CD REVIEW: The Principal Brass - Debut CD 'New York'


The Principal Brass of the New York Philharmonic are some of the most serious musicians on the face of the earth and some of the least serious guysyou ever met. To say they shatter the stereotype of crusty old classical musicians is to put it too mildly. Recently, my wife and I were en route to a performance of the NY Philharmonic, when we were cut off on 65th street by a man on a Kawaski Ninja motorcycle. The rider? None other than Principal Brass Tuba player Alan Baer arriving for the performance.

Individually, Phillip Smith (trumpet), Matthew Muckey (trumpet), Phillip Meyers (French Horn), Joseph Alessi (Trombone) and Alan Baer (Tuba) are all virtuosi of the highest caliber. Collectively, what sets them apart from other brass quintets is the amount of fun and energy that they infuse in their playing, a kind of energy that is nothing short of infectious. Whether it's a well-worn staple like New York New York or an original piece written and arranged especially for them, there exists a level of craftsmanship that is unmistakable, but also a certain joyful energy that makes the music jump out at you.

Their new CD, New York is a breezy excursion through some of the more popular music written in, around and about NYC; some of it ubiquitous (New York, New York) and some of it unexpected (Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn). Despite the more popular leaning in the selection of material, the quintet brings the same level of power, passion and precision that it would to Mahler, Bartok or Strauss.< 


The Principal Brass has been performing as a group since 1983 and their live performances have become legendary. Whether performing an evening of unexpected jazz standards or dancing around the stage as they play, they are simply not your typical classical brass quintet, and we the audience are the luckier for it. It is hard to believe that after thirty years of performing together, this CD is in fact their debut recording!

The material is not exclusively New York-ese however, as the quintet takes listeners to sunny Sevilla in a collection of lovely arrangements from the opera Carmen. In the Carmen Suite each member is featured soloist in his own piece. The prelude to Act Three of Carmen (entitled: Intermezzo on the disc) is a particular standout, with evocative and tender playing by Alan Baer.

A good portion of the disc is dedicated to standards and the quintet really gets a chance to stretch out in a handful of familiar tunes such as Lush Life, Caravan and Take Five.

All tracks on the disc are arranged by veteran composer/arranger Robert Elkjer with the exception of the lovely Air of Manhattan, arranged by its composer Nicola Ferro., and Take Five, arranged by Phillip Meyers.

The difficulty with a lot of "classical-crossover" product is not that the artists are unfamiliar with the material or that they are uncomfortable in the style, but rather that they haven't had the lifetime of learning, living and developing the nuances of the language of the new idiom in which they are working. Obviously, fans of those styles look for that kind of nuance. No such disconnect is present in the Principal Brass. Serious jazz fans may quibble over whether The Brass "swing" enough for some of the material, but that would be splitting hairs in the face of such wonderful playing.

The Principal Brass has performed an annual Christmas Holiday Concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fischer Hall every year since 1995. If you happen to be in NYC during the holiday season this year, make the time to see it. You won't be disappointed!

Luna Xu