Although the champions of Australian brass banding, Brisbane Excelsior Band, are not defending their Australian title at this year’s National Championships, they will be competing in New Zealand against their Southern Hemisphere rivals, Wellington Brass. But before they head over to our New Zealand neighbours, Brisbane Excelsior have released an album to celebrate their successes. Rather haughtily entitled Ten Years On Top, the album hopes to encapsulate the talent that has secured them seven Australian National Championship titles since 2006.
An arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” opens the album with a healthy dose of jazz licks and musical theatre pzazz. Goff Richards’ “The Jaguar” is another fantastic performance, making the tricky 6 8 march sound like a walk in the park. The band remains tight and employs dynamics to produce impeccable colour in the piece.
Principal cornetist Paula Russell masterfully features on Kenny Barker’s difficult “Virtuosity”, making for an exciting showcase of the band’s ability to support its lead players. Paula manages to strike the perfect balance of jazz and traditional classical playing style to make the solo her own. The band follows this up with spiritual number “Candle of the Lord” and, with perfect intonation throughout, sings through even the most fragile of dynamics to provide a stunning performance.
“Skyfall” unfortunately falls flat, not for the band’s performance but rather due to the vocals. It is difficult not to compare the band’s rendition to Adele’s powerful original, and unfortunately this performance isn’t overly confident, with shaky pitch and a lack of true conviction, sounding more like a closing wedding band number than a true James Bond anthem.
“Nightingdale Dances” is explosive and shows off the finesse of the tenor voices in the band. Being the big band chart of the set, with driving kit and trumpet-esque squealing counter-melodies, I can feel the raw energy of the band’s playing. This is followed by a composition by principal Tenor Horn player Benjamin Tubb entitled “Glasshouse Whispers”. A soprano solo feature, current Australian National Soprano Champion Jaime Brown leads us along a mysterious and haunting path, inspired by the Glasshouse Mountains. This makes for one of the most powerful tracks on the album, for its cinematic quality and exemplary playing by soloist and ensemble alike.
The fantastic solo performances continue with Amanda Casagrande’s flugelhorn rendition of Carlos Gardel’s “Tango”, which she executes with great fervour and musicianship. Amanda playfully dances around the intricate melodic passages, evoking the image of passionate Latin dancers. Euphonium player Nigel John is later featured on Phillip Sparke’s “Pantomime”, with tender tenor tones in a slow opening before exploding into a playful semiquaver fest in the second half. This makes for a highly entertaining solo addition to the album, and would be a great joy to watch live.
The mid section of the album is a bit of a much of a muchness in my opinion. Many of these middle tracks feel like the album fillers of Ten Years on Top to me, as the band has already proved their talent and virtuosity elsewhere, and these tracks don’t provide any additional flair to their stronger performances. They are certainly wonderful renditions but nothing stands out for me as truly breathtaking or inspiring.
“Abide with Me” closes the studio-recorded tracks of the album, with the band electing to choose Karl Jenkins’ chromatic rendition of the classic hymn. They perform this arrangement exceptionally, employing the new tensions in the chromatic harmonies to build towards a tender conclusion.
The album closes with the live recording of “From Ancient Times” from the Perth 2013 Nationals, which is an incredible piece but an interesting selection for the album. This wasn’t a winning own-choice performance, rather placing them in 2nd place. With higher scoring (and winning) alternatives available, such as 2016’s Oliver Waespi’s “Audivi Media Nocte”, I was curious as to why they chose this piece. However, the answer soon became apparent. The band nails Jan Van Der Roost’s major work, from the snarky trombones to the virtuosic cadenza passages, and the band succeeds on taking us on a journey through humankind’s distant past. This is a pure example of the raw energy the band provides in its live performances at contests. I think this is the track that all serious Australian A Grade bands should be listening to, as it proves that Brisbane Excelsior is not a typical A Grade ensemble. Other bands should be inspired by the current champions to meet their standard and maybe, one day, conquer Australia’s finest.
Unfortunately, Brisbane Excelsior will not be joining its Australian counterparts in Launceston this Easter, allowing another A Grade band to claim the Australian title, but I am anticipating a fierce battle in 2018 at Melbourne’s Nationals. For now, Brisbane Excelsior prepares for their contest in New Zealand to combat their New Zealand equivalents Wellington Brass. I’ll be cheering Brisbane Excelsior on, to show our neighbours that Australia does own the greatest band in the Southern Hemisphere!
You can purchase Ten Years on Top here.
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Jared loves to share his passion for music and artists through music reviews and commentaries. These include a selection of reviews written for community radio stations 3MBS and Radio Monash.