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Mo' Brass Roots
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by Michael Stone

(Listen to the music while you read!)

Freed of the military straitjacket, brass band music retains a certain heavy-metal menace, a sassy, insouciant spirit of possession. Just ask any high school marching band refugee. The music's feisty in-your-face quality exerts broad appeal, as audible in the ten-fold spate of global brass band releases lately come strutting this way.

cd cover Italian history has its share of lethal foreign misadventures, complete with martial soundtrack, an ambiguous heritage concealed like a sleeper cell beneath the surface of Amarcord, the madcap brass orchestra from Bologna. Singer-pianist Igor Macchia fronts, and his growling vocals encapsulate the louche and languid cynicism of a music whose wonder is the vitality and mordant humor suffusing Il Viaggiatore Degli Astri, their space-travelling fantasy recording debut.

A patent vocal comparison is Tom Waits, as on the opening cadenza of "Canzone di Periferia," where brass and vocals tonally converge, folding into a straight-ahead trumpet requiem. Likewise "L'amourtadela," a sweet, reedy waltz whose grumbling vocal lamentation and punning title mark the lethal savor of a certain universal human pursuit, a little bite of love. The shrieking clarinet of "Neve" and warbling sax of "L'arte Contemporanea" tap the parallel klezmer universe, in the latter case with a giddy double-time dose of wheezy, cartoonish sound effects, a brilliant, out-of-the-blue bongo break, and a jaunty Jew's-harp outro. "Arriva la Banda" lifts the group into an eerie, pulsing stratosphere, alternating a nostalgic café-like accordion lament with electronically processed vocals, some brassy punctuations and a capriccio finale.

The title track's interwoven drapery of electronic and naturalistic sounds takes a warbling clavinet on an arrant, dreamy Moon-Riverish course for the stars. In a would-be new world empire where the death of irony is soon to be morgue-certified, Amarcord's shimmering curtain of brass, woodwinds, fisarmonica, guitars, strings, piano, percussion and electronic miscellany sets loose the irrepressible rhythms of the Balkans, the Risorgimento and New Orleans, broadcasting a mutant virus of global sound, naked lunch at an astral aural audition from the land of Fellini.

cd cover Italy's Harmonia Ensemble comprises clarinet, cello, piano and midi, percussion and ambient sound, augmented by La Banda Improvvisa (flutes, clarinets, alto and tenor sax, trombone, percussion). Harmonia clarinetist Orio Odori composed seven pieces, with two more by cellist Damiano Puliti and another by pianist Allesandra Garosi (her nuanced textures are key). Ulixes presents a song cycle on the wanderer's mythical odyssey, in successive encounters with Polyphemus, Circe, Calypso, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, Hades and more. The intellectual proposition is pointedly postmodern, seeing "the end of our ethics founded on notions of ownership, territory and borders, in favor of an ethics that, dissolving barriers and certainties, emerges as a wayfarer's ethics... not based on laws but on experience... the wayfarer cannot live without the diversity of experience; he looks for the center, not the barbed-wire fence of the border� a reference point for humanity to come."

So as guests, it falls to Macedonia's Kočani Orkestar to catapault into untracked sonic territory what might otherwise remain a trendy chamber-music exercise, injecting the brassy elan of twin trumpets, triple flugelhorns, tuba, alto sax, and percussion, uncorking the effervescent quadruple-time music of festivals, weddings and funerals the homeland and neighboring Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Ulixes brings into sharp relief the east-meets-west wreckage of humankind's melancholy history, in what remains one of the most contested regions of the planet today, an apocalyptic reference point for humanity to come.

cd cover A kindred outing from degenerate Old Europe is bassist-composer-arranger Fred Pallem's Le Sacre du Tympan, whose garish façade proclaims a mutant excursion to the brassy heart of big-band darkness, recorded appropriately enough (in the "Chicken Little" Rumsfeld worldview, at least) where cheese-eating surrender monkeys blaspheme in the Manichean lights and shadows of Montmarte, Tuilleries, Eiffel and Notre Dame. Beaucoup trombones, tubas, trumpets, bugles, cornets and flugelhorns of all description, a gale of woodwinds, guitars, banjo, electric bass, keyboards, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, electronics, drum kit and sundry unspecified accessories (upon whose identity one can only speculate, given the album art's cheesy S&M subtext).

