Under the Big Top Album Review June 10 2013, 0 Comments

By Jack Kopstein

With few exceptions, the circus has slowly disappeared from the lives of Americans, but fortunately the melody lingers on. Under the Big Top provides a wonderful sense of what PT Barnum called The Greatest Show on Earth. The twenty marches on this new album represent not only marvelous circus marches, but some of the greatest marches ever written.

A screamer is a descriptive name for a circus march, in particular, an upbeat march intended to stir up the audience during the show Screamers are a very demanding type of music, due to their extremely fast and advanced rhythms, especially the low-brass parts. Double and even triple tonguing is often required in order to play these rhythms. The trio in The Melody Shop is a good example of this. Many screamers have two prominent melodies playing at once. Although this is not unusual in a march, screamers tend to go further with this. The low-brass section can be playing a long, stately melody, while the woodwinds can be moving along with a phrase of 16th notes, or vice-versa. Due to the circumstances in which screamers are played, dynamics tend to stay at a level forte.

Unlike some military marches, piano is rarely used. I listened carefully to all of the marches on this album, with two perspectives. The primary role of any album is to entertain. I asked myself did the music translate for me a vision of the circus.  For example  the image of  entire company marching  into the Big Top to the strains of Entry of the Gladiators by Julius Fucik .Was there a visualization of the humour of several clowns entering and leaving a tiny Volkswagen to Fred Jewell’s Battle Royal. Could I conjure up delightful clown pratfalls to the lighthearted and very humorous Miss Trombone -a slippery Rag? Did the march The Big Cage present a mental picture of famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty? Suddenly I could feel the excitement growing, my joy at hearing and reliving my own experiences. Secondly I listened with a view to determining the musical element that is to say from a technical and artistic standpoint –did this album resurrect for me the original concept of circus music? I have several other albums of similar style in my library and as well as tapes. Some of them have been lauded as great albums and described as ‘Screamers”. Unfortunately they do not come very close to the professional and musicality of the American Service bands which are performing on this album.

Previous recordings perhaps have a vague notion of circus music by recording loud and fast but not considering that the music in every case is the accompaniment to a circus act. This ALTISSIMO album provides what is missing in earlier albums. This excerpt from an article which  follows appeared in 1962  truly represents the essence of what  is heard on ALTISSIMO “Music Under the Big Top”. If you are a fan of the circus or enjoy good well played marches this album is a must. The recording quality is outstanding and the liner notes by Stacy Flankey are first-rate. Evans’ lads can meander right sweetly in the lacy dells of dulcet melodies, but the kind of music in which they really excel is fast and forte, with the brass section wide open and blowing its brains out and the snare-drummer’s wrists moving like a crazy trip-hammer.

The notes pour out like beads strung on a spangled thread. The band starts to “straighten it out” (the Circus equivalent for swingdom’s “getting in the groove”), and if you were brought up like most Americans and cut your amusement molars on a Circus teething ring, you can just close your eyes and see the big cats snarling, elephants doing their tricks, the faces of laughing clowns, and the beautiful precision of aerialists doing their stuff in the lofty reaches of the arena domes. For good Circus music can be felt as well as heard. From the pens of its composers flow the excitement and daredevilry of the Circus. The glory of open brass is there – loud enough to stir the ghosts of the departed Ringlings, Phineas T. Barnum, and James A. Bailey. And also, there, riding the bright crest of the music is the courage and tenacity of the troupers and the warmth engendered in the hearts of clowns who work to the added obbligato of children’s laughter. It’s all there – in the tunes. (This article about legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey musical director Merle Evans was published in 1962 in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine & Program celebrating the 92nd Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth.