Berklee Brass Players Take the Stage at Boston Calling

John Mirisola
June 11, 2019

Recent alumni John Michael Bradford and Ethan Santos took a last-minute opportunity to perform with members of Bon Iver and the National in the indie supergroup Big Red Machine. 

Trumpeter John Michael Bradford and trombonist Ethan Santos performing with Big Red Machine
Justin Vernon (Big Red Machine, Bon Iver) gives a nod to Bradford and Santos.
The crowd at Boston Calling
Image by Michael D. Spencer
Image by Michael D. Spencer
Image by Michael D. Spencer

The morning before performing at Boston Calling with indie supergroup Big Red Machine, trumpeter John Michael Bradford B.M. ’19 called trombonist Ethan Santos B.M. ’19. “We have a rehearsal like, right now,” he said. "Can you make it?”

The band, co-led by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of the National, had reached out to Berklee that week looking for two brass players to join them for a couple songs during their Saturday night festival set. Bradford and Santos said yes to the last-minute opportunity, and by the end of that week they found themselves preparing to perform with a band they were just meeting, on songs they had little time to learn.

At rehearsals, Bradford and Santos were given the freedom and trust to create their own parts. The band played through the two songs the horns would feature in, offering some notes about chords and the general melody, but they left the specifics open. “We’re pretty loose,” they told the recent Berklee graduates. “You can play whatever—you sound great.”

Preparing for the Unknown

So how do you prepare for a gig you had no idea you would be offered, with a band you’ve never played with, playing songs you haven’t had much time to rehearse, at New England’s premier popular music festival, with only a couple days’ notice?

“It’s built up over a number of years,” says Santos. "We both grew up with a lot of jazz. There’s a lot of using your ear with that kind of music.”

“It’s really about reacting and listening,” Bradford adds, “and being aware of the vibe of the music and the musicians you’re playing with."

It also helped that Santos and Bradford were already well acquainted with each other as musicians. They had been playing together since 2015, when they both participated in Grammy in the Schools' national honors jazz band before coming to Berklee. During their time as performance majors, they shared the stage on numerous occasions, and plan to continue performing together and collaborating as Berklee alumni.

Nerves Are Natural

“I wasn’t nervous until we got up behind the stage,” recalls Bradford. “The audience was huge, and they knew all the songs. There were at least a few thousand people.”

But nerves, Santos says, are a natural part of the job: "I’ve spent a lot of time as a performer not trying to get rid of the nervousness, but trying to understand how to perform with it and play with it. You’ll have these feelings as you’re playing, and it’s just a matter of not letting it affect your stage presence, not letting it affect your performance."

Listen to the studio version of Big Red Machine's "Hymnostic," the first of two tracks Bradford and Santos contributed their horns to: 

When Dessner introduced Bradford and Santos (with a nod to Berklee) and they joined the band for the song “Hymnostic,” it was as though the whole performance shifted into a higher gear nobody knew existed. "The band was so good," Bradford says. "Everyone was so solid, so it just came together.“ Bradford’s New Orleans–tinged trumpet lines over Santos’ harmonies brought the song into a celebratory space that carried into the next song, “I Won’t Run from It,” on which they also featured. 

And here's the studio recording of Big Red Machine's "I Won't Run from It":

The two horn players left the stage to loud cheers from the audience, and the energy they brought to the stage had done something to transform the whole performance well after their two songs had ended.

It was easy to sense the crowd's appreciation, Bradford says. "The music felt great, and the energy from the crowd—they loved it. It seemed like they were super excited when we came out, and that we were a part of it.”

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