Anyone you pass on the street will tell you that CDs are becoming a rare beast these days. But if you ask that same joe what he thinks of tuba CDs, he will look at you with puzzlement and declare that here is a beast so rare, he’s never heard of one, let alone heard one—though perhaps he had somehow vaguely assumed that tuba CDs must exist.
Tuba CDs do exist and in such numbers that one tuba player describes them as “expensive business cards.” Luckily for those of us who are not in the fray of competition, this range of tuba CDs means a wealth of creativity as varied and quirky as the artists behind them (we’re talking tuba players here; oh yes, and euphoniumists, too). But one thing unites them: no one is making a fortune off his or her tuba CD. In fact, the tubist contemplating making a recording must ask himself not “how much will I make?” but “how much can I avoid going in the hole on this one?”
At least, that’s what I heard from the 2014 winner of the prestigious Roger Bobo Award for Excellence in Recording, an award open to international entries of tuba CDs and given only every other year. That winner happens also to be my brother Kent Eshelman with his CD Flavors.
Thanks to Kent, I witnessed a little slice of the labor of love it is for a tubist to create an album. Most of my glamorous tuba sister roles involved babysitting while Kent and his accompanist wife, In-Ja, were making the recording; looking through endless online art galleries to try to help him pick cover art (he ultimately didn’t listen to me); and making both large-scale and minute edits to his grant proposal (successful; he listened to me). But all my efforts do not represent a fraction of what Kent put into it.
In the first place, a tubist has to choose whether to go with a label or to go it alone—and when we say “label” in this context, we’re not talking about Columbia or Sony or Deutsche Grammophon. No solo tuba albums exist on those labels. The better-known labels in this context are ones like Crystal Records or Summit Records, small labels devoted to quality solo and chamber music. To be on a label, one must get approval and then pay a fee for the label’s services. Booking the studio and making the recording are still up to the tubist and his own wallet; the label clears permissions, produces the CD and cover, and modestly helps to market it. The DIY route means you send a master copy of your recording to a company that makes a bunch of copies of it and sends them back to you. In the tuba world, there is no stigma to “self-publishing” as there is in the literary establishment, although labels like Crystal and Summit do carry a measure of prestige.
No doubt you can already sense the mounting costs—permissions fees, label fees, booking a studio, hiring an accompanist and a sound engineer. Kent recorded at Oberlin College in Ohio, whose conservatory of music boasts recording equipment of the highest quality. Their Director of Conservatory Audio Services, Paul Eachus, is also formerly a professional bass trombonist, a fact for which Kent was grateful in that Eachus is particularly attuned to optimal low brass sound.
But here’s what happens when you get a bass-trombonist-turned-sound-engineer trying to record a persnickety tubist: they spend the first hour and a half positioning the microphones! Tubas are tricky like that; they do not sound their best in a studio, which can deaden the full bloom of sound. Larger rooms and halls provide better alternatives—in Kent’s case, a room. For however much his little sister might laugh over the perfectionism involved in tiny physical adjustments of microphones, Kent cited that initial set-up as one of the most stressful parts of the recording. If they couldn’t get the sound right, it would mar the entire result.
Luckily they achieved a sound that Kent and In-Ja both liked, and the recording commenced. Generally, after recording an entire piece, additional takes were made section by section. A difficult spot might require a dozen or so takes that Kent and the sound engineer could later use to make edits. Still, whether playing whole pieces or smaller parts, a tubist’s endurance is limited, which adds to the player’s stress: not only are you recording yourself for posterity, but you have a limited number of tries to nail it. Kent gave me the example of two loud, high Es that he plays at the end of an extended high section in Schubert’s “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” (at 2:39, if you want to give it a listen). For demanding elements like that, he has only a few stellar attempts per day in him, which means, in his words, “each one is really precious.”
When the first solo tuba album, Bill Bell and His Tuba, was recorded in 1957, this kind of recording process was unheard of. Back then, the tubist went into the studio or hall, and whatever he played in a whole take went on the recording. In this way, recordings of early masters like Bill Bell are extra impressive. But on the other hand, a little listening to those early recordings reveals how far tuba solo work has come in everything from the expressiveness of the playing to the types of music selected.
What amazes me about all of the good contemporary tuba CDs is how easy they make difficult feats sound. And while some of the overall polish is attributable to editing, the meat of the playing is still the impressive part. So with that in mind, I’d like to give you a little survey of some tracks from tuba albums so that you know what to listen for, what not to take for granted, and what sorts of recordings are out there for you to discover. I can’t begin to cover everything, so these highlights are limited to songs available for free listening on Spotify. If you’re a member of Spotify, you should be able to hear these selections by clicking the links I’ve provided.
