A brass band can mean different things to different people: a New Orleans-infused second line party, a somber orchestral reading; a swing dance, or a funeral march.
To Rodney Marsalis, it means all that and more.
For the past 10 years, the trumpet player has led his Philadelphia Big Brass ensemble to play everything from Tchaikovsky to Earth Wind and Fire, and everywhere from his adopted hometown of Philadelphia to across the country and abroad.
At the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope this Saturday, the Brass Band is presenting its show Brothers on the Battlefield. It’s a survey of music spanning more than a century, approximately from the beginning of the Civil War through the civil rights era.
Accordingly, the selections span traditional gospel songs, a Sousa march, Dixieland and swing-era jazz, rock and roll, R&B and funk. It’s also a dramatic effort, with spoken word pieces, historical narration and other elements. And while it offers a large, seemingly unrelated swath of American music to consider, for Marsalis there’s a simple thread that weaves through all of it.
“It’s about love. That’s the universal element that brings us together as human beings,” he said. The program, inspired by the fact that the 100th anniversary of the Civil War coincided almost perfectly with the beginning of the civil rights movement, explores “common themes of love and humanity in these momentous human events.”
Love is one of those base emotions, like happiness or melancholy, Marsalis explained, that can be conjured up through music And, it can be done with any type of music, which is why Philadelphia Big Brass always presents a varied and inventive repertoire, even beyond a special program like this.
The group is ostensibly a classical ensemble, with anywhere from five to 11 members on stage depending on the engagement, and accompanied by a drummer or pianist as needed. The small lineup and reliance on brass gives their performances an overall warm, punchy sound: leaner than what you’d hear with a full orchestra but without losing any of the harmonic sophistication of a larger group.
“Within the brass are so many voices. Piccolo trumpets that can do anything a violin can do; tubas can act as a string bass or vocal singers,” offered Marsalis. “We really do have all the registers covered, you just need to find the players.” And, in Big Brass, “Everyone is a virtuoso on their instrument. They’re expected to play things their instruments normally wouldn’t play.”
This means the group can make a well-known piece like “Stars and Stripes Forever” sound more nimble, for instance, than a full marching band, and offer unexpected sonic ideas like a low-register trombone playing a lead part usually reserved for high-pitched, lilting woodwinds. Similarly, their reading of the Prelude to Act III from the opera Carmen allows for a pretty melodic line to come more to the forefront than do most full-orchestra arrangements. Elsewhere, fast symphonic passages can adopt a vaguely bebop feel when played quickly on a horn.
It also means learning to play in a variety of styles, with classically trained musicians improvising jazz parts or playing more rambunctious funk, for instance. They’re genres that are often thought of as cordoned off from each other, requiring different approaches and skill sets. But one of Big Brass’ great attributes is to find — and accentuate — the commonalities among those styles.
“Any person can play any style of music. If you train at something, if something moves you, you can make it beautiful,” said Marsalis. “When you look at our group. it’s very diverse: men and women of all ages and walks of life. We’re all human, we’re all capable of anything.”
It’s an idea he had implanted in him long as a child growing up in New Orleans, before he even began taking trumpet lessons from his cousin, the famed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. “There’s an amazing cross section of different cultures,” he explained. “I always thought that was normal, to have so many cultures and musical genres existing in the same place. French, Spanish, African, Native American cultures, they were all influential especially as far as entertainment.”
In fact, it wasn’t until he left home to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and later lived in Europe for six years, that he realized this wasn’t the case everywhere. Nevertheless, taking that New Orleans approach to his own music has endeared him virtually the world over: The Philadelphia Brass Band has toured nearly all 50 states, South America and Asia. Next year, they’ll be making their first trip to Europe. And, as Marsalis’ eclectic ensemble continues to endear more and more people, it seems the world itself is catching up with his way of thinking.
“I think the world is a lot more of a big mash-up than it used to be. A lot of it is because of the Internet. Someone who lives in the middle of China now can get exposed to something they would have never seen before, and you see that reflected in the arts,” he said. “We don’t live in a time when things are segregated, when people just know about one style. It’s a very different world today.”
Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass will perform at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S Main St. in New Hope, on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. For information, visit www.bcptheater.org or www.rmpbb.com.