By Steve Provizer
The seven-man musical wrecking squad from Austria called Mnozil Brass has created a combination circus band, village band, marching band, and vaudeville orchestra.
In late 19th century America, brass bands were primarily made use of in military marches and circuses. Brass band music in Europe developed slightly differently than it did here, but there was considerable overlap. In both, the instrumentation remained almost the same and was used in the military and popular forms of theater, though the music was more tied to dancing in Europe. Performing in a brass band required the highest degrees of virtuosity and of stamina; many of the best players eventually ended up in the Sousa and Goldman bands, or in theater and vaudeville pits in major cities (this work was a lot less available to black musicians, but that’s another long story).
What the seven-man musical wrecking squad from Austria called Mnozil Brass has tried to do is create a combination circus band, village band, marching band, and vaudeville orchestra. They are virtuosos, but much of the time their musicianship is merely a foil, undermined by comic bits or used to set up elaborate vaudeville, mime, or magic routines. These musicians have embraced the task of becoming clowns, mimes, and vaudevillians. They take center stage: continually moving in and out of the imagined orchestra pit, village green, and circus loft. It’s an interesting concept, with its hits and misses, but the act is never less than mildly entertaining and, occasionally, music and set pieces merge to create something quite special.
Presented by Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall on February 9, the Mzonil Brass took on the role of ersatz vaudeville orchestra. They provided sound effects, atmospheric music, and light classical music. I recognized the theme from the film The Third Man, “C’est Ci Bon,” “Summer Samba,” “Mexican Hat Dance,” and a range of fanfares, waltzes and pop classical fare. Their bits generated the need for a wide range of comic business, including a trumpeter/magician pulling scarves out of his sleeve, a trumpeter/clown strewing rose petals, a trombonist balancing on one leg on a chair, and several players whipping up a batch of invisible pancakes.
The timing of Mnozil Brass is expert; music and action synchronized to the second. If some routines were not that effective, it’s not because they weren’t well performed, but because the material itself just wasn’t that amusing or compelling.
The clearest and most effective routine: one of the trumpeters mimed placing a largish object on a table. For a while, I had no idea what he was up to. The band vamped behind him — marking time. It became clear, after a while, that he was setting up a gramophone. As he manipulated — and was manipulated by — the gramophone, the band responded instantaneously. When the spring motor began to run down, so did the band, when he wound it up too much, they sped up, when he changed the volume control, the volume of the band changed instantly. When he knocked the gramophone to the floor, the musical result was completely right and very funny. The routine was dazzlingly executed.
At its best, the Mnozil Brass brings theatrical action and music together in an unusual way. The group provokes new ways of thinking about how theatrical action and music can be linked in performance — and how artificial their conventional use may be. Once in a while, there is a blurring of roles. I once had a trumpet teacher who told me that while playing in a vaudeville pit he used to interact with Jack Benny onstage. Other small examples: The Glenn Miller band standing up and singing “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” Thelonius Monk spontaneously dancing around his piano or Ray Nance tap dancing with the Ellington orchestra. Some modern musical compositions demand more from musicians than just playing notes; performance artists explore this territory as well, but in more abstract, rarified ways. I have never seen a group use mainstream entertainment as a springboard for this multi-layered process. Pulling it off takes acting talent, high musical skill, and an impressive degree of group timing. All of which Mnozil Brass has, with panache to spare.
Steve Provizer is a brass player and bandleader who has been blogging about jazz for 15 years and written about the music for many publications.