The Heavyweights Brass Band, Christopher Butcher and the Next New Generation!

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Submitted by Bill King

Brass bands have been competing dating back to the 1930s’ when there were as many as 20,000 going toe to toe across Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway – a good portion of Europe and North America. These were military style concert bands. Some where labeled fanfare orchestras found in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Today’s brass bands bare the influence of New Orleans; a fusion of African folk, jazz, military and the modern era big funk mix-up (Toronto’s Heavyweights Brass Band). Just out of range is the Balkan sound (Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orchestra) and Punjabi (New York’s Red Baraat) - a blend of Western styles and traditional Bhangra rhythms. The specialized music isn’t just limited to North American and European shores – Africa has a long tradition represented by one of the most entertaining and precision brass bands; Eyo’nle from Benin (Africa Night).

Where do the cream of college and university brass players go these days, a good portion hit the rhythm band circuit – that being small clubs and eclectic festivals. As a career pursuit, mainstream jazz for the most part has drifted to the background and horn bands of all shapes and color – funk, blues, ska, soul now the prime activity.

The old line military brass bands were well-drilled precision entities. The new wave of brass bands is comprised of highly skilled and technically brilliant - schooled players. The bar has not only been raised, but the music is radically changing. The song list can be anything as long as it has a solid music core and pliable enough to be reshaped and restated.

I recently caught up with trombonist Christopher Butcher of the popular Heavyweights Brass band. Butcher has played with Jane Bunnett, Hilario Duran, Archie Alleyne and Jay Douglas, among many others. The recorded catalog as sideman reads; Sugarhill Gang, Gloria Gaynor, David Clayton-Thomas, Ernest Ranglin, Changuito, Giovanni Hidalgo, La India, Paul Shaffer, Nikki Yanofsky and Randy Bachman. In 2013 & 2014 Christopher was nominated as an Emerging Talent in the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts

Bill King: Have you ever been to New Orleans?

Christopher Butcher:  I have. This is ground zero. It’s the place, if you are walking around with a trombone you are the cool guy. It’s so interesting. You’ll be on the Canal Street streetcar and you’ll see two kids with their horns out, without their cases because they are going to a “second line” (those who follow a brass band to funerals or parades, walk and twirl parasols, dancing, etc.) I remember walking with case and being asked, “Do you have any slide oil?”

It’s obviously the birthplace of jazz – the birthplace of so much American music plus being one of the most vibrant cities in the world. I should tell you – both my parents are incredibly supportive of me playing music. My father is a United Church minister and a huge jazz fan. He took me to every jazz show in Winnipeg – season tickets, anything that’s going on he knows about and is there. My mother was a piano teacher when she was younger – both of my parents have grade eight or nine conservatory piano. We went on a family trip when I was eighteen and in grade twelve on Christmas break.

We used to always drive from Winnipeg to San Diego – Edmonton to New York. We went on a family trip to New Orleans; drove through the mid-west – St. Louis; drove to Galveston, Texas – spent a few days in San Antonio then a few days in New Orleans. I’d beenplaying trombone for six years or so and to me it was just stunning. First off, the level of musicianship you see on the street. Coming from Winnipeg you may have somebody busking on the Forks on guitar or something like that but in New Orleans there are world class virtuositic musicians playing on almost every street corner. That shook me up.

We went to all the known places like Preservation Hall and saw the band, I actually went to Snug Harbor and saw trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. I remember walking back to our hotel through the French Quarter which in itself is interesting if you are down there after ten until midnight. I saw a brass band on the corner made up of probably eighteen year olds, twenty year olds – bass drum, snare drum, one trombone, and sousaphone and four or five trumpets. I got caught up in the soul, the power these guys had playing their instruments. I’d never seen anything like this. That in itself was a huge inspiration to starting the Heavyweights Brass Band.

We have our own story too. I moved out and was at Humber College with my very good friend Paul Metcalfe who studied at the University of Manitoba with me. Paul was a few years older doing his masters and we played together all of the time. I played on his entire master recitals. He made the move to Toronto the year after me and was in school and went on Craigslist looking for gigs and sees an ad saying, “looking for horn players for funky New Orleans style brass band” – of course he answers and goes to this rehearsal and on the bus to the rehearsal there’s a guy with a tuba and he asks if the guy was going to the same rehearsal and that was Rob Teehan, who had did his masters at Indiana University and was back in town looking for people to play with.

B.K: Craigslist?

C.B: As opposed to Long & McQuade’s – that was the old school thing. There certainly is to this day on Craigslist people looking for musicians.

Both Paul and Rob go to the rehearsal and our, to be drummer Lowell Whitty was there. It was actually a woman named Marla Dixon who formed this band called, the Dark Park Brass Band. After first rehearsal I hear from Paul saying he thought I knew this guy Lowell who was at Humber College with me and they need a trombone player – why not come out to next rehearsal. I came out and eventually we got our trumpet player Jonathon Challoner – Marla was a trumpet player/singer.

As the Dark Park Brass Band we played a few gigs around Toronto when Marla heads for New Orleans, falls in love with the city and meets a guy – a banjo player. Marla stayed and formed a band called the Shotgun Jazz Band which covers traditional New Orleans jazz and was nominated this year by OffBeat Magazine “Traditional New Orleans Band of the Year.”

The band fell apart, she moved away and it was her group. It had been awhile after we’d broke up and I sent the players a message saying I think we had a thing. The five of us got back together and started rehearsing and from the first rehearsal everybody brought in a couple arrangements and it’s just been a slow build-up.

B.K: How long has the band been in play?

C.B: I think we formed in 2008 or 2009. We did our first album “Don’t Bring Me Down” in 2011. It’s been three discs, one full length EP since then, inspired by the New Orleans music tradition which is something we all love. The thing I think we quickly realized is there are a million brass bands coming from New Orleans and as much as that is an inspiration to us, that isn’t who we are. We are a brass band from Toronto who incorporates Latin, R&B or more modern jazz – we don’t reject anything. If there’s anything we like to play and have experience playing we are going to bring that in. That isn’t our weakness, that’s our strength.

I’m going back down to New Orleans in January to study. I got an Ontario Arts Grant to study with Delfeayo Marsalis.

If you are searching the “net” check out; Black Bottom Brass Band in Japan, Renegade Brass band; England; Funky Dawgz Brass Band, Tennessee; Funky Butt Brass Band, in Georgia, always the Rebirth Brass Band of New Orleans, and another favourite from the crescent city; the Soul Rebels.