could last for eight beats. So they had to figure out how they would all personally build their chops up to be able to do that. For the first week on tour, everybody would be bleeding inside their mouths because you’re not used to playing like that.”

Smartly and succinctly tagging her ilk as “endurance athletes of the small muscle(s),” bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton, leader of the four-slides-and-rhythm septet Bonegasm, also brings stamina right into the story: “When we were in Des Moines [in early July], we played a proper two sets at a jazz club. And that was the first time we had done that—two 75-minute sets. We made it through, but it was a lot of playing. And it really opened my eyes. Like, ‘Wow, this is much harder than any group that I’ve ever played with.’”

Citing the central, unceasing role of the trombones in Bonegasm, Wharton goes on to note that a tremendous amount of thought and discussion goes into charting the ensemble’s course. “As a bandleader, and as I start writing for the group now, I’m always considering the chops of the players, range, and [the nature of] a set as a whole. I run all of my set lists by [bandmate and husband] John [Fedchock], not just because he’s a good bandleader but because he’s playing most of the lead trombone parts so I have to make sure that everything works there. He gets first right of refusal with the order of tunes because he’s got the most heavy lifting to do.”

Jennifer Wharton (photo: John Abbott)
Jennifer Wharton (photo: John Abbott)

In the case of the Westerlies—a celebrated quartet featuring trumpeters Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands, and trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch—a general appreciation for unorthodox ensembles, brass or not, served as sound inspiration. “I give full credit to mentors we had coming up in Seattle, like Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell and Cuong Vu,” Mulherkar acknowledges. “They opened our eyes to the possibility of improvising musicians creating ensembles that may not look like a standard jazz [combo].” Horvitz’s Gravitas Quartet, matching the leader’s piano with Peggy Lee’s cello, Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon, and Ron Miles’ cornet, was a particularly important lodestar. But it offered no guidance in terms of how to get down to (pardon the expression) brass tacks within the Westerlies’ unusual configuration. Trial and error—and some serious hard work—sorted that out. 

“Our first rehearsal didn’t go well,” Mulherkar confesses with a laugh. “We were out of tune, we couldn’t figure out how to keep time with [the absence of] a rhythm section, and we didn’t have any music to play because there was nothing arranged for our instrumentation, so we had to try to arrange for ourselves. And it took years, really, to figure out everything, from what our timbre is to how we blend to how we play in tune, all the way to what we actually want to express in this formation and instrumentation.”

“About an hour into a rehearsal, everybody was trying to get the blood back into their lips.” – Bob Stewart on playing with Howard Johnson’s Substructure

A founding member of the No BS! Brass Band, touring tubist with Lucky Chops, and bass trumpet player with his own Bone Apple Tea Brass outfit, bass trombonist Dr. Reginald Chapman has learned quite a bit about this subject through his studies, doubles, and travels. During the course of a lengthy conversation, he touches on numerous concerns: the importance of fundamentals and foundational texts, the colloquial/“in-the-room” approach for piecing together brass band music, the need to develop a broad skill set and find comfort in pivoting, and the history (and importance) of low brass players writing their own way into the scene, to name a few. But sweeping all of that aside, and expressing what all of these artists explicitly or implicitly note, Chapman points out that the real challenge is resisting the pull of expectation: “I think the hardest part as a brass player is fighting the status quo, what you think you’re supposed to [adhere] to. You just need the courage to do what you want. The truth is, there are no rules. And it’s hard to fight that [fixed mindset]. What’s beautiful about the brass band world is that having your own voice is important.” 

Big Blowers

Besides the groups mentioned in this piece—Substructure, Gravity, Bonegasm, the Westerlies, the No BS! Brass Band, Lucky Chops, and Bone Apple Tea Brass—other ensembles featuring unusual lineups of brass instruments include the Matteson-Phillips Tubajazz Consort, the U.K.’s Riot Jazz Brass Band, and the University of Illinois Jazz Trombone Ensembles, led by Jim Pugh. 

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.