I went to see the Universal Melody Brass Band at The Stone curated by Steven Bernstein. Finding the venue was an experience of its own. From the outside the Stone looks like an abandoned shop; and the only thing that informs you that you have come to the right place is a bumper sticker on the door. Once inside you’ll see how small the venue really is. Chairs are pushed and cramped together surrounding a small circle of instruments and music stands, and by the time I arrived it was almost full. But none of that mattered once they began to play.
Run by Steven Bernstein (playing trumpet), Universal Melody Brass Band also features Frank London (trumpet), Art Baron (trombone), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Matt Darrio (sax), Oscar Noriega (sax), Marcus Rojaz (tuba) and Billy Martin (drums). They played a variety of Jazz favorites as well as original compositions by Steven Bernstein. Unfortunately there was no programs, cell phone use was prohibited and the venue was very dark so I couldn’t write down the names of any the pieces performed. However, one piece that really interested me was one of these original compositions. It was heavily influenced by Slavic music, which is similar in its use of modes. But because it was a brass band the instrumentation created a musical juxtaposition. A brass band in such a small space created another surprising juxtaposition. At first this big sound was quite jarring and hard to process. However, the sound soon washed over me and the effect was that the audience became one with the space. Being so close to the musician and on the same plane created an intimacy that can’t be replicated in a recital hall or on a stage. I actually felt displaced from my body during certain pieces because I was so caught up in the music, especially during the piece I mentioned before. In such a space with such a big band, you might expect that the soloist might be hard to hear but Bernstein managed to arrange the pieces with such a balance and fluidity that I couldn’t even hear when the other instruments backed off and came back in.
This group was also different because instead of having one or two main soloists, all of the musicians were virtuoso soloists on their respective instruments. And each musician had their own style of improvising which made for these really distinct transitions between solos. While the trumpets and sax solos were all fun to listen to, what really caught my eye was Marcus Rojaz on the tuba. Due to the nature of such a large instrument continuously fast moving passages are nearly impossible. That being said Rojaz combats that quality by creating these harmonically complex improvisations often sharpening the forth scale degree and flattening the 6th unexpectedly. And rather than playing long held out notes, or slower moving continuous passages, he uses the negative space (rests) to create more interesting rhythmic phrases. The trombone player Art Baron used a similar rhythmic style, but also incorporated quick slides into his improvisations. Bernstein played mainly a valved trumpet but also had a slide trumpet on certain songs. When he took solos on the slide trumpet he combined the fast moving phrasing common to the trumpet with fun glissandi.
Overall going to see the Universal Melody brass band was a treat. I would definitely recommend anyone to go and see them if they are ever playing in New York City again. However, if you do go you should definitely find a venue that is in a smaller space. I would have definitely enjoyed watching the group on a stage, but it would have lacked the intimacy that I experienced at The Stone. And in terms of a venue, if there is any experimental group or artist you would like to see, check out The Stone to see if they are playing. Trust me, the venue is an amazing experience of its own. Just make sure that when you go that you bring $20 in cash. Tickets are not available in advance.