There's more than a hint of Mancini and Morricone in this Parisian pastiche, not to mention a lumbering pachyderm theme (on which more below), per "Poursuivi par des Éléphants Géants." Imagine Oliver Nelson, Bill Frisell, Bela Fleck, Sun Ra, Kurt Weill and Inspector Clousseau hanging a collective futurist left on the Gauche Bank and never looking back. Make that Lot in flight from the conquering coalition forces of Sodom and Gomorrah � London fog and Foggy Bottom � a pillar-of-salt thing, amphibian music with legs come out of the water, a matter of species survival. For the adventuresome and ever-evolving, able to leap official tall tales in a single bound, step through the hollow arch of triumph into the sonic fitting room and virtual house of mirrors, take off your night-vision goggles and try this full-metal jacket on for size.

cd cover Likewise ecumenical in its quirky musical temper is Cologne's disorderly Schäl Sick Brass Band, who conduct an entertainer's suave approach to a daft German-Alpine-Balkan-Eastern European-Russian-Kurdish-Bulgarian-Turkish-Greek-Egyptian-African-Caribbean-Hip Hop-R&B stew, deliberately beyond category, circus music for a gone world. Toward that end Schäl Sick recruits Greek singer and longtime fan Kristi Stassinopoulou for a wailing guest turn on "Anafi," and Bantu on a swaying soca-esque "Rubber Dub" (a friendly, prophylactic, oompah warning on the virtues of safe sex and love in the time of AIDS). Iwanka Iwanowa brings the polyphonic vocals of her Bulgarian roots to the fore, and every imaginable popular strain spills out in the most unlikely of places. To wit: "Om el Khair," a heavy-metal guitar send-up of an Egyptian pop song accompanied by Gallic bagpipes, North African percussion and the eerie vocal ululations of the Middle East, and "Nzobu," a funky New Orleans second-line doppelganger brass blowout, lacerated by slash-and-burn electric guitar, channeled through South Africa.

Then there's Tien-Shan Suisse Express, recorded live at the 2002 Paleo Festival Nyon, Switzerland, where Alpine and Central Asian musicians convened. The United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of Mountains (it was high time), and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation cooked up a collaborative tour of Swiss Alpine musicians and their upland counterparts from Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Russian Khakassia. High-altitude Swiss yodeling meets Mongolian throat- and overtone-singing, as on a funkified "Tibet," where trumpets and drums take up the theme a couple of minutes in; likewise the closing tune pair, "Babylon" and "The Mountain Messengers," a deliberate cacophony of all the constituent musics. Festival reports are that the congregation held its own against James Brown's funky reign on the main sound stage. Between the trumpets and trombones, monster alphorns, accordions, Swiss dulcimer, Mongolian horse-head violin and Central Asian lutes and percussion, and the mingled voices of many lands, this is a brand new bag whose absence of pretension makes this multikulti project work.

Warning: Thanks to control freaks at Virgin, if you attempt to play Tien-Shan Suisse Express on your PC computer, a hidden copy-protection program runs, and writes files onto your hard drive. If you try to disarm the program or erase the garbage, you cannot listen to the CD. Salt in the wound, it takes several minutes to involuntarily install the proprietary software, and then what you hear is not the actual CD audio, but a parallel set of compressed tracks whose sound quality is decidedly inferior, with a clunky hesitation between each track (the sound is normal on regular CD players). This "technology" is coming to North America, so consider yourself forewarned. Of course, anyone with professional equipment can defeat the copy protection, so paradoxically, the net result is probably to increase piracy.

cd cover Far to the south in Benin, the Gangbé Brass Band explores the metallic, melodic tones of Fon and the related languages of Goun and Yoruba, drawing on expressive spirit-possession traditions that enslaved West African peoples carried to Haiti, Cuba and Brazil. A dense ten-man vocal and instrumental ensemble schooled in jazz, Gangbé combines muddy trombones, trumpets, sax and euphonium with drop-dead call-and-response vocals and a battery of shuffling, thundering hand percussion and cowbells. Their vivid inside-out repertoire criticizes corruption, injustice and inequality, proclaiming a chillin' attitude of righteous living, with a joyous sense of vitality, a most original, instructive, and transcendently sublime array of sound.

