Bedford native Paul St-Amand had been playing trumpet for 15 years in bands around the province but three years ago, he decided he was ready to bring together his own group. He wanted to create a quintet that had lots of musicianship, but knew how to have a good time, too.
“I always knew this was going to be a casual group, even though we are all classic players,” says St-Amand, who was inspired by the Canadian Brass, a group that famously played in suits and sneakers. “We don’t really take it that seriously. We try to make it fun and relaxing and fun for the audience, too.”
The quintet started out with players Lisa Booth on French horn, Bedford native Reuben Bauer on bass trombone, and Eric Sproul on trumpet. After a few other players came and went, tenor trombonist Simon Oakey joined the group last year. Their chemistry shows itself in rounds of jokes and camaraderie.
“The personalities really clicked,” St-Amand says, during a laid back, banter-filled interview with the rest of the members. “We genuinely enjoy showing up for rehearsals just goofing off and talking as much as for the music itself. Sometimes we don’t get enough done in rehearsals for that reason.”
“We laugh a lot,” says Booth. “We waste a fair amount of time during rehearsals.” Booth started playing horn as a kid in the school band. She says it chose her, not the other way around. Since then, she’s worked in orchestras and bands around the world.
“Once you get out of the orchestra world and other types of ensembles, you’ll find the seriousness level decreases. We’re all quirky in our own way,” says Sproul. He started playing trumpet when he was 11 and now plays full-time with the Stadacona Band.
During the summer, when the quintet is busiest, they play weddings or “artistically driven” outdoor concerts at Scott Manor House, local parks or in gazebos like the one in Sullivan’s Pond in Dartmouth. They’ve also played Brass On Board, a series of concerts on the ferry between Halifax and Dartmouth. Their repertoire includes pop, swing and Dixieland. Fall shows move inside and are often played around a theme. Previous shows included a Titanic-themed show they played at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic with songs that were played on the doomed ship or from that era, a show of movie music in Brassywood or Remembering JFK a musical tribute with visual accompaniments to the late American president that was
They have a library of about 650 brass arrangements that St-Amand put together. They’ve played about 150 of those arrangements, from classical to Lady Gaga. “We are showing off our versatility,” St-Amand says. “The cool thing about a brass quintet is we can comfortably play music from the last 500 years. We haven’t done Gregorian chants before, but it’s possible.”
After a few years together, each player knows the others’ rhythms in what St-Amand calls a musical “telepathy” of sorts. “I know when Eric is going to play a bit a little louder and I need to back off,” he says. “When we first got together three years ago, nuances like that would have been talked about. Now three years into it, a lot of it happens automatically. A lot of bits of musicianship happen on their own because we understand each other.”
They play brass instruments but say what they do is closer to singing: the instruments just amplify the sound they are making with their lips. The two trumpets are the soprano voices, Oakey explains. The horn and trombone are the middle voices, “creating counter harmonies and jumping up in the melodies.” The the bass are covered by the bass trombone or the tuba, which Bauer took up about a year ago.
“There’s some musical magic that happens,” Oakey says. “We’ve all played in thousands of groups but to play in a quintet and have it mould and shift and adjust itself, and the colours change in what we’re playing and to have that work out. And it does that so many times and that’s so much fun.”
Bauer agrees, explaining how brass instruments have incredible diversity with the sound. “Brass instruments in general, of course I am really biased being a brass player myself, have such a warm colour to them. You can change the sound of brass so much with the assistance of embouchures (mouthpiece of an instrument) the assistance of mutes. You can do so much with the colour.”
The fun complements the experience. “There are only five us of, so we’re very exposed. And that shows on stage. It’s also because we have such great personalities,” he laughs. “That helps because there is a lot of PR in what we do. Our personalities allow us to do that.”
The group practises together once a week and each player practices at home daily. “I have a blast,” Bauer says. “It’s the musical highlight of my week, for sure.”
Next, the quintet wants to hit another milestone. “We need to make a CD,” Sproul says. “Every time we play a concert, people ask, ‘Where can I buy your CD?’”
St-Amand says when they get the time and money a CD will happen. And it will showcase the best of the band’s talents and personalities. “When we do an album, I hope it shows off how versatile we are,” St-Amand adds. “We often say in the language around our concerts that we can do everything from Bach to the Beatles and beyond. I hope the album would reflect that.”