Corrections or additions?
This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 15,
1999. All rights reserved.
Mystical Canadian Brass
Sometimes performing artists prefer to be interviewed
by telephone from their homes or offices. Sometimes, when they’re
touring, they prefer to be reached at their hotel. Weighing in,
with a first, Canadian Brass trombonist Gene Watts prefers to be
from the streets of Kansas City, Missouri.
The Canadian Brass has alighted in Kansas City on their way to
Missouri, Watts’ hometown. Sedalia has declared a "Gene Watts
Day," complete with parade and high school marching bands to honor
their native son, as a follow-up to the first ever Canadian Brass
In Kansas City, Watts is standing by on his cell phone. The five
of the Canadian Brass are strolling purposefully from the plaza in
front of Saks Fifth Avenue, past Starbucks, on the way back to their
hotel, in pursuit of concert dress for the Christmas season. They
are looking for T-shirts. "We have three red ones," says
"but the green is terrible." Clearly, the Canadian Brass is
one earthy ensemble, with a highly-developed sense of play. "We
hang out a lot together on tour," Watts says with a twinkle in
his voice, "because we don’t know anybody else."
The Canadian Brass appears at New Brunswick’s State Theater on
December 15, at 8 p.m. Members of the ensemble are Jens Lindemann
and Ron Romm, trumpets; Chris Cooper, French horn; Gene Watts,
and Chuck Daellenbach, tuba. Watts and Daellenbach are the founding
members of the group.
The Canadian Brass bring its sense of play to recital appearances
on the road, incorporating skits and its own versions of operas into
the program. The New Brunswick performance includes the Brass’s
of Bizet’s opera "Carmen." "We correct Bizet," Watts
says. "We put the bull into the opera. And we do something else
that’s really appreciated — we cut it down to 10 minutes."
In guest appearances with some of the world’s leading orchestras about
20 times a year, the Brass restrains itself, and omits the skits and
Their repertoire, like their recordings, covers the musical map. The
New Brunswick program includes arrangements of the baroque masters
Purcell and Vivaldi, an arrangement of a Paganini Caprice for solo
French horn, a tribute to Duke Ellington, and both Chanukah and
selections. Watts is primarily responsible for programming and
presentation. He is also, I learn, the philosopher of the ensemble.
The outlines of the vast territory Canadian Brass has claimed for
its own can be seen by the range covered in more than 50 recordings.
A short selection of titles from the discography includes
Brass: Pachelbel to Joplin," "Ain’t Misbehavin’ and other
Fats Waller Hits," "Vivaldi: The Four Seasons," "Bach:
Art of the Fugue," "The Christmas Album," "The Mozart
Album," "Gabrieli/Monteverdi: Antiphonal Music,"
for Brass," "Brass on Broadway," "Canadian Brass Plays
Bernstein," and "Take the `A’ Train: Canadian Brass play the
music of Duke Ellington." Ever active, Canadian Brass issued two
new CDs in 1999, the Ellington album, and an album called
named after the piece, "Celebration," commissioned from Lukas
Foss for Canadian Brass and Orchestra, that marks the ensemble’s 30th
Born in 1936, Watts grew up in a family where music was important.
His mother was a piano teacher who taught 70 to 80 pupils a week for
40 years. His father was a minister who played trumpet as a young
man. Watts’ brother, a trumpeter, turned away from a career as a
in favor of a steady job with U.S. Steel.
"The piano was not an attraction for me," Watts says. "I
had to hear those beginning students too much. Besides, the piano
was always so busy, I couldn’t get to it even if I had wanted to."
He started on euphonium, a baritone horn, and switched to trombone
at age 14 when his arms were long enough to make the necessary
With his mother as accompanist, he played frequently at home and as
a church soloist.
Watts relates the musical scene in Sedalia, Missouri, to the history
of the town. Sedalia was part of the Underground Railroad, home to
Scott Joplin, and, therefore, a center for jazz clubs and good jazz
musicians. "I started playing jazz early," he notes. "In
high school I discovered that there were jazz sessions every weekend,
and they let me come in and play."
Watts formed his own Dixieland band, the Missouri Mudcats, as a way
to fund his education at the University of Missouri in Columbia. After
three years of study at the New England Conservatory in Boston, he
served as a member of the North Carolina Symphony, the San Antonio
Symphony, and the Milwaukee Symphony, before being chosen by Seiji
Ozawa as principal trombonist of the Toronto Symphony.
