Only hours before the June 21 opening festivities of this year's TD Toronto Jazz Festival, the Big Smoke Brass Band is out busking on Yonge Street. Escaping the first-day-of-summer heat by playing in the shade of the Aura building, the Big Smoke Brass offer their powerful, high-energy take on the classic hits and original compositions that fill their repertoire.The band closes off their fourth set for the day with a medley they call “MJ.”
“I think there’s four songs in there,” said Max Forster, a friend of the band who was subbing in on trumpet for the day. “It’s a long one.”
The four songs the Big Smoke Brass snap together like pieces of a decade- and genre-spanning puzzle are Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” “Let’s Get it Started” by the Black Eyed Peas and “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and “Billie Jean” by the King of Pop himself, from whom the track takes its name.
The eclectic medley can be found on their six-track debut EP, No Breaks, released in 2018, along with a handful of other cover songs and two original pieces as well. Since then they’ve released two singles, each with accompanying music videos. The group’s trombonist, Zach Smith, said that a second, full-length album featuring mostly original music is in the works, hopefully to be finished by the end of the summer.
The summer of 2019 marks the band’s third playing together. The Big Smoke Brass formed in the summer of 2017 when a group of friends all graduated together from the jazz program at the University of Toronto. Smith credits baritone saxophonist Alec Trent with getting the group together to busk throughout the summer to avoid “getting a non-music job right away.”
“It worked out kinda surprisingly well from the get-go,” Smith said. “We were really diligent with our schedule. We definitely, especially in that first year, were going out a lot, and it made it worth our while.”
Smith said the band typically busks four days a week, generally from noon until 5, with additional booked gigs on weekends or in the evening. Even this busy schedule is “scaled down marginally” from the amount the band was out performing on the streets in previous years, but the number of engagements the group receives has increased.
“We’re still busking,” Smith said, ”but there’s more and more work we do outside of that, so it’s kind of a balancing act now.”
“But [busking] is still our roots,” Smith adds, “And at the same time it’s the best kind of free advertising. Ninety-five per cent of the work we ever get is because somebody saw us on the street, and it’s just grown from there.”
“People will come and dance or they’ll come and sing to the music,” Trent chimes in. “Or a whole huge crowd shows up and it becomes a show on the street. Everybody’s just walking and they can choose to stop. Hopefully we’re doing something right when they do stop. Then the real magic starts to happen, we get that ‘Oh, we’re playing a show now!’ (and) then things go up to the level. It’s kind of a feedback loop between both parties.”
Smith and Trent were inspired in large part by fellow U of T student Forster, who at the time had also been busking with a band of his own.
“We’re called Hogtown Sound,” Forster laughs. “It’s an old school name for Toronto nobody really knows about now. We still gig every now and then but we don’t really busk anymore.”
Forster was one of three members subbing in on Friday, along with Blair Scanling filling in on trombone and Jeremy Worden picking up the tenor saxophone part. If that wasn’t enough, Smith - who normally plays trombone -switched to Sousaphone and tenor saxophonist Conrad Gluch swapped down to baritone sax instead. Smith says having the regular members of the band working double duty like this allows them to work more, and to keep things fresh.
When the Big Smoke Brass was founded it was a five-piece, with Smith, Trent, and Gluch, as well as drummer Keagan Eskritt and trumpeter Michael Henley. Parisian sousaphonist Simon Balleyguier joined in 2018, fleshing out the low end of the band’s sound. Outside of this core sextet the group employs a roster of different friends and colleagues to jump in when needed, and in turn members do the same for other ensembles.
“It’s this really cool community of brass band players built up around this busking environment,” Forster says. “Everybody knows each other’s music and plays with each other’s bands. It’s a lot of fun.”
You can catch the Big Smoke Brass Band performing at their first TD Toronto Jazz Festival at the Village of Yorkville park at 6:45 Sunday, June 23rd and Thursday, June 27th