Jazz: Where there's muck

A whole band of tubas is set to blow through London next week. John L Walters sounds a high note for the lowest of the brass

The tuba is a great instrument in every sense - the fat but agile latecomer to the brass section. It's the John Goodman of the creative music world - a dependable heavy who provides gravity and humour. The absence of a grand classical tradition of tuba writing may be its strength as one of the most distinctive instruments of late 20th century music, and a plethora of distinctive arrangers and composers have exulted in this flexible, four-octave bass horn. Next week in London there is a double- bill treat for brass fans: Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy and Howard Johnson's six-tuba Gravity share a bill on Tuesday May 12 as part of the Barbican's year-long "Inventing America" series. Bowie is an influential trumpeter and co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago while Johnson, who also plays baritone sax, flugelhorn and whistle, is an extraordinary musician who has added his sound to projects by Abdullah Ibrahim, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner and John Lennon.

Brass Fantasy has always featured a tuba bass - often the great Bob Stewart, but on this occasion David Schieman - and their non-ironic treatment of standards from pop and jazz has produced some great "tuba moments", such as the thunderous riff to Rod Temperton's "Thriller" (made famous by Michael Jackson). Bowie, whose band also contains the explosive star trombonist Gary Valente and Vincent Chancey on French horn, is threatening to play an arrangement of a Spice Girls song and a Rice / Lloyd Webber show tune.

Gravity - six tubas and a rhythm section - grew out of a band recruited to play with urban bluesman Taj Mahal. They have rehearsed and played off-and-on since the late 1960s, taking 28 years to get round to making their first album (Gravity!!!, released on Motor/Verve). The line-up includes Carl Kleinsteuber, Nedra Johnson (Howard's daughter), Dave Bargeron, Joe Daley and Earl McIntyre, veteran of Carla Bley's bands, Henry Threadgill's Very Very Circus and Brass Fantasy.

In American jazz, the tuba evokes a marching-band past that stretches back to New Orleans and John Sousa - you can't march with a double bass, after all. In recent years young bands such as the Rebirth Brass Band have melded early jazz to a hip-hop sensibility, making a kind of street funk that can actually be played, unplugged, on the street. In the UK, with a similar urge to perform outdoors and with street theatre events, composer and pianist Mike Westbrook added tuba to his arsenal of instruments when he founded his Brass Band, which harked back to Grimethorpe as well as the Mississippi basin. A stalwart of Westbrook's bands has been tuba player and Jazz Warrior Andy Grappy. Many British creative music groups, including George W Welch, London Brass and Keith Tippett's Tapestry make impressive use of tuba players, and the English Tuba Consort (difficult to hear play outside Germany) has four of them: Robin Hayward, ex-Loose Tube Dave Powell, composer Melvyn Poore and Oren Marshall.

Marshall's distinctive tuba voice can be heard in all manner of contexts, from free improvisation with Derek Bailey and John Butcher to another trio with American guitarist Davey Williams and drummer Steve Noble on the Ping Pong label. He also takes care of the bass duties in the Dutch- based Africa Brass, which incorporates five West African drummers, and makes some wild sounds with electric tuba, using a pick-up and effects pedals. "It's only in the past 40 years that people have been exploring it," comments Marshall. "And it's an incredibly versatile instrument - it can be played in any style of music."

John White, the genial godfather of Ambient, is a tuba player as well as a profoundly influential "experimental" composer and pianist: his 1969 "Cello and Tuba Machine", the longest piece ever for cello and tuba, is a direct antecedent of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" (now lovingly preserved and re-recorded by the Bang on a Can All-Stars). Ralph Vaughan Williams, Harrison Birtwistle and John Williams have all written tuba concertos: Oren Marshall pointed out that in Williams's score for Star Wars, Jabba The Hutt is always heralded by a tuba theme.

In non-mainstream rock music, the tuba always adds a touch of backwoods grit - just listen to the tuba bass line of producer John Simon on the Band's "Rag, Mama, Rag" and the guest appearances of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on Elvis Costello's "Spike". Mathilde Santing's elegant interpretation of the Squeeze classic "Tempted" is underpinned by the lightly riffing tuba of Greg Moore.

These masters of the bass clef, particularly Bob Stewart and Gravity's Howard Johnson, have shown that the tuba, the African elephant of the brass section, can be nimble-footed, tender, fleet and fiery. The very idea of a blurry choir of great tuba players on the Barbican stage makes the event unmissable.

Tuba THUMPING TUNES

Brass Fantasy: "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music. Don't laugh, Lester Bowie has uncorked the mythical "jazz soul of Andrew Lloyd Webber" for this hip arrangement, groovily crafted above a hip tuba and drums ostinato. Bowie also tackles "Notorious B.I.G."

Andy Grappy: "Come Together" from Mike Westbrook's Off Abbey Road (Tip Toe). Jazz Warrior Grappy dons the McCartney mantle with some fine high riffing, re-interpreting Paul's brassy bass lines.

Oren Marshall: For Marshall's groove credentials, check out "Walkin'" from Microgroove, the jazzy forerunner to Ashley Slater's Freak Power. Also Trio Playing (Incus).

Gravity "Stolen Moments" from Gravity (Warners). Oliver Nelson's gorgeous ballad from the classic "Blues and the Abstract Truth" gets the wall-to- wall tuba treatment.

John "Bill" Barber: "The Buzzard Song" from Porgy and Bess in the version by Miles Davis, with arrangements by Gil Evans. The last couple of minutes, where Barber's tuba is scored in unison with Paul Chambers' bass against light drums and delicately rhythmic, shifting ensemble chords is one of the great, life-enhancing moments of post-war contemporary music. Howard Johnson describes Evans as "a tuba player's hero". Barber can also be heard on Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions.

Howard Johnson: "Voodoo Chile" from Gil Evans plays the music of Jimi Hendrix (BMG). On this classic, chaotic session Johnson distorted the tuba "to represent Jimi's guitar, loud and blaring, because none of our guitar players could do it; they were too hip and jazzy". He plays even more explosively on Gil Evans' Svengali album (Atlantic).

Dave Hofstra: "Chain of Fools" from Bill Frisell's Is That You and John Zorn's Spillane (Nonesuch).

Bob Stewart: Seigen Ono's "I do love you a little" (Unknown Public UP06) and "A Person And The Photography" from NekonoTopia NekonoMania (Made to Measure) with John Zorn, Marc Ribot and heavy friends. Oren Marshall comments that Stewart, however versatile, is a bass player at heart. Here, his telepathic tracking of Bobby Previte's brush-led drums is a joy to hear.

Don Butterfield: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Half-Mast Inhibition by Charles Mingus. A rich and influential expansion of chamber jazz timbres.

Kirk Joseph: "Chewing Gum" by Elvis Costello. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's Joseph, who plays the sousaphone (the wraparound version of the tuba) underpins this cracking track from the eccentric Spike album.

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