Since I bought my first Canadian Brass Christmas CASSETTE tape as a kid, I have always wanted to record a brass quintet album, but THIS Christmas album...well, its story really starts back in 2017.
I wanted to make the premiere performance of A Canadian Christmas a special event, so I asked the McMichael Canadian Art Collection if they could host a concert. I told them I would find a way to pay all of the musicians if they would provide us with a piano and basic sound system for a singer. They confirmed the concert date in autumn 2017, so I got to work on writing the arrangements for the ensembles that would be performing. I knew drums and bass weren't an option because we'd be performing in a very reverberant room. But our awesome vocalist was a jazz and R&B specialist, so I had to come up with an hour of music that wasn't just trumpet, piano, and voice. One of my of friends is the clarinetist in a woodwind quintet, and I thought that could be an interesting combination of musical textures, especially since Stu Harrison (our pianist for the afternoon) is comfortable playing in both of those worlds.
Of course this meant writing a lot of completely new arrangements for various combinations of solo voice, trumpet, piano and woodwind quintet. Did I mention that their french horn player had a scheduling conflict because of a prior commitment, so I was going to cover the french horn parts?
...Back to writing those arrangements. Oddly enough, one of my favourites from that concert was the last arrangement I finished writing. It was a rendition of The First Noel for woodwind quintet. At the time, the McMichael gallery featured an exhibit of some of the great Alex Janvier's paintings. His Spring Equinox (2002) really captivated me the first time I saw it and I became a little obsessed with it for weeks (especially all of those intricate, flowing lines that he'd painted by hand). I think I must've been trying to sneak some of that intricacy into my arrangement of The First Noel, because that painting had moved me so profoundly. I wrote a virtuosic duet for the flute and oboe at the end that was meant to soar over the melody played in unison by the french horn & clarinet. I was a little jealous that I didn't get to play one of those duet parts at the concert, but I knew I wouldn't be able to play either part on french horn (as I was renting a french horn and had a total of two months experience playing french horn at that time). I also wrote a woodwind quintet arrangement of Away in a Manger that featured both versions of the melody for that song. Almost all of the rest of the arrangements were for the full ensemble, but there was also a beautiful solo piano performance of Silent Night and an amazing rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that our vocalist (Joanna Majoko) sang with nothing but piano accompaniment, and I'm telling you now that if Joanna Majoko is singing in your town in December, you need to do whatever you need to do to save up the money and clear up your schedule to attend that performance, because if there's even the slightest chance that you can hear Joanna Majoko sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in person, that's one of those experiences in life that you really can't miss out on.
I was back at the gallery the following weekend, and one of the guides asked if there would be a CD of that concert's programme. Besides the two track of EP of A Canadian Christmas that Joanna, Stu, and I recorded that year, I didn't have the budget to pay the woodwind quintet a fair wage to record, so we never had a chance to record those arrangements...but I never forgot those arrangements that I'd spent those weeks writing.
Fast forward to this March. My Facebook followers basically bought me a euphonium. I'm gonna say that again:
My Facebook followers (and one ESPECIALLY generous one) bought SO much of my music on Bandcamp, I was able to BUY A EUPHONIUM to record my Mozart Divertimenti album instead of just renting the instrument for the month.
Owning a euphonium has been such a life-changer for me. I've been able to practice it almost every day since I bought it, expanding the repertoire that I can play on it. Owning a bass register instrument like a euphonium means I can cover almost the entire range of a piano with instruments I own. I can arrange, compose and record a LOT of music by myself and do it at home without having to rent a recording studio. So that's what I've been doing this year. Oh, and then another super generous/angelic friend is letting me borrow her french horn. Again, having an instrument at home for this long has let me practice it almost everyday and expand the repertoire that I can play on it.
So, all of a sudden, recording all five parts of a brass quintet was something I could do. I needed to rent a tuba, and Long & McQuade's Mississauga store was kind enough to help out with that for the month. All of a sudden, I could rework those woodwind quintet arrangements from 2017 for brass quintet and share them with all of you. But of course, you deserve more than just a couple tracks, so I wrote three more arrangements over the last few months to make this album something that would last a little longer on your winter drives, walks, subway commutes, gift wrapping sessions, and holiday parties. I thought it would be fun to make some Christmas Ugly Sweaters for my wardrobe for the music video for The First Noel, and after coming up with the pun and sweater design for "O Holy Knit" , I knew I was also obligated to write a brass quintet arrangement for O Holy Night. THEN, in the last week of October, since the great J.S. Bach had already done all the heavy lifting of writing the perfect counterpoint in his four part chorale for In Dulci Jubilo (it's on Apple Music as In Sweet Rejoicing), I knew it wouldn't be too much work to adapt that for brass quintet.
That track ended up being one of my favourites, because my "arrangement" of Bach's four part chorale is nothing more than omitting one or two of the four voices in his composition until the very last repetition of the chorale. His counterpoint is SO flawless that it still works with only two voices.
This arrangement of Bach's chorale starts with duets trading phrases. Then the French horn plays the melody/soprano part over the two trumpets playing the alto part, and the euphonium playing the tenor part. The third and final time through the melody finally introduce the fourth part (the bass line in the euphonium), but a few bars later also adds the tuba doubling the euphonium part down the octave.
It was a challenge trying to create some variety in these arrangements and those trumpet parts for The First Noel were definitely something that required extra practice time to work up to speed, but writing, learning, and practicing this music has been a joy over the last few weeks. The music video for The First Noel is up on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok for everyone to watch for free, and the full album with all seven tracks is also available on all major music streaming platforms, but you can also buy it on Bandcamp. The brass quintet arrangements of these carols will be available on my online store, and the faux knit ugly sweaters (a.k.a. printed sweatshirts) featured in the music video are available on my merch store now (FREE shipping within North America and Europe, although for orders shipped to Canada, there will probably be duty and handling fees added when it gets to the border).
Thank you to Marc Koecher of MK Soundworks for his audio engineering brilliance (that makes it possible for me to record all of this music at home and still have it sound presentable), to Christie Williamson for the extended loan on that french horn, and to Anya Willis and her team at Long & McQuade for the generous discount on that tuba rental.
Seasons Greetings Everyone!