Ensembles: the Brass Quintet

There are many varieties of small ensembles (sometimes referred to as chamber ensembles) for classical instruments; but perhaps the most popular one for wind players (brass and woodwind) is the brass quintet. This is for several reasons. For one thing, since three fifths of the group is made up of common jazz/pop instruments, these groups frequently play popular music in addition to the more mainstream classical literature. Another reason is its flexibility in performance settings. The group is small enough that it can perform intimate indoor concerts, but the nature of the instruments is such that it can perform equally as effectively outdoors with no acoustic support like band-shells and the like.

The standard instrumentation for a brass quintet is two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba. In more advanced groups, the trumpets will sometimes switch off to piccolo trumpet (a trumpet pitched an octave higher than a regular trumpet) or flugelhorn (a trumpet relative with conical tubing that gives it a mellower sound). Some groups will use cornets in the place of trumpets, particularly if their repertoire includes a lot of Americana style music. Other variations will use a euphonium or baritone horn in the place of the trombone, or switch out the French horn with another trombone, or replace the tuba with a bass trombone. These alternations are relatively rare.

It may surprise some brass quintet fans how recent the creation of this ensemble is. There were two groups that formed around the same time, in the 1940s, that established this type of ensemble. They were the New York Brass Quintet and the Chicago Brass Quintet. Of the two, the Chicago group is arguably the most influential, due to tuba player Arnold Jacobs being the teacher of Chuck Daellenbach and Eugene Watts, two of the founding members of the most popular quintet in the world, the Canadian Brass.

Founded in 1970, the Canadian Brass has a long history, and has had no fewer than 22 members, of which only Daellenbach has been with the group the whole time. (Watts lasted almost as long, having retired only three years ago.) Their repertoire has a very popular style, showcasing familiar tunes in virtuoso arrangements. In addition, they are well known for having a very entertaining stage show, incorporating some limited choreography and comedic elements.

For those who like their brass quintets with a more serious bent, the go-to group is usually the Empire Brass. They are the quintet-in-residence at Boston University, and are world renowned for their mastery of classical literature.

There are many, many other groups around. Frequently the brass sections of orchestras will also form brass quintets in their spare time. Brass instructors at collegiate universities will perform as quintets as an outreach to prospective students. If a church has the appropriate players, they will sometimes form an in-house group specializing in sacred music. And of course, groups will sometimes form from retired amateur players as a hobby of sorts.

Even though this type ensemble is merely 70+ years old, it has developed a huge catalog of arrangements, supplanting nearly every other similarly sized groupings. They may involve everything from transcriptions of Renaissance music, to ragtime pieces, to jazz fusion, to show tunes, to… well, you name it and it’s probably been done.

For brass students, this is probably the first type of small ensemble with which they will get experience. The learning opportunities are immense. It requires all the members to be able to play at a soloistic level, but also to work as part of a group. Arrangements vary from very simple to almost unplayable by any but the very best players. They are challenging groups to be a part of, but also a very entertaining group to watch perform.