Ahead of his adjudication at UniBrass 2022, and Friary’s performance at the evening Gala Concert, Brett Baker sat down to have a chat with Chris King about UniBrass, the Gala Concert, and his history as a performer.
Brett Baker is an Artist for Michael Rath Brass Instruments, Education Consultant for The Geneva Group, an established trombone soloist and long-serving Principal Trombone for the Black Dyke Band. Brett is also a trustee for the UniBrass Foundation, which hosts the National Inter-university Brass Band Championships, UniBrass, in Sheffield on Saturday 6th February 2021.
Chris King is conductor of Friary Brass Band, where he has had repeated contest successes. He is also an experienced adjudicator and band manager. He was a musician in the British Army for 25 years. Friary Brass Band will be performing alongside the BONE-AFIDE trombone quartet, and trombone soloist Dennis Rollins, at the UniBrass 2022 Gala Concert.
Brett: So first of all thank you for taking the time to do this. Really appreciate it.
Chris: Oh, you’re welcome Brett it's good to meet up with you.
Brett: We're delighted that you're going to be part of UniBrass this year. I guess you're going to have a busy weekend as both an adjudicator, but also conducting Friary Brass Band in the Gala concert?
Chris: You know, I've just been planning my day recently, and I think I need to leave home at about half five or six to get to Sheffield to judge and then we've got a rehearsal with Friary and the other performers, and then the concert. I think I might be ready for a little beverage by the end of it!
Brett: For the readers out there that aren't aware, Chris King here is conductor of Friary Brass Band, and also involved in the Association of Brass Band Adjudicators, as now the treasurer. But I was going to ask you, Chris first of all, a little bit about what happened before that. So you have been a military musician - I believe you were a cornet player, is that correct?
Chris: Yeah. So if I go right from the start then, I was a cornet player in brass bands in Lincolnshire. When I was a young lad, and I hit 16 and a bit, and needed a career, a very kind gentleman set up an audition with the Royal Artillery Band, in Woolwich. That was successful, and I made my way into the army as a junior musician. I spent just shy of 25 years in the army, playing the cornet, viola and a little bit of piano.
Brett: That’s it. They always insist that you try and play. I nearly went into the army, and one of my school teachers said well, the best thing is to play string instrument as well and then you are guaranteed, so I failed my grade five double bass. I got 99. So I just failed it by one point. And I did the auditions, and then actually I did pretty well in my A Levels and I thought I'll just carry on and then before I know it I was in education for the next 20 years.
Chris: Do you know what, I did grade five on viola during my training, and I failed the grade 5 on viola, so I'm with you and I feel your pain! I was actually okay but yes, failed grade 5. I don't know what that says for the standard of viola playing required but there you go.
Brett: That’s right yeah. I was reading a little bit of your bio and, after being a musician as a player, I think you went to Kneller Hall and then trained as a band master - is that correct?
Chris: Yeah. So, I spent a year as a sergeant, helping train the trainees at Kneller Hall, then went on to the band masters course. Yeah, I did well, and I was the band master of the Minden Band of the Queen's Division first. That was my first band master post. Then I did a desk job at Kneller Hall for a couple of years and then finished up at the Grenadier Guards as their band master. It was a lovely time.
Brett: Now I've heard of the Grenadiers. I've never heard of the Minden Band so where abouts is that based?
Chris: It was based near Cambridge. I think it's been and gone now. There's been a few.
Brett: I was going to say, did it amalgamate with some other band? I had not heard of that band before.
Chris: Yeah, I've been out of the army for 10 years or so and I've kind of lost track a little bit. I think it amalgamated and it may have been and gone now.
Chris and Friary Brass Band after their successful recent appearance at Brass in Concert. Photo Credit: Jenny Crossfield
Brett: So this is going to be your first experience of UniBrass. For the readers out there, and the players, what do you look for in terms of a band programme, from a playing point of view and from a musical point of view?
