This article was first published in the Town Courier.
This was big. In brass band circles, the four-day Great American Brass Band Festival held June 1 through 4 in Danville, Kentucky, is like other music genres’ Lollapalooza, Tanglewood or Newport Folk.
That Pritchard Music Academy’s Powerhouse Brass—Kristen Gottlieb (horn), Jason McFadden (trumpet), Alex Loane (tuba), Chris Hunter (trombone) and Arjun Guthal (trumpet)—played the Great American Brass Band Festival this year was “unbelievable,” said Becky Pritchard, Powerhouse Brass music director and co-owner of Pritchard Music Academy (PMA) with her husband Joe. “We still really can’t believe that we did it. The kids were all really good.”
PMA trombone teacher Zenas Kim-Banther suggested that the Pritchards apply to the festival’s collegiate group program. Kim-Banther also performs in The Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass that closed out this year’s festival.
“I didn’t even tell the kids I was doing it (applying),” Becky Pritchard said. “Forty thousand people are there, and they take these huge bands like the Boston Brass and Jens Lindemann and all these really, really big players. We just luckily got accepted into the program, and they were really impressed with us.”
Powerhouse Brass’ audition tape contained three songs, Joe Pritchard said, so the festival really didn’t know what to expect from a high school group.
That first night, Powerhouse Brass performed a 60-minute program for an audience in Perryville, the site of the largest Civil War battle in Kentucky and home to a legendary 100-year-old croquet tournament. After their performance, the festival director “sent me an email and just said how much he enjoyed it and how good they were and how impressed he was, and he said several people had come up to him that night and said, ‘Those guys are just babies. How are they playing like that?’”
In all, the group performed three times at the festival and gave an impromptu performance with the Northern Kentucky University Bourbon Boys Quintet. The Bourbon Boys had closed Friday night’s concert in Perryville, and afterwards invited Powerhouse Brass to play with them at their dorm on Saturday. “When they (Bourbon Boys) invited them to play their stuff, they just pulled out stuff from their book and the kids hung in with it, tempo and everything,” Becky Pritchard said.
“They had never seen the music before,” Joe Pritchard noted.
“All 11 brass players stood on the front porch (of the Bourbon Boys’ dorm) facing the main street into town and for the next 90 minutes, they played and played. The sound they produced attracted quite an audience,” Becky Pritchard said.
During Powerhouse Brass’ final concert on Saturday morning, the band appearing before them ended their set early. Powerhouse Brass stepped up and performed for 45 minutes longer than planned. “They rolled with it,” Becky Pritchard said. “And at that same concert Vince DiMartino came in and played. …. He’s a legendary trumpet player.”
And “The kids took it completely in stride,” Joe Pritchard said. Becky Pritchard concurred. “It didn’t faze them that we changed the program and this huge player was coming up to play with them.”
The Pritchards attribute band members’ confidence to their hard work and camaraderie as well as a robust performance schedule that had them on stage more than 50 times this year. “They work so hard, and they make it seem so easy,” Becky Pritchard said. “They’re really good friends.”
Becky Pritchard said that Saturday’s performance when DiMartino played with Powerhouse Brass was a highlight of the festival for her.
Joe Pritchard valued the “convention feel” of the festival where musicians got to know each other and establish relationships as colleagues. A Friday symposium featured talks by three professors and performances from five or six groups. “After it was over, the kids got to spend time talking to Rodney Marsalis, the Boston Brass and Jens Lindemann,” he said. “It was really cool. … They talked to them like colleagues.”
Powerhouse Brass horn player Kristen Gottlieb also felt that the symposium was a highlight. “This amazing trumpet player named Jens Lindemann invited two other superb players, Jose Sibaja and Vince DiMartino, on stage,” she explained. “Their joint performance began as them simply taking turns soloing, but it ended up becoming a full-out ‘who can play higher’ and ’who can articulate faster’ contest. Not only was it breathtaking to watch, but it was also hilarious because we were essentially eavesdropping on their own personal hangout and impromptu jam session.”
Gottlieb’s takeaway from the festival was “the inspiration and motivation to explore jazz horn playing,” she said. “Chris Castellanos, the horn player from Boston Brass, played this amazing solo in his group’s rendition of ‘Caravan’ and he showed me that the horn can stray from its traditional orchestral roots.”
Powerhouse Brass trombone player Chris Hunter said that “playing and meeting professional musicians was really cool.” He gained “a renewed love for brass music” at the festival.
“All of them want to come back next year,” Becky Pritchard said. “We’ll audition for it certainly, and we’ll go if they get in because they loved it.”
Powerhouse Brass sold 25 copies of their June release CD, “Red, White and the Blues,” at the festival. CDs are for sale at Pritchard Music Academy on Main Street in the Kentlands.