Sabine Wills recently joined Elby Brass as a dedicated vocalist, an addition that 'opened up creative avenues' for the popular Fredericksburg-based group. (Photo courtesy of Seth Casana)

Female vocalist Wills Elby Brass to achieve a new sound

by | Jun 20, 2024 | ALLFFP, Arts and Entertainment, Fredericksburg

When Elby Brass wanted to shake up its established sound as a brass band where all the members play instruments and alternate singing, the Fredericksburg-based ensemble decided to bring in a dedicated vocalist.

Sabine Wills attended the University of Mary Washington, where she sang with their jazz ensemble and had been gigging around town. Elby leader and tuba player Seth Casana saw her perform at the monthly jazz jam at Colonial Tavern, and she didn’t need much convincing.

“She was good friends with some of the members of Elby Brass and musically playing with them a lot,” Casana said of Wills. “I just came up after her set and was like, ‘Hey, that was really great. I’m looking for somebody to sing in Elby Brass. Do you want to do that?’ And she was just like, ‘Yeah sure’. And that was kind of the end of the conversation.

“She just started showing up to practice and became part of the band immediately. She’s been a really great addition.”

Wills had never heard Elby Brass when she agreed to join but came to see them perform shortly after. A quick listen confirmed that her new band’s music was exciting — if far different than what she’d sung to that point.

“While in the UMW jazz band and in the Fredericksburg Big Band I get to sing the kind of music I feel I’m the most comfortable with and that I’ve always loved to sing,” she said. “To see the joy on people’s faces hearing that music is why I keep doing it.

“But there’s something different that Elby brings, which is immense amounts of energy. To be a part of creating and maintaining that is just a whole other adventure that I didn’t think I would be able to get into. I’ve really learned a lot and grown a lot from that experience.”

Wills’ arrival also signaled a subtle change for Elby Brass. The addition of a female lead vocalist has allowed the band to include more contemporary songs that were impossible with its previous lineup.

“In the past, even if one of us could have taken the lead vocal, it would mean that we lost that horn voice because you can’t sing and play horn at the same time,” Casana said. “So that’s opened up a lot of creative avenues. Immediately, a lot of songs that we had on the back burner that we were doing but not doing full justice to, really came into their own.”

Elby Brass will perform a 15th-anniversary show on Friday as part of the ‘Sounds of Summer’ concert series at Fredericksburg’s Market Square. (Photo courtesy of Seth Casana)

For the past 15 years, Elby Brass has been Fredericksburg’s brass band, playing street festivals, outdoor concerts, and block parties. They started as a group of friends who played band instruments and wanted to start a street band. Casana didn’t even own a tuba at the time and went back to his high school band director, who gifted him an old sousaphone (the marching band version of the tuba) to play. Casana still uses that instrument at shows.

“They’re super impractical if you’re not playing it constantly,” he said. “You can’t just roll up to a casual hang with your tuba and start strumming away on the couch. I’m still using that same one. It’s been banged up and repaired a lot over the years. It’s that same one from Lake Braddock. I’m not giving that up. That thing will have to be melted down to slag or run over by a tractor-trailer before I get a new one. That one’s going to the dirty end.”

Elby Brass has always had a diverse song list with unique covers and original songs all delivered with their propulsive rhythm and rocking horns. They combine elements of rock, funk, jazz, and hip-hop. Some of their most popular songs include their tribute to downtown Fredericksburg abbreviated in the song title “DTF” and versions of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “Uptown Funk”, and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”

“Our interpretation of it is a reinterpretation of The Soul Rebels,” Casana said. “They originally did ‘Sweet Dreams’ and then we kind of took their version of it as a starting point and then we adapted it. If we need to play just one song to get everyone up and going, it’s usually that one, because it’s driving and it cuts across generations.

“Everybody can feel engaged in that song even though it’s from the 80s. It’s maintained its relevance and then, when you hear it in that format, it really gets people amped up.”

Over the years, members of Elby Brass have come and gone and the size of the group has varied from 7 to 15 members. The most recent version of the group is an eight-piece band with Wills on vocals. As with all performing groups, the pandemic was a difficult period. This was especially true with a large ensemble. Rehearsing and performing live were impossible and they had to take a hiatus for over a year starting in March of 2020.

“It was the only time in my entire life I wasn’t actively doing something with music since fifth grade,” Casana said. “There had always been some performance; some group I was involved with. I can tell you it was deeply challenging for me. I never realized that until it got taken away.”

With the return of live music, Elby Brass has been getting back to full booking. The group will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a show at Fredericksburg’s Market Square this Friday as part of the Sounds of Summer concert series hosted by the Fredericksburg Area Museum. The popular series often fills the open-air space with music lovers and families.

“We’re just looking forward to a real classic Elby Brass Market Square block party show,”  Casana said. “They’re usually some of the best attended ones of the year they put on. We’ll be bringing out some of our newer covers. We’ve got some new tunes in the lineup. We’ll have all eight of our members there. We’ve got three trumpets so we’re bringing a full chockablock trumpet section.”

If you go

Elby Brass, Market Square in downtown Fredericksburg, Friday June 21, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. free admission.

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