Being a music blogger presents unique challenges; one particularly painful thrill is hearing new music before it’s released and being so anxious to share it, but having to wait. With The Heavyweights Brass Band’s new album “This City,” which finally comes out tomorrow, stifling the urge to share it far and wide has been a challenge. This is a delightfully loud, boisterous, fun album, and I’m chuffed that the rest of you get to hear it now too.
The album opens with “Hands Down Lo’,” an original composition by trombonist Chris Butcher that should have you dancing in no time. A terrific arrangement of “Tell Me Something Good” by tenor saxophonist Paul Metcalfe should tickle the memory banks of those of you old enough to remember hearing Stevie Wonder’s music in something besides elevators (and a much more enjoyable arrangement of the song it is, too!).
Tubist/keyboardist Tom Richards contributes two pieces – first, “Two Foot Ticket,” a slow burning groove of a piece. (Think a tuba can’t groove? Think again, listen to this track, and gain some new appreciation for what is typically an underappreciated instrument.) His second is “Rosco’s Big Hit,” which features a terrific demonstration of how great a jazz band can sound when they’re truly in sync. (Note to Tom: let me know if you ever turn this into a piano piece, as this would be a GREAT way to teach syncopation to some of my students.)
Of the two excellent original compositions by Paul Metcalfe, “Dance Out on the Corner” most closely evokes what I would consider a typical New Orleans brass band sound (the tradition that primarily inspires the group’s work), and includes some searing solo work, especially by baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis.
The album closes with the title track, a marvelous cover of Steve Earle’s “This City” and yet another surprise in THBB’s arsenal – it’s this very flexibility and breadth of inspiration that makes them so enjoyable. This is a hugely wonderful album, one that you can crank up wherever you are (and then have the fun of proving to others how great brass bands really are). The Heavyweights Brass Band is definitely on our bucket list for live experiences now.
We’re thrilled that trumpeter John Pittman took some time to talk with us about the album.
It’s been several years since your last project. Were there new things you were hoping to achieve on this new record?
We definitely had new things we were hoping to achieve, but, oddly enough, a new record wasn’t initially one of them. All our previous projects were recorded in wonderful studios in Toronto, but we thought we’d learn a lot by heading into a studio in New Orleans to work with someone who has had a lot of experience working with groups that are similar in instrumentation to ours. After day one of the session, we had good momentum and realized we had enough material for a new album if we maximized the time we had on our second day.
For better or for worse, a lot of folks’ exposure to large brass ensembles is often in the form of marching bands (at least in the places I’ve lived, which don’t include New Orleans). How would you describe your group and its aesthetic?
In brief, let’s go with “mobile dance party”. The marching band connection is certainly there because New Orleans bands often parade and play street corners, but the vibe is loose and dancy. The Heavyweights have played small, sweaty dance clubs, soft seat theatres, and massive outdoor festival stages and the goal is always to get you on your feet and moving. No matter what size stage we’re on, we almost always leave it while playing at some point to join the party on the floor.
One of the covers on the album is a Stevie Wonder song – is there a particular reason you chose it?
The arrangement of “Tell Me Something Good” is by our saxophonist Paul Metcalfe. Most people associate the tune with Rufus and Chaka Khan, but it was written by Stevie. I know Paul is always looking for tunes where a melodic rift calls the lyrics of the song to mind for the audience right away.
The title of the album is ‘This City’ (from the Steve Earle song that closes the album) – you’re based in Toronto but recorded in New Orleans, and your sound is very NOLA… Do you feel tied to any one city or is ‘this’ city wherever you happen to be playing? How does location affect you as a group?
Obviously the spirit and culture of Toronto and New Orleans have a significant influence on the band and we find that the two cities do share some common ground, but the concept is really about the give and take between artist and community. We influence and are influenced. Three of us grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba and we’re tremendously influenced but the music community there. Tom Richards grew up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and spent many years in Boston. We’ve all been on the move a fair bit over the years and every community you engage with stays with you and becomes a part your artistic perspective in some way.
Once one of you brings a piece to the rest of the group, and you decide to record it, what is your process for taking that piece and deciding on its voicing and its sound? How much of the sound is planned versus improvised?
Each piece can be a really different process. Sometimes things come in fully formed and ready to go, sometimes we workshop a tune together with everyone giving input until we’re happy with the final product, and sometimes we’ll just play around with a tune in rehearsal. For example, “Hands Down Lo” got some minor tweaks in studio, “Tell Me Something Good” evolved over a couple rehearsals and “Two Foot Ticket” is pretty much the same as the first draft.
What touring plans do you have for the new material?
We’ll definitely be on the road in Canada this summer at various jazz festivals and we’re working on some dates in the US after a successful first run across the border in the Rust Belt region.