ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

October 15, 2005

The Uplifting Return of Footlifters

One of the outstanding issues of the late LP era which I’d given up hope of ever having on CD was a 1975 collection of American marches issued by Columbia (before that label had morphed into CBS and then was taken over by Sony) under the heading Footlifters. That was the title of the Henry Fillmore piece that started off the sequence of 14 marches played by "the Incredible Columbia All-Star Band," with Gunther Schuller conducting. Among the remaining items were six marches by Sousa, two by Ives, and one each by David Wallis Reeves, G.H. Huffine, Scott Joplin, Harry Alford (not the Colonel Bogey Alford), and the remarkable 50-year conductor of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Band, Merle Evans. Well, here it is, after all, on Sony SK94887, the gem among the three CDs just brought out by Sony, separately but under the collective rubric "Brass Masterworks."

If you think the band’s name is out-and-out hyperbole, just have a look at the personnel list, reprinted from the original LP backliner: these were, and in several instances still are, the superstars of the woodwind and brass world: Gerard Schwarz (just beginning to conduct back then) led the cornets, Stanley Drucker the clarinets, Harvey Phillips the tubas, Paul Ingraham the horns, Buster Bailey the percussion, and on and on at that level. Quite a distinguished "pick-up" band, and these guys weren’t just sight-reading. Every single march seems to have been chosen for its special virtues, and these are considerable. Moreover, Reeves’s Second Connecticut Regiment March and three of the Sousa numbers -- The Gallant Seventh, Semper Fidelis and The Thunderer -- are embellished with a prominent and enthusiastic "regimental drum and bugle corps." These are all exceptional performances, and any concerns about the inevitably duplicated titles are gloriously swept away. The lesser-known items -- Huffine’s Them Basses, Scott Joplin’s Combination March (arranged by Schuller), the titular Fillmore masterpiece, Alford’s Purple Carnival, and Evans’s Symphonia -- all have features that make them memorable (when given this level of performance), and even The Stars and Stripes Forever seems especially fresh, taken at the same bracing and "authentic" tempo Artur Rodzinski favored in his farewell concerts as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, back in 1947, when he set off an audience demonstration with it.

By way of making up for the long wait in bringing this material to CD, Sony has provided a very substantial bonus. In the same year, 1975 -- and under the same impetus, the celebration of the US Bicentennial, in this case a project supported by the JC Penney Bicentennial Musical Celebration -- Columbia recorded another LP of marches and patriotic pieces, performed by the redoubtable Goldman Band under Richard Franko Goldman, with the DePaur Chorus. Five of the strongest instrumental-only component items of that collection fill out this indispensable CD, leading off with Victor Herbert’s march The Gold Bug, in an edition by our own Rad Bennett, who advises that he thinks of this "as a reconstruction rather than an arrangement. The trio is supposed to be whistled by the players not playing, but Richard said the players were so embarrassed to do so that he had the piccolos do it." (And those piccolos actually sound close enough to whistling.)

The longest item on the CD, and the only one that is not a march, is The Battle of Trenton, a once famous descriptive piece by James Hewitt (an exact contemporary of Beethoven), performed in an arrangement by Jonathan Elkus and conducted by Ainslee Cox. (Richard Franko Goldman himself recorded this piece earlier for Capitol, and that version recirculated a few years ago on an EMI CD.) The remaining Goldman items here, all with Goldman on the podium, are the Sousa rarity President Garfield’s Inauguration March (reconstructed by Dorothy Klotzman), Patrick S. Gilmore’s Norwich Cadets, and Joseph Gung’l’s Major General US Grant’s Grand March -- the last a tribute by a visiting Hungarian celebrity in the middle of our Civil War. The sound quality on the LP was first rate, and it is still pretty grand, blessedly free of the sort of gratuitous tweaking that could have altered its glorious integrity.

If the audience for the two remaining discs in this series may be somewhat smaller than the one for Footlifters, that smaller number may be no less enthusiastic and grateful to have these imaginative revivals of the repertory of the American concert band in its heyday. That means going beyond marches to a variety of other forms, including waltzes, polkas, fantasies on operatic tunes, and even a miniature Cornet Concerto. The collection headed "Cornet Favorites" [SK94886] was assembled by Schuller, who arranged all the pieces in it, and contributed some brief original interludes. Gerard Schwarz was the soloist throughout the program, playing both the cornet and the euphonium, sometimes on his own, sometimes with fellow soloists. Everything here will be new to virtually everyone, and two of the tracks had never been issued before in any format.

The American Brass Band Journal [SK94885] is a combination of two admired LPs on which the Empire Brass Quintet and some distinguished colleagues performed music from the legendary mid-nineteenth-century publication called The Brass Band Journal. One of the LPs, recorded in 1976, was issued by Columbia, while the second, taped the following year, came out on Sine Qua Non. It was Jon Newsom, who only a few months ago retired as chief of the Library of Congress’s Music Division, who acquainted the EBQ with this treasury, and his original annotations for both LPs are reprinted with the CD reissue. Although the second part had to be copied from an LP because the original tapes could not be found, the transfer was handled very effectively.

In respect to content, sound quality, documentation and overall thoughtfulness in presentation, all three of these CDs are clearly above the norm, and Footlifters in particular, one of the all-time great march collections, is something to which listeners of virtually every persuasion can respond on a very special level.

 ...Richard Freed

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