Chris: Okay. This is a multi part answer then. The basics have got to be there. So it's got to be together. It's got to be in tune. Right notes are optional I guess! But please be in tune, please be together, have nice balance. A nice bass lead sound, decent middle of the band, don’t have the high cornets too bright because it just sounds scratchy doesn’t it. And if there's a melody line, we'd like to hear the melody line. If there’s a soloist, we'd like to be able to hear the soloist. Sometimes those things get kind of left behind. Yeah, so that's how I like a band to sound. Programme-wise, entertainment is so subjective. Conducting Friary - we've done really well in entertainment contests sometimes, other times we've been hideous - but mainly successful. I've got an open mind, there will be no preconceptions or preconceived ideas. I mean, a band that sounds good, and plays well, and it's interesting music - that's probably entertaining. I know there are bands that like to get active, get people out the front, do a few gimmicky things and if that comes off, that's great. If the music's not well played and you're doing the dancing hippo, that's maybe not quite as entertaining. Just a clue there! The music's got to be good isn't it. I think musicality is two thirds of the marks as well for UniBrass. It's really important, but also the entertainment side is crucial. But yeah, get the music right.
Brett: Friary are a band that's reputed to do well from an entertainment point of view, and that you do something a little bit different. You've been very successful in that area. Would you say you've got a formula there that's working, or is it just that things click at the right time? A lot of people say your programme’s quite fresh, if I put it that way.
Chris: Recently, it's gone well. I mean if I'm honest, it was partly down to Izzy, Isobel Daws. Featuring her as a soloist was a big part of it because we're able to create stories and themes based around this fictitious Princess Isobel. And it went well and we’re going to feature Princess Isobel at UniBrass actually, next weekend. It's actually going to be her swan song that I think you've already told people about.
Brett: Yes. So we talked to Isobel Daws and that's been released already. I asked her a little bit about Berlin and she's very excited about that. But I guess, as a result of that, and from your programmes, that's going to mean a bit of a change in direction I guess in terms of what you do next, as Isobel is going to be in Berlin for the next two years?
Chris: Yeah. I mean regarding Isobel she's been brilliant for the band, and it's absolutely lovely hearing her play. She's off to Berlin and says the commute twice a week to the band is going to be difficult, but I think that just says lack of commitment really but there we are!
Brett: Exactly! I'm glad you feel that way!
Chris: We've got other lovely soloists in the band so it's fine. Obviously no Princess Isobel but we've learnt that you can create kind of interesting programs based around a person or based around some kind of fake nonsense story, and if you kind of play tunes that people know - interesting arrangements of tunes that people know, that's kind of gone well for us. I think we might run out of luck with that in time so we are going to have to have a rethink about what we do but it is certainly working well at the moment. And we've got some nice tunes coming up for UniBrass.
Chris conducting the Friary Brass Band.
Brett: Yeah. Talking about the concert, as well as Friary playing in the gala concert, it's also Dennis Rollins, who's a fabulous trombone player and I think you've got a rehearsal with him very soon coming up. But then also the trombone quartet and I know that you've been thinking about pieces - joint items to play and involve all the players. Is that going to happen on the gala concert?
Chris: It is. You'll remember Brett that I had to come to you because I was stuck for an arrangement for trombone quartet and band so I was like “help”! Thankfully you suggested the Irish Washerwoman so Irish Washerwoman’s on. We've got an arrangement of - I think it's a Cole Porter number - So Nice to Come Home To. That's trombone quartet and band.
Brett: That's right. In fact, there's a military version of that I think, that a gentleman I'm sure you know - Dave Barringer, used to play a lot with Flowers Band when I was there.
Chris: Yeah, it's the same one. So we're putting that on, that goes well. And with Dennis, because Dennis is a jazz, funk player - probably more funk than jazz, and there's not a great deal of repertoire for funk trombone and brass band.
Brett: No, that's very true!
Chris: If you tell me there is now, I'm going to be gutted because I’ve done some arrangements for this!
Brett: Oh! Well that will be great and that'll be something very different for the listeners anyway to experience so I'm really pleased about that.
Chris: Yeah, there's a Herbie Hancock number - Chameleon. Probably made more famous by Maynard Ferguson back in the day. That's been put together for trombone and band, so that should be quite a good laugh. Yeah, we've got rehearsal with Dennis tomorrow night actually. He's looking forward to it, I'm really really looking forward to it. It’s going to be great!
Brett: He is a fabulous musician and just very very approachable so I know you'll enjoy it. And so you say you've arranged the pieces - is that something that you do now in terms of programmes is that you arrange sort of the pieces, thinking about the strengths of the band and a way you can highlight players in the band, or is that something that's recent or have you always done that?
