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Duncan Hopkins Quartet

Red & Brassy

by Ian Mann

June 23, 2006


Ambitious and enjoyable.

This album is subtitled “Music for brass band with jazz quartet. Initially I regarded it with some suspicion, thinking, “that sounds awful, it will never work”. Except of course it does. Hopkins is an excellent composer and arranger and this turns out to be a very enjoyable album.

Hopkins was born in England but moved to Canada as a child settling in St. Catharines, Ontario which by delicious irony just happens to be the hometown of a jazz composer who moved in the opposite direction. The great Canadian trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler has been a major figure on the British and European scenes for decades now and indeed Hopkins has dedicated a piece on this album to Wheeler, “The Eminent Emigrant”.

Hopkins had a classical music education and through his family was also heavily involved with the Salvation Army. It was not until he was eighteen that he took up the double bass and really discovered jazz subsequently studying it at various colleges. One of his tutors was of course the venerable Kenny Wheeler.

“Red And Brassy” brings together Hopkins’ childhood roots in Salvation Army brass bands with his more recently honed skills in jazz as a performer and composer. The album was recorded at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto in front of a live audience but the applause and the announcements between numbers have been edited out. Such is the quality of Ted Marshall’s recording you would never think it was essentially a live album.

Hopkins deploys his regular jazz quartet of himself on bass together with pianist Adrean Farrugia, drummer Anthony Michelli and Roy Styffe on alto saxophone. The Canadian Staff Band of the Salvation Army is directed by bandmaster Kevin Hayward and is 27 musicians strong.

Hopkins’ compositions are essentially modern jazz big band writing owing something in style to his mentor Wheeler. The bulk of the solos are undertaken by the quartet. Hopkins himself has a broad, woody tone, a big bass sound reminiscent of the Norwegian Arild Andersen. His solos have resonance and authority and his ensemble work is similarly assured. Farrugia is a versatile pianist, thoughtful and introspective on “Perspective” but sparkling elsewhere. Styffe’s probing alto swoops and soars and Michelli drives things along combining power with inventiveness and exhibiting a particularly nimble touch on cymbals.

The quartet perform two pieces “Mojive” and “Four Year Old Steps” unaccompanied by the brass band. I assume the quartet is Hopkins’ regular working group and they are an excellent unit.

The role of the CSB is mainly textural with only Steve Brown’s plunger mute cornet on “White Pants, Red Suspenders” the only solo coming from their ranks. This is a tune reminiscent of old-fashioned big band swing. British readers are probably wondering what a Salvation Army band are doing playing a tune with a title like that! Stop sniggering at the back, the words mean something completely different the other side of the pond.

The CSB also get to play a piece sans jazz quartet. “On The March” is the only really traditional brass band piece on the record.

Hopkins’ subject matter relates to both personal experiences and aspects of Canadian history. The inspiration behind the writing is comprehensively covered in his excellent album notes.

The ambitious suite “Sketches Of Upper Canada” which closes the album is probably the best synthesis of the two musical traditions and includes a quote from the British National Anthem “God Save The Queen”.

Hopkins has put together an album which is both ambitious and enjoyable. The quality of writing and arranging is very high. It is still essentially a jazz record and as such is more likely appeal to a jazz audience rather than hard-core brass band fans.

I would certainly welcome the opportunity to hear Hopkins in other contexts not least with the quartet featured here who are excellent throughout.

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