Reviewed elsewhere in RootsWorld but worthy of mention here is the Roswell Rudd-Toumani Diabate collaboration Malicool, which combines some killer trombone and sprightly kora, backed by balophone, guitar, bass, djembe and vocals, with superb original renditions of Monk's "Jackie-ing," Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," and then some.

cd cover Returning to the Parisian cosmopolis and a seminal force in Jamaican popular music, the Skatalites innovated the inimitable ska sound, reggae's rhythmic and melodic foundation. With a bagatelle blend of Jamaican mento, Cuban rumba, Trinidadian calypso, South African township, and North American film scores, jazz and R&B in the 1960s, inspired by Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Ernest Ranglin, Ken Boothe and other island music legends, the band forged the brassy slack-time groove whose spirit still moves the planet. This tasteful Paris studio set is rocksteady from start to finish, worthy introduction to a band that continues to purvey timeless music, with first-generation members Dizzy Moore (trumpet), Lloyd Knibb (drums) and Doreen Shaffer (a voice mellow as 18-year barrel-cured Jamaican rum), and sundry veterans and young musical Turks. Be it a send-up of Miriam Makeba's "Pata Pata," film themes "From Russia with Love" and "The Guns of Navarone," a fluid retooling of the rumba "El Cumbanchero," or a revived Rastafari chant, "Glory to the Sound," the Skatalites retain a big-up riddim run on the sublime From Paris with Love.

Southward on the Latin American mainland, from trombonist-composer and Buenos Aires jazz club host Juan Carlos Cáceres, comes a 45-year retrospective on a superb encounter between Argentine tango, accordion, New World African percussion and brass (his "Tango Negro" and Santana-like "Candombe" lay down the law). Cáceres also worked with notable Parisian bands Malòn, Gotan and Tangofon, each included here, along with his hoarse vocal and piano explorations of tango tradition, and jamming with Los Estudiantes Argentinos (a Dixie, pre-bop "Dinah") and The Jesters (the clarinet and brass of "Blues de Pete Kelly"). Finally, to exit is "Y También" (And Also), a syncopated, Latin fusion collaboration with the band Roughcut, shades of classic Herbie Hancock.

To wrap it up, U.S. entry Brass Roots fronts the double-barreled trombones of Russell Jewell and Jim "Mondongo" Messbauer (who also composed and arranged) against trumpet, baritone sax, flute, piano and congas (Ana Norgaard has a lock on Cuban clave). Strictly in the house with Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader, Brazilian carnival and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, liberal doses of Latin percussion, European classical, and a devil-may-care disposition that mark a bright, optimistic effort of considerable promise. Maybe it's Dumbo on "When Elephants Fly" (which quotes "Fernando's Hideaway" and J.S. Bach), while "Those Who Trespass against Us" (Billie Holiday), "Merengana" (Franz Josef Hayden), "Chan Chan" (Compay Segundo) and "A Day in the Life of an Afro" (a la Maurice Ravel) emanate from the wicked musical terrain and freewheeling sensibilities of brass roots near and far.

Referenced Recordings
(Highlighted titles are available at cdRoots)

Il Viaggiatore Degli Astri
Compagnia Nuove Indye (

Fred Pallem & Friendz
Le Sacre du Tympan
Le Chant du Monde-Harmonia Mundi

Harmonia Ensemble and Kočani Orkestar
Materiali Sonori (

Schäl Sick Brass Band
Kesh Mesh
Westpark Music (

Tien-Shan Suisse Express
Paleo Festival Nyon 2002

Gangbé Brass Band
Contre Jour (

Roswell Rudd and Toumani Diabate

From Paris with Love
World Village (

Juan Carlos Cáceres
From Buenos Aires to Paris: Best of 1958-2003

Brass Roots (
Purple Cha Cha Heels
Accurate Records

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