City of Trees Brass Band brings sass to jazz

This article was originally published on StateHornet.com on May 3, 2016.


For being only four years old, City of Trees Brass Band has already garnered widespread attention across Sacramento for being able to infuse the local music scene with its mixture of traditional New Orleans funk and West Coast contemporary sound that is played by seasoned musicians.

City of Trees Brass Bands performance at Sacramento State on Wednesday, May 4 marks the last Nooner concert of the spring semester to be hosted by UNIQUE Programs.

The concert will once again be held at the University Union Serna Plaza.

Formerly known as the Brasstronauts, City of Trees Brass Band was formed by Ben Hillier in 2013 and is currently one of the only two well-known brass bands in the city of Sacramento.

The other band, Element Brass Band, has also performed at Sac State in the past.

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The City of Trees Brass Band performs a mixture of New Orleans funk and West Coast contemporary in Old Sacrament, Saturday, March 26. The band will be performing the last Nooner concert of the spring semester, which will be hosted by UNIQUE Programs in the University Union Serna Plaza, Wednesday, May 4. (Photo courtesy of City of Trees Brass Band)

Michelle Gunvordahl, operation manager and photographer of City of Trees Brass Band, said that the band has become this established today because of Hillier’s ability to lead the group as well as his knowledge in how to spotlight the band at the right moment and time.

“Since the beginning, Ben [Hillier] knows that producing good music isn’t enough to make it in the scene,” Gunvordahl said. “You have to network with other musicians and bands and advertise in effective ways. Ben [Hillier] knows how to recruit great players but is also a great support staff who makes sure that our name gets out there.”

One factor that makes City of Trees Brass Band different is its line-up.

Hillier said the band constantly changes its line-up, though not based on preferences of who is good and who is not, but rather because of each member’s availability.

Currently, some of the core members of City of Trees Brass Band are Hillier on the sousaphone, Jon Vento and Matt Vollmer on trumpets, and Bill Bua and Isaac Negrete on saxophones.

For Hillier, line-up changes do not hinder the band’s performance or its chemistry one bit.

“That’s one of the exciting things about this band,” Hillier said. “Every time you see our shows, it could be a totally different composition of players.”

Hillier said the sound that makes the band distinctive is not about who plays in the gig but more on how the music is played.

“It’s more the way that we play the music,” Hillier said. “We are a collective of people who study second-line funk and apply it to this modern, West Coast party band sound.”

Beside the authentic New Orleans’ second-line scene, City of Trees Brass Band is also influenced by the more popular and contemporary sound – especially hip-hop, with influences pulled from the likes of Snoop Doog and Fat Domino. The band also mixes New Orleans funk with video game and cartoon soundtracks such as “Zelda” and “Pokemon.”

“We’re just trying to get people to dance,” Hillier said.

City of Trees also developed its own education outreach where, for one to two days a week, core members host musical clinics at grade schools in local impoverished areas to encourage students to approach music from a more natural point of view.

“[The outreach program] is basically our baby, really,” Bua said. “Teaching young people how to play music and exposing them to music are not only gratifying, but it’s also helping us ensure the survival of the music, because who would come after us if we don’t expose these kids to our music.”

Hillier said the purpose of City of Trees’ visits to classrooms is to enrich each student’s knowledge on what it’s truly like to be a musician.

“As the kids come in to their classrooms and sit down, the brass band begins playing,’ Hillier said of how a typical musical clinic goes. “Then, they can get that experience of what it’s like for people walking by on the street and see us play. It’s the experience of discovering a band in a place that they didn’t expect.”

City of Trees is most known in the area for its street performances. Hillier said the band earns more money from busking in Downtown Sacramento and Midtown than in bar gigs.

The band also travels to nearby cities to busk, not only to promote its music but also to bring an awareness to the free-willed musical cause that it is doing to serve the community.

As much as he appreciates the spontaneity of busking, Bua, unlike Hillier, said he prefers club gigs.

“I love the street gigs, I truly do,” Bua said, “but the club gigs are more gratifying in the sense that you are reaching the audience who are there to hear you, rather than just passing by to watch you play briefly.”

In the meantime, City of Trees Brass Band is recording a few tracks in the studio, even if Hillier would rather stick to the more live and spontaneous feel the band has been known for all these years.

However, Hillier promises that the band will never lose its authentic aesthetic, which is rooted in the marriage between New Orleans class and West Coast sass.

“We think of music as language,” Hillier said. “The more you talk to somebody and the more you converse with them, the better the conversations flow.”