Shortly after coming to Toronto, he met tuba player
Chuck Daellenbach, who as a newly-minted Ph.D. had just joined the
music faculty at the University of Toronto. With three other Americans
they created the Canadian Brass, which gave its first concert in 1970
and began touring in the United States in the 1980s. "What’s
about us," says Watts, "is that we developed our style and
approach in Canada." In its early years the Canadian Brass
Canadian music heavily. As their careers became more international,
they focused more on international music. Watts still lives in
with filmmaker Barbara Sweete. The couple has a second home in
Both Daellanbach and Watts studied with Arnold Jacobs, the legendary
tuba player and performer of the Chicago Symphony. Watts credits
with forming his approach to performance. Jacobs’ musical outlook
stresses both a fundamental understanding of the basic physical
of playing a brass instrument with the need for a clear conception
of desired musical outcomes. "He was one of the first to
breathing and the neurological responses of the body," Watts says.
"He knew what to focus on. If you focus on how you’re walking
and what each muscle does, soon you’ll be stumbling.
"Similarly, if a musician focuses on the process more than the
result, it can cause problems playing an instrument," he
"For a brass instrument you focus on the lips and the vibration;
when the lips buzz that’s where the sound comes from. You can’t buzz
your lips without breathing. It’s like blowing out a candle; you just
take a breath and blow. It’s wind and song. If you take air in, and
focus on the music, everything should work automatically. At least
that’s true ’til you start thinking about other things. It’s the focus
on the music and the image in your mind that allows a person to be
a musician. That focus, that thought, forms the connection between
musician and audience."
The connection between musician and audience, Watts believes, is
rather than intellectual, and depends heavily on intuition. Rigid
formulas and fixed procedures have no place in program-making, as
Watts sees it. Variety and balance are his watchwords. "A program
is like a fine meal," he says. "You don’t eat the same meal
Watts, who is chiefly responsible for programming,
attention both on the pieces to be played in concert, and on their
precise order. "We want a program to flow in an easy way so that
it’s enjoyable," he says. "We’ll rearrange it if it doesn’t
flow. Each program must lift the audience and take it someplace. Each
piece must lead somewhere. The audience is always aware of whether
a program goes somewhere, even if they’re not conscious of it."
Convinced that communicating musically is a two-way street, Watts,
the resident philosopher of the Canadian Brass, said in an Internet
interview that "the more experience you have, the stronger
you have to your own frequency [individuality], and the more influence
you have over an audience, no matter what you play. When you identify
with something — God or love — you are completely open. That’s
where infinite energy comes from. If you say, `I only had three hours
sleep last night and it’s not a very good audience, or this job
pay very much,’ then that’s what the audience gets. I like to tell
young performers that the audience knows every thought you have, not
intellectually but by feeling."
Watts is convinced that music makes a profound impression on the human
"Any kind of music has an effect on the nervous system," he
says. "It affects the way we feel about ourselves. Classical music
is wonderful because it takes us to the deepest level of experience.
The `Mozart effect’ is just the tip of what’s going to be
He refers to the evidence that listening to classical music enhances
the cognitive ability of young children.
Much of the listening advocated by proponents of the Mozart effect
is listening to recorded music. Watts considers working with
a problem, and, therefore, open to criticism.
"Music must be live to be effective," he says. "When you
listen to a recording, it has an effect because of your memory of
a performance." How does he evaluate the effect of music on people
who have heard only recordings, and have never been exposed to live
music? "People who have only heard recordings will be really [he
underlines the word with his voice] excited when they hear live
Watts frets about excessive focus on the technical and intellectual
aspects of music. He introduced the Brass to meditation. Mindful of
the spiritual, or metaphysical aspects of music, he favors reining
in the intellect. "There’s nothing wrong with the intellect as
long as it’s used properly," he says. "It’s like a computer.
If it turns out to be the master, then we are in trouble."
Remaining master of the computer, Watts is justifiably enthusiastic
about his ensemble’s excellent website, www.canadianbrass.com.
Updated once or twice a month, the site contains schedules,
archival information, interviews, and tips about brass instruments.
Watts looks to New Age ideas as a valuable corrective to received
wisdom. "The world is changing," he says. "We can accept
the idea of non-verbal experience. That’s what music gives us. Kids
need experience beyond the world of information and intellect. What
the world needs now is love. Music is beginning to be rediscovered.
New Age goes back to old known effects of music and results in
how to present music. Everybody always knew music was mystical. Just
think about chant and about plainsong in church." For those
of mysticism, however, there is no need to fear overdosing on the
spiritual when one is exposed to the Canadian Brass.
As Watts’ ideas about music take form in the reality of performance,
the light touch is a major component of Canadian Brass’s
The mysticism of the Canadian Brass cohabits comfortably with the
group’s earthiness. "One reason we’re seemingly different,"
says Watts, "is that we have a relaxed approach to something
— Elaine Strauss
New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $20 to $38. Thursday, December 16,
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.