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Canadian Brass brings its unique style to Sarasota for a holiday concert

The award-winning Canadian Brass quintet has strong Sarasota ties.

Canadian Brass returns to Sarasota with a holiday concert Dec. 4 at Sarasota Opera House.
Canadian Brass returns to Sarasota with a holiday concert Dec. 4 at Sarasota Opera House.
Courtesy image
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What? You’ve never heard of Canadian Brass?

That’s OK with Chuck Daellenbach, the sole remaining founding member of the award-winning ensemble formed in Toronto in 1970. You’re still invited to the band’s holiday concert Dec. 4 at the Sarasota Opera House.

In fact, you’re exactly the kind of person that Daellenbach, who comes from a long line of German and Swiss musicians, wants at his concert. One of the reasons that Canadian Brass has attracted a cult following during its half-century in existence is that it happily talks with the audience and makes jokes during its concerts.

With a doctorate from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, Daellenbach could have easily ended up in a conservatory teaching music. Instead, he and his fellow band members travel the world educating and entertaining audiences about brass.

Daellenbach recalls how at one its early concerts, one member of Canadian Brass came out on stage carrying a piccolo trumpet, which is roughly half the size of the standard instrument. “You could hear everyone in the audience thinking, ‘What is that?’ They didn’t have to wonder for very long because we explained it to them,” he says.

When Canadian Brass was first starting out, it was criticized in some quarters for engaging in banter about brass with the audience. Fifty years on, the band’s official bio notes that it takes “pride in seeing the entire concert world embracing engagement as a fundamental element of performance.”

The Sarasota concert of Canadian Brass will be a homecoming of sorts. The band’s roots here go back at least four decades and former member Ronald Rahm lives here, Daellenbach says. 

Canadian Brass members Joe Burgstaller, Jeff Nelsen, Chuck Daellenbach, Achilles Liarmakopoulos and Ashley Hall-Tighe.
Image via Canadian Brass / Facebook

Another former band member’s parents used to live here, he recalls. Daellenbach was on the road during his telephone interview and the connection wasn’t always good so it was hard to pin down all the ties the band has to the area. Suffice it to say that even if all roads don’t lead to Sarasota, a few of them do for Canadian Brass.

The first time the band came to Florida’s “Cultural Coast” was around the time it first played Carnegie Hall, which was back in 1980. “Our horn player’s parents had a place in Sarasota and we thought it would be good to go down there,” Daellenbach says.

But spending time in Sarasota wasn’t the only thing that happened to the band after it played Carnegie Hall. “We basically got the music world’s seal of approval by playing there,” Daellenbach says.

In a 45-minute phone call that was interrupted and then resumed a couple of hours later, the word “luck” was mentioned by the Canadian Brass stalwart at least five times.

Case in point: The band was lucky to be put on the air by the Canadian Broadcasting Company early in its career because “it allowed us to reach the whole country.” 

Another lucky break was being featured on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in the U.S., another sign of acceptance into mainstream entertainment in the days when there were only three commercial TV networks and no cable or internet.

“You can’t predict luck, but you can prepare for it,” Daellenbach muses when asked for the secret of the band’s success.

One way that Canadian Brass prepared for long-term survival was by commissioning more than 100 works by Luther Henderson, a man Daellenbach refers to as “Duke Ellington’s showstopper.” 

Even in a brief interview Daellenbach deftly teaches a reporter about the history of brass and jazz without making her feel like an idiot.

The reason why Canadian Brass turned to Henderson for all those compositions is that the repertoire was limited for brass quintets, which trace their roots to the late 1940s in Chicago, according to Daellenbach. “At the same time we were playing Bach and Handel, we were commissioning new pieces from Luther so we had more to play in concert,” he says.

Along the way, Canadian Brass adopted some signature tunes. For instance, the band always opens its concerts with “A Closer Walk With Thee,” which was the traditional closing number of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans.

The opening number played by Canadian Brass is an arrangement written by Henderson before he died six years ago that weaves in “When the Saints Going Marching In,” the Christian hymn that became a jazz standard after Louis Armstrong and his band recorded it in the late 1930s.

The last time Canadian Brass played a gig in Sarasota was 2018, when it performed at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Asked where the band will be playing this time around, Daellenbach responded, “You tell me. I don’t have to think about that yet.”

Daellenbach doesn’t have to think about it because after 50 years, Canadian Brass is a fine-tuned operation and has people who worry about things like scheduling and venues.

That frees up Daellenbach to focus on issues like personnel and programming. These days, Canadian Brass consists of Joe Burgstaller and Ashley Hall-Tighe on trumpets, Jeff Nelsen on horn, Achilles Liarmakopoulos on trombone and Daellenbach on tuba. 

“We only want lucky members,” Daellenbach says as an aside.

Because of the timing of its Sarasota performance, the Canadian Brass show will include holiday favorites, from “Carol of the Bells” to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in addition to swing tunes from Glenn Miller and more. 

The performance is sponsored by the Sarasota Concert Association.

Looking back on his long musical career and the history of Canadian Brass, Daellenbach says one of the things that he’s most proud of is winning the Echo Award, Germany’s answer to a Grammy, for a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “To be honored in Germany for German music was a real achievement,” he says.

In total, there have been 24 nominations for Grammy and Juno (Canada’s Grammy) awards for Canadian Brass over the years.

Despite its awards for recordings, the lifeblood of Canadian Brass is touring and interacting with its audiences. That’s why the pandemic shutdowns hit the band particularly hard, Daellenbach says. 

How did they make it through? By going into the studio. The Brass, as members refer to the band, recorded “Canadiana,” an award-winning album that features unique arrangements of such Canadian superstars as Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang, Bruce Cockburn, Drake and DeadMau5.

Daellenbach may tell you all about the album during the Sarasota concert. Even if he doesn't, you’ll still leave smarter than when you arrived.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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