We’ll begin with one of my favorite tracks from Flavors, “Burlesque” composed by Eugène Bozza for bassoon. The opening measures begin with a series of rapid jumps from pedal tones—notes below the lowest official written note—up into a more normal range, and then one more leap into a high register. This skipping around from low to high is always difficult on the tuba, and it’s compounded here by the need to execute those jumps rapidly and cleanly. I guarantee if I tried to play this, two disasters would occur in this leap-frogging: the low pedal notes would not be in tune at such a fast tempo (good pedal notes take A LOT of air), and I would chip the higher of the two notes in each pair, rather than land on them fully and deftly. Tough stuff—not to mention the rapidity of the scales that follow the jumping intro.
You can hear another remarkable feat of range from tubist Patrick Sheridan on his CD Bon Bons, with the song “Estrellita”. (One look at the CD cover, on which Sheridan has transformed his bald head into a confection of maraschino cherries and chocolate frosting, will tell you tuba CDs aren’t all about the seriousness of the recital hall.) Just as the Bozza piece that Kent plays is a transcription from bassoon, Sheridan’s “Estrellita” is a transcription from a violin solo, and so what might lend itself to well to a concert violinist becomes an extra challenge to produce with one’s breath sent through lengths of brass tubing. What’s impressive here isn’t simply that Sheridan can hit the high notes—it’s how he hits the high notes with a beautifully singing tone. Listen for how he makes a big, lumbering bass instrument sound as delicate, breezy, and flirty as the ablest violin.
By contrast, tubist Sèrgio Carolino’s rendition of “Black Dog” (Led Zepplin fans, this one’s for you!) on the CD TGB begins with a ridiculously high, though hardly cantabile, statement of the melody. Who cares if it’s cantabile? This is classic rock played on the tuba, and Carolino has just the right groove in his playing to make it convincing. Entirely composed of jazz, funk, and classic rock selections, TGB is a good example of tuba solo work coming a long way since 1957. (If you get into it, don’t miss the track “Só”; something about the laid-back sound hits me just right.)
Speaking of fun repertoire, check out “The Simpsons” theme song played by euphonium virtuoso Steven Mead on Euphonium Magic Vol. 2. The three CDs in the Euphonium Magic series all feature Mead multi-tracking himself. In other words, it sounds like a whole ensemble of euphoniums is playing when in fact Mead records each part and then puts them all together. As with most tuba and euphonium recordings, Mead mixes up his selections so that on the same CD with “The Simpsons,” you also get heartbreakingly beautiful classical selections like “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” by Wagner.
If one person multi-tracking himself doesn’t do it for you, there are CDs by tuba/euphonium ensembles such as Sotto Voce, a group of two tubas and two euphs—the low brass equivalent of a string quartet, if you want to think of it that way. Their selections also range from jazz and Latin-inspired pieces to chorales. The third movement of “Diversions” on the album Viva Voce! showcases the group as well as individual creativity with a mind-bending tuba solo that occurs from 3:30-4:30.
I can hardly send you off into the vast world of tuba recordings without a mention of my personal favorites, some of which I’ve touched on in previous installments. I love the creative vision of Norwegian tubist Oystein Baadsvik, whose piece “Fnugg” I’ve linked you to before. Many of his selections have a more popular appeal to them and are therefore very listener-friendly and addictive. His Christmas CD Snowflakes features great arrangements that go beyond the typical Nativity fare (see especially “Christmas Draws Nigh” and “Fairest Lord Jesus” in which the tuba’s part is purely rhythmic mouthpiece slapping to provide a beat for a tribal-sounding choir). Ferry Tales, another album of Baadsvik’s, includes a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that makes me actually like an otherwise maudlin song. In terms of euphonium, my favorites include Brian Bowman’s The Sacred Euphonium and Benjamin Pierce’s gorgeous renderings of Bach cello suites on Pierce Plays Bach. Ensemble-wise, the Tennessee Tech Tuba Studio’s album Christmas Tubas (yes, another Christmas album) can’t be beat.
But my #1 favorite is none of the cleverly named albums like Tuba Tracks or Tubas From Hell (though those are both great), nor am I seduced by clever cover art like Jim Self’s My America on which his face is interposed on the American Gothic painting where he holds a tuba instead of a pitchfork. No, my favorite tuba CD is a jazz album of tuba and B-3 organ quartet with selections that are both easy enough for a jazz dilettante like me to enjoy but substantial enough to be musically and creatively interesting. In short, it’s the perfect album to play when you’re sitting around with a cocktail, especially if you have folks with you, in which case the CD becomes a conversation piece (“Tuba? Jazz?”). The title is Life is Good—not the best, not the worst, but the cover—well, you’ll have to excuse the cover. It’s the all-time dorkiest, featuring two guys in beach chairs next to a tuba in a third beach chair—cute enough until you look closely and realize the guys are wearing tube socks and tennis shoes. On the beach. I hold nothing back in making fun of it because those guys are my big brothers, Kent on tuba, Jon on B-3 organ, a recording they made ten years ago. At the time, I suggested they put a picture of me in a bathing suit on the cover, but they didn’t listen (some things never change). Shame; there’s no telling but that it might have gone platinum.