On the edge of history

Issue 5946

Cory Band looks to make further history at the RAH on 8 October. All about the National Final and much more in the latest packed edition of BB!

2016 NATIONAL: Life after Cory

Thursday 29 September, 2016

At Chris Thomas’s final concert as principal trombone of Cory Band a few months ago, the band’s Musical Director Philip Harper paid tribute to him as a musician and bandsman: “When we think back to the fabulous players for Cory over the years - like Jim Davies and Lyndon Baglin - it’s impossible not to judge Chris as belonging to this unique and special group of Cory legends. Not only is he currently the best trombone player in the world of brass bands, I believe he could possibly be one of the ‘best ever’ - a moniker which I do not use lightly! Chris is also the ultimate bandsman, always keen to make any contribution to develop the band, and always supportive of the others around him - including me. He really was one of my great pillars of reliability and strength in the band.”

After 16 years with Cory, Chris has moved up to Bradford to take a position as Leader of Learning in Computing at Parkside School, Cullingworth. It must have been quite a wrench to take a job away from home and from the band which has become almost a second family: “It was a huge wrench,” said Chris when we met for a conversation at the Royal Northern College of Music last week, “but work has to come first. I was aware in January that changes were coming. It was OK just thinking about it, but then it’s counting down the days: my last RNCM Festival, my last Regional, then the last concerts. When I knew I was going to take a job up north, I couldn’t talk about it, because being in Cory Band is so much a part of me and I knew I wouldn’t maintain my composure. All my communication with Philip has been via email and text. At the ‘European’ in Lille, I knew that would be it… It’s been very difficult.”

So what was like for Chris come ‘Open’ day this year? He’d been warned by other players that it far worse listening than being on stage: “It was the first one I’d missed for a very long time, but I followed the results on Twitter - it was bittersweet for me, but I was so pleased for everybody. It was Philip’s first Open win, of course, and that marked for me the moment when he is in no one’s shadow.”

Chris Thomas joined Cory Band from nearby Tredegar Town Band in 2000. Robert Childs had returned to the Valleys from Yorkshire with the objective of rebuilding a sleeping giant of a band. “Bob headhunted the best players but didn’t then sack the existing principals. He moved them down a seat, doubling the strength of the band. He brought a bit of northern grit, discipline and a huge amount of focus. In Cory’s old band hall, the rehearsal room was on the right and the library on the left. He said, ‘if you ever see me turning left, it means that I’m digging for something to do, so sack me because I’m not prepared.’ He always turned right and that was the foundation of our success. As Welsh people we are very musical, but also quite rhapsodic with it. When Bob wasn’t there we would quickly descend into a rabble. Bob has his methods and always brought it back immediately!”

That method ‘clicked’ straight away at Symphony Hall in 2000, with the first of many major contest wins. This first Open remains a special moment for Chris: “People said it would take a long time to build the band back. We had an early draw and while there were better sounding bands, like YBS, which was exquisite in those days, we played very tight and won it. Not thinking we had a chance we were all in the pub, so with beer flying everywhere, we ran back to Symphony Hall. It was great to win it again, but it was never quite the same.” As an observer, the playing of the whole trombone section at the 2009 European in Ostend has to be my stand out moment. I wondered what Chris thought. “From Ancient Times was hard, but then Jan Van der Roost was a trombonist, so if he’s written it you know it is playable, but it was at the extreme of everything.” 

Chris Thomas has been delighting audiences as a peerless bandsman and soloist during a time of huge change in the demands made of bands and soloists, especially on the contest stage. “It used to be that the euphoniums and solo cornets were asked to do the ridiculous things” Chris observes, “but then Philip Wilby came along and perpetrated Masquerade on the trombones and then John Pickard joined in. The lip trills in Peter Graham’s The Triumph of Time found a lot of players out. Things are getting more theatrical too.”

At the European Championship in Freiburg (2015), Cory chose to play Wilfred Heaton’s Partita. In Lille this year the winning performance of Raveling, Unraveling was breathtaking, but also very different from the current theatricality of ‘Own-Choice’ Saturday at the European. “Phil wanted to make the point that we could win the European without all the gimmicks and virtuoso solos. But that is how you win the European, we thought! It had become theatre and spectacle. It didn’t happen last year and could have gone very wrong this time. We didn’t believe it until the results came out because on stage all you hear are the imperfections and you focus on your role. It wasn’t until we heard the recording that we realised how special it was. I am so glad that Ravelling, Unraveling did the job for us. Hopefully it will be a game changer.”

Under Philip Harper’s direction Cory Band has continued its winning ways and remains the dominant force on the contest stage. From a purely musical perspective, Philip Harper has imprinted his own stamp on the band; at least that is my view. I wondered what Chris thought. “Phil has been with Cory since 2012 and it’s still fresh. He maintains a strong team ethic and is always positive and open. We didn’t know him that well. He’d been hired and fired by other bands and had done some great work with Tongwynlais. We thought that he might succeed, but perhaps didn’t expect him to. However, he has exceeded all expectations! Phil isn’t encumbered by technique. It’s beyond that. He has a very simple game plan, that we play together and in tune, and everything else - all the shaping and big gestures - follow on. I think it will be very difficult for me to be happy anywhere else.”

Chris talks about Cory with a passion. It’s still very much part of him, and indeed last weekend he was back with the band for a concert and he’ll be back in his old seat for the National Championship Final at the Royal Albert Hall next week. So he’s maintaining his old practise routine: “I go into school an hour early, serenading the crows, and then I might do some more in the evenings, especially with the National coming up. It’s a real stamina piece.”

This is the second time that Chris Thomas has moved up north to find work. He was around 23 the first time. He had graduated in music from Cardiff University and was teaching music and computing, but answered an ad in British Bandsman placed by Cyril Howarth, the Band Manager of Williams Fairey Engineering. One of Chris’s trombone heroes, Steve Walkley, was moving back south and the band was looking for a new principal trombone: “I think I must have been one of the last players to do the move north to play in a works band. They gave me a job; I drove a crane and swept the floor, and was very good at it!” Chris lasted for about a year before moving to New Zealand and then back home to Wales and banding with BTM and Tredegar Town.
In his book Cory, Cory, Hallelujah!, Robert Childs singled Chris as one of the outstanding trombonists of his generation: ‘I’m sure if he hadn’t dedicated his life to brass bands, and over a decade to Cory, he could quite easily be sitting in the principal trombonist’s chair at one of the UK’s leading professional orchestras’. I wondered if Chris had ever considered turning professional. “I never focussed on a career in music,” he says, “and didn’t have any formal training. I did some work with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as a young man, but I missed the whole range of colours of brass band playing.”

Chris learned his peerless brass band style by watching and listening to orchestral players like Roger Harvey and John Iveson and brass band ‘stylists’ like Norman Law and Frank Berry. As a young man in Tredegar Town Youth Band, he longed for the occasion when he would be asked to stay on for senior band practise and the chance to play through some of the great test-pieces like Benvenuto Cellini or Ballet for Band - “the highlight of my entire week!”

As a listener live or captured on CD, it’s the communicative quality of his playing that sets Chris apart as a brass band trombonist. His solo CD The Noble Trombone is a particular favourite of this writer for its range of repertoire and expressive depth. I wondered what ‘floats his boat’ as a soloist: “Something that engages,” Chris replies. “I learn a solo so that I don’t have the dots. The music gets in the way… a close audience, eye contact and playing something that they will enjoy.” Chris Thomas has given audiences (and contest judges) so much enjoyment over many years with his beloved Cory Band and as a wonderful soloist. Let’s hope that we continue to hear a lot more from him in the years to come!