Chris: Maybe the last four or five years I’ve been arranging for the band, just trying to pick out the strengths in the band. If I'm honest I'm getting busier and busier doing other things. So, like you said, I help AoBBA with being the treasurer. I’ve recently joined the music commission of the European Brass Band Association. So that's taking a little bit of time. I've got a full time job working in a school. So my actual job - I’m a bursar in a school. And that's full time. Conducting Friary is probably a quarter if not a third of a job. So, actually, my discretionary time available for arranging is getting so small that I think, I don't know, I might be done. I don’t know.
Brett: Right, well that would be a shame!
Chris: I like it but there’s so little time, you know.
Isobel Daws performing with Friary as part of their "Friary Fairytale" set.
Brett: And so I was going to ask you about that. So you were at Kneller Hall. And then, of course, Kneller Hall’s - well, I'm not sure whether it's still there or not - but they're sort of, I guess, would you call it decommissioning? And I mean, is that what happened? Did you sort of say, well, maybe I've done my time in the military, or was it that you thought, well, maybe it's time to do something else. I'm just interested to see how that works, because I've been down there myself and it's such a wonderful place to go around and it's such a lot of history, and I was really disappointed to hear that they weren't going to use it anymore.
Chris: No, gosh, how truthful do you get on an interview? Army wise, Kneller Hall - the fabric of the building probably didn't have as much investment in it as required because I think there was always a thought that it's going to be sold at some point, or decommissioned at some point and the practice rooms - they weren't really - the acoustic properties of them weren't great. It wasn't great for modern standards of acoustics and ear health.
Brett: Yeah, having studied at Salford and used their practice rooms in the old building - there were a lot of similarities, let's say.
Chris: Yeah, so you know where I am, and I think that was always a thought in people's minds that actually it's good, but it's not fit for a modern purpose and I think - I'm not speaking on behalf of the army because I've been out of it for 10 or 12 odd years. But I think there was always a thought that it might be sold. So, the army wouldn't put investment into the building, which is kind of understandable and then, I guess, over time, a buyer was found. It's actually going to become a school.
Brett: Oh, is it? I didn't realise that.
Chris: It's becoming a private school. It might actually be a competitor for my school so I’ll have to keep an eye on it!
Brett: So the building's going to remain?
Chris: The building will remain - it will need modernising inside a wee bit. Yeah it’s going to be good, it's going to be a school.
Brett: Ah that's good. I'd got this terrible feeling they were just going to knock it down and put some flats up.
Chris: Well that was reported in the local papers - I live in Twickenham, it’s about a quarter of an hour's walk from Kneller Hall. I'm afraid I didn't have much originality when I settled down! I kind of stayed in the same place but there you go. Yeah there was talk about it becoming flats and that would have been hideous, so I think it's great it's going to be a school.
Brett: Yeah. Okay. And is there any one thing that you're looking forward to with this weekend at UniBrass?
Chris: Well, I've got two hats on so firstly as a judge, I'm really looking forward to hearing the competing bands. If I'm honest, I've not been to UniBrass before and I don't really know the standard of the bands, so I'm really really excited. I'm judging the trophy section. I'm with Andrea Price and I'm really excited about hearing the bands - see what they're going to do. And then it will be our final number on the concert, so we'll get BONE-AFIDE together, Dennis and the band, in a little encore - I won't tell you what it is yet because it is quite nice. Just getting everybody together on that stage, I think that's going to be a good laugh. Hopefully!
Brett: Yeah, I’m sure it will be fantastic! Thank you very much for your time Chris and I know that the bands after, let's say some major disruption over the last couple of years, are really looking forward to getting together. Last year was an outdoor competition that was very successful and went well and was sort of a blended approach but this year I think everybody's really keen now to get back to it, so I'm sure that they're really excited about it. I'm sure it'll be great!
Chris: Yeah, it's gonna be good. I'm looking forward to it!
You can enjoy Chris’s performance with the Friary Band, and guest soloists, at the UniBrass 2022 Gala Concert. For more information and to get your tickets visit unib.co.uk/2022.
Conversation held on 30th January 2022 via Zoom. Transcript edited by Thomas Hicken and Rachel Onions.