Man of Brass

Empire Strikes Brass.

Empire Strikes Brass.

One of the hardest working young musicians in Asheville isn’t a singer-songwriter, doesn’t play banjo or mandolin, piano or djembe — he’s a trombone player.

JP Furnas, driving force in the band Common Foundation, can also often be heard with his Co Fo horn-mates in local groups Dub Kartel and The Secret B-Sides, and Asheville’s reigning New Orleans-style second-line brass band, Empire Strikes Brass.

“I’m working on making a career of it,” says the 2011 UNCA graduate. “I’m excited to have a different gig or rehearsal every night of the week. I feel like if I’m not making music I really don’t know what I’m doing with myself.”

Furnas grew up in Hickory, NC, where he took up the trombone in middle school. In high school he earned spots in the All-State Symphonic and All-State Jazz bands, and attended clinics with James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley and nu-jazz boneman Robin Eubanks. “Just remembering his style of playing, how he likes using sound effects and pedals to create alternate sounds, a more open idea of music and really pushing the boundaries of what you can do on the instrument, was inspiring to me,” Furnas says.

After high school, Furnas enrolled in UNC-Asheville’s music school as a recording major. “I studied with some incredible trombonists. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour, I wouldn’t even pick up my horn, and I’d leave feeling like a better musician,” he says. “Being ‘on both sides of the glass,’ was a great opportunity. As an engineer being a full-time musician, I learned more as to what the wants and needs of the musician are in the studio. And vice-versa, when a musician knows what an engineer needs, the more easily you can communicate that, the greater professional quality of the session.”

Common Foundation sprang up among music students on the UNC-A campus — tenor saxophonist Kayvon Kazemini and alto sax player Courtney Hall joining guitarist/vocalist Andy Link, trumpeter/vocalist Sean Singer, and Furnas on trombone and guitar. “We wanted the opportunity to play out and push ourselves. We were rehearsing in practice rooms, getting eight or nine of us together and trying to develop a sound and a style,” Furnas recalls.

The group released its self-produced debut, All The Birds, in 2012, and is recording an EP for spring release at Solomon Mines Studios in Fletcher. Vocalist Ave Rosen, drummer Jon Cox, keyboardist Derrick Gardner and bassist Chris Porter complete the current lineup. “A driving force with the group has been the focus on original music,” Furnas says. “Reggae music had really spoken to me, especially with the intention behind the music and the vibe it creates. No one in the band is a Rasta, but I have respect for a lot of principles that are founded in that.

“Our band fits in the reggae genre with the lineup and instrumentation and the style of songwriting, but doesn’t have that sound all the time. Some of our more recent songs have got more of a mellow R&B feel, and then in the opposite direction we’ve been writing some heavier tunes, still with the reggae backbeat and reggae drum pattern, but with a more rocking presentation.”

Common Foundation’s four horns strike a sweet balance, the product of a lot of blowing together. “The band usually practices twice a week, four-hour sessions, and it just develops over time,” Furnas suggests. “You can meet other professional horn players and have a blend and have a sound. But knowing the nuances of individual players, understanding their take on the music and their intention and presentation, once that becomes subconscious you’re able to focus on other aspects of the music, making the melodies more interesting. You don’t have to focus on articulation as much because you have an idea how they’re going to deliver the music.”

The trombonist is equally excited about the success of Asheville’s guerilla brass outfit, Empire Strikes Brass. “Saxophonist-at-large Paul Juhl had the idea to bring the second-line sound to Asheville,” he reports. “20 to 30 musicians rotate in and out of the group, to suit the gig and venue. The band just rises to whatever the occasion, as much or as little as needed.”

Empire Strikes Brass has had a lot more gigs than rehearsals, according to Furnas. “There was a song list created, like — we’re going to learn the melodies, but then we’re going to do a couple parades. We’re going to get out, we’re going to work. Especially early on, instead of having a rehearsal we would do a parade. I’m not sure if it was Paul’s intention, but for me, I feel like I gained a perspective of where the music really came from and how it developed. How the style came to fruition, the purpose that it served.”

Members of Empire Strikes Brass often begin performances robed, playing Star Wars’ “Imperial March.” “We’re going for the second-line sound, but a lot of our influences are really funk-rock based,” says Furnas. “We cover the tune ‘Baker’s Dozen’ by Galactic, and have a handful of traditional hymns that we’ve turned into a march feel, like ‘Lily Of the Valley,’ ‘Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In.'”

Furnas enjoys the brass band’s energy and mayhem, the hodgepodge of instrumental expression. “The attention isn’t directed at a vocalist or at the lyrics,” he says. “It’s more on the style and intention created by the musicians to get the feeling across, to get the idea out there.”

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