“Laugh Now Cry Later, “ “Senorita” and “I Remember” are normally songs you would respectively associate with rap king Drake, the romantic pairing of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, and EDM master deadmau5.
One act you wouldn’t associate them with? The Canadian Brass.
“Yet …” Jeff Nelsen, the legendary quintet’s French horn player, interjects during a phone interview to discuss the band’s 108th album, “Canadiana.” The project happens to land on the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Brass’s formation … err, 51st actually, thanks to the pandemic.
“Canadiana” offers takes on 11 Canadian culture classics, both expected and unexpected. For example, it won’t surprise anyone that k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” made the cut.
But undoubtedly some eyebrows will be raised when one hears Rush’s “2112 Overture” rearranged for trumpet, French horn, trombone and tuba, albeit with guest guitarist Sean Kelly furiously shredding through the instrumental track and Emm Gryner drummer Tim Timleck providing the percussion.
Or the Canadian Brass version of “Best Part” by Oshawa’s Daniel Caesar and U.S. R&B queen H.E.R.
“As a Canadian living in America, I always tell people, ‘Oh, k.d. lang is Canadian. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ that was written by a Canadian,’” says Nelsen, who teaches at Indiana University and lives in Bloomington.
“And everyone goes, ‘Really?’ So we’ve just been collecting the amazing music that maybe people wouldn’t know is Canadian and compiled this list.”
If you’re not familiar with Canadian Brass, the word “stodgy” is not an accurate description: the current configuration of trumpeters Caleb Hudson and Brandon Ridenour, trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulos and sousaphonist Chuck Daellenbach defy chamber music expectations, indulging in several genres outside the confines of classical music, and generally running around and ripping it up on stage.
Known for going baroque with their rendition of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” or performing longhair classics like Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” or Ravel’s “Bolero,” the Brass have also been known to tear it up with ragtime, Dixieland, Broadway show tunes and jazz, creating an impressive Juno Award-winning legacy along the way that includes sales of more than two million albums.
“Canadiana” may be their first album entirely dedicated to contemporary pop and R&B, but it’s not like they haven’t broached this territory before with instrumental versions of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance performed by Canadian Brass – BRASS ROMANCE, arr. by Brandon Ridenour
For “Canadiana,” Nelsen says every band member brought in their own suggestions, which were arranged by trumpeter Ridenour, whom he calls “a freakin’ genius.”
“The order came together pretty well because of how each piece clearly fits in in the way we approach concert programming. I think each of us brought a few our favourites to the table. We had to have Rush on there and Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen were the obvious ones.”
While guests on the album range from jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen to songwriting legend Bruce Cockburn, who sings his own “Thoughts on A Rainy Afternoon,” the most poignant visitor experience may be the quintet’s version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which combines current members with treasured alumni, including a few founding colleagues who were around with Daellenbach when the Canadian Brass formed a half-century ago in Toronto — although they truly got their start in Hamilton.
“We formed in Toronto and the Ontario Arts Council was real interested in spreading music around and in Hamilton; they needed a music group to get into the schools and get them excited about this program,” Daellenbach, 76, recalled. “So that was our mission and that’s what kept us together. We didn’t have to get five separate jobs and get together at midnight to rehearse … I don’t think there was a child in Hamilton in the ’70s that didn’t hear the Brass group at one point.”
Daellenbach said the original quintet — himself, trombonist Gene Watts, French horn player Graeme Page and trumpeters Stuart Laughton and Bill Phillips — met “standing in the unemployment line” and comparing backgrounds.
“Gene Watts had been in the Toronto Symphony and I had come to Toronto to teach at the University of Toronto. That was my first job in life,” the Wisconsin-born Daellenbach recalled. “Graeme Page was a business school graduate, actually, and our trumpet player, who was 18 or 19, was Stuart Laughton from St. Catharines.
“That was our initial group and we spent a year rehearsing and doing a few CBC shows, and our first real major concert was the summer of 1971.”
What set the Brass apart, Daellenbach said, was the fact “that we were trying to figure out how to create an audience.”
“We were looking out, not in. And we were thinking, how do you develop an audience with such really bad repertoire for brass? It was very, very slim when we started.
“So we simply took a masterpiece approach and played Bach and Handel, and figured out how to present it in a way that people would share our love for the music and brass, and that really set the course.”
The Canadian Brass criss-crossed the planet a number of times, making their U.S. debut at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 1975, but what really put them on the map was a trip to China in 1977, including playing on the Great Wall of China.
‘That was the then-Prime Minister (Pierre) Trudeau and a cultural exchange,” Daellenbach remembered. “I think initially it was the Toronto Symphony exchanging with the opera ‘The White-Haired Girl’ from China, and the Chinese got nervous because they hadn’t had anybody visit for 10 years and couldn’t see bringing in a troupe of 150 people.
“A very sharp cultural attaché said, ‘Well, how about a small group?’ And game on: we went to China.”
Daellenbach recalls the Canadian Brass being hustled into a busy hotel in Canton, now known as Guangzhou, and being impressed by the service, with maids bustling about their floor. When he and the rest of his mates explored the rest of the hotel, they found it completely empty.
“They opened it up just for us,” he chuckled.
A Canadian journalist named Ross Munro helped make the Canadian Brass an international sensation as a result of that trip.
With Americans not allowed into China, Munro “was also feeding the New York Times. So that trip put us on the international news.”
The Canadian Brass continues to fill concert halls around the world, having just finished a European tour and playing several Canadian and U.S. dates for the rest of the year — including the Burlington Performing Arts Centre on Nov. 26 — before heading to Germany in early 2022.
So what kept Daellenbach in the tuba chair for over 50 years?
“I tell people I could never find another job,” he joked. “It’s been a charmed life. You couldn’t predict such a career and you just enjoy it while it lasts. So I’ve been very, very fortunate.”
Correction — Nov. 12, 2021: This article was edited to correct the name of Ross Munro.
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