Messy Structured Brass

Tuba, coronet, trombone and percussion come together to form the unique jazz of Brassum

Brass bands have a storied and glorious tradition, from military bands to massive marching bands, from European "oom-pah-pah" combos to New Orleans second-line outfits. But in jazz circles, a predominantly brass lineup--especially when those instruments are tuba, cornet and trombone--is still a little out of the ordinary.

Which makes the creative music of the jazz group Brassum unique. Albuquerque-based bandleader, tuba player and composer Mark Weaver recognizes this, and enjoys being part of a one-of-a-kind ensemble that also includes Dan Clucas on cornet, Michael Vlatkovich on trombone and Harris Eisenstadt on drums.

"I think that it was definitely part of the appeal when we formed," Weaver said by phone from his home in New Mexico. "To present a different sound in a jazz context ... I hope what we're doing is a fresh take. We can't claim originality, of course. But it's something that people are maybe not as used to hearing these days, especially not with original compositions. You might hear a band like this play traditional pieces, though."

In terms of the band's configuration, Weaver said the sound he heard in his head brought to mind these players. "I used to play in a brass quintet, and I was really enamored of the sound of brass instruments together, but also Harris and I were playing with Dan, and he made a comment about how it would be really great to add a trombone player. I immediately thought of Michael."

Brassum will play the Mat Bevel Institute on Saturday night, April 9, as part of the Zeitgeist Jazz at the Institute series.

Tucson jazz audiences will already be familiar with Weaver and Eisenstadt from their Zeigeist gig with saxophonist Biggi Vinkeloe in 2001. Vlatkovich played the same venue with trumpeter Rob Blakeslee, and was easily the best part of that performance.

Brassum formed about two years ago and has produced one album, the punchy Warning Lights, on which the band navigates a combination of modernist jazz composition (a la Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill), improvisation and a soulful New Orleans vibe.

All the compositions are by Weaver, although each of the other members writes music. But "once we started playing together, when I would suggest the others contribute material, they said they felt like there was a certain sound I was getting with the band, and it has sort of become a vehicle for my take on things."

Weaver said if he could choose the ideal players for this project, they would be the ones already involved in it. "These are the guys, of all the guys I have played with, who are my favorite guys for this sound."

As a tuba player, Weaver has had some marvelous opportunities to play with some cool jazz musicians over the years, including Butch Morris, Anthony Braxton, Jeff Kaiser and Alan Lechusza.

There was a time, though, when playing jazz on tuba wasn't considered hip. "I've been playing the tuba for 21 years, and when I first started out, it was considered a joke by pretty much everybody. But I think it's changing. More composers are writing for tuba. And just the other day in the airport, I overhead one guy tell another guy about me, 'He plays tuba. Tuba is cool.'"

Among the jazz composers who have recently made room in their arrangements for tuba are such leading lights as Cecil Taylor and Threadgill.

Weaver's bandmates, who range in age from early 30s to mid 50s, hail from Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. In Albuquerque, Weaver also works as an architect.

He says his architectural designs and musical compositions have more in common than some people might assume.

"You would probably find, if you talk to other musicians who know my music, they would probably at some point in describing my music, they would talk about structure. It's a preoccupation of mine. The tunes are definitely structured, but one reaction I get quite a lot is people can tell they're tightly structured but they can't tell how. Clarity in my architectural work is important to me and in my music as well."

That said, Weaver knows it's important to leave room for improvisation and controlled chaos in most jazz.

"I'm also really into the messy. I really like music that gets all mixed up and anything can happen. I guess probably, I'm into some kind of hybrid between structure and open-endedness."

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