When the Dirty Dozen Brass Band got started 35 years ago, there wasn’t much popular call for such bands. By the early 1980s, the Dirty Dozen had not only revolutionized the genre, but they had also brought it back to a level of fascination. Appearing at parties for The Rolling Stones, at major festivals in New York and Europe, and then releasing an original debut disc in 1984, The Dirty Dozen brought the New Orleans brass band tradition to a fresh new audience.
And other brass bands followed. But 35 years later, it is also apparent that no band is quite them. The Dozen created a crisp and hip brass band sound for a new generation, no doubt, but they also fused the tradition with funk and modern jazz, managing to create a sound both more sophisticated and more earthy.
The band’s 20th album features just about everything that folks love about the Dirty Dozen. There are hip original tunes, traditional workouts, dashes of international flavor too, but also a heap of funk and soul amidst the rough-and-tumble New Orleans syncopation. It’s not the best of the Dirty Dozen — it’s maybe a little too clean in a few spots, tamer than it might be, but still a good-time groove for sure, a New Orleans party but more, a delight.
If you haven’t been following Dirty Dozen since their early years, then you need to know that they moved, a while ago, away from the purer place where they started. I remember dancing around my 1980s living room to their version of “Li’l Liza Jane”, just brass and parade drums and shouted out vocals — New Orleans Bliss with just enough bebop mixed in to please my modern jazz soul. They were always doing bop amidst the killer brass band textures (just check out their “Moose the Mooche” or “Oop Pop A Dah” from 1989’s Voodoo), but in the 1990s, they added a more modern rhythm section to their groove — a real drum kit, electric bass on occasion, guitar and organ — and they were ready to mix traditional tunes and forays into more modern sound.
The Dozen’s last album was 2006’s chilling and wonderful song-by-song, post-Katrina cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, a stunner and minor masterpiece that mixed in contributions from Chuck D, G Love, Bettye LaVette, and Guru. If politics and social justice don’t play a big part in pop music these days, then it’s not something to hang on the Dirty Dozen. Their What’s Goin’ On was the best record of the band’s career.
Twenty Dozen is not nearly that ambitious or excellent, but it still represents considerable range and enjoyment. The headline, certainly, will be the cover of Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music”, which seems just about perfectly made for the brass band form, including the hip “sampling” of that great lick from Michael Jackson “Wanna Be Starting Something” — all brass punch and sputter. It’s great, with guitarist Jake Eckert playing a figure that almost sounds South African, while the whole thing shakes and jiggles with more dance cred that the original. The tenor solo, which climaxes on a couple of overblown high notes, is by Kevin Harris.
At the other end of the spectrum is a fresh but not fancy-pants version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”, played with the sound of parade drums but also with guitar. The electric bass is held in check for sousaphone, though, and when the band chooses to swing the tune, modern jazz style rather than New Orleans style, the tuba walks with as much fluidity as any bass player anywhere. The vocals are joyous and fun, and if the whole things feels just a little too touristy then maybe you just aren’t capable of having fun anymore.
The rest of Twenty Dozen falls between these poles and down a few interesting side streets. “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line” is a traditional, upbeat parade groove, leavened with a suitably Armstrong-esque vocal on the middle chorus. “E Flat Blues” blends New Orleans brass band street feel with the sound of a 1940s jump band on the 12-bar form — all glorious call-and-response with no lessening of energy from start to finish.
More modern pop impulses are present in “Dirty Old Man”, which is a funk tune with a super-strong bass figure for baritone and tenor saxophones and electric bass that then gives way to a vocal that is a kind of pseudo-rap thing in alternation with a shouted chorus. Fun but thin. I prefer something like “We Gon’ Roll”, which is a Hammond organ-drenched funk tune with obligatory vocals but mainly just a really majestic horn line that can’t be denied. Eckert takes a ripping guitar solo (He has few spots here but acquits himself well every time), and the whole thing builds up like a great fight scene in a mediocre but really fun movie. Also of note: a great growling trumpet line toward the end that is even a little menacing over the stew of wah-wah guitar and funk.
The things that don’t fit either of these two strains are worth noting separately. “Jook” has a loping bass figure that suggests a dose of Latin music, and “Tomorrow” blends some township groove into rhythm arrangement, with maybe a dash of reggae backbeat on guitar. “Best of All” has a calypso flavor, a parade whistle going off over the drum breakdown, and a feeling that the horns are lit by sunshine amidst the melody.
And that may be a decent explanation for this recording. After Katrina and its own post-flood masterpiece, the band seems to have gone back to basics some, pushed forward some, branched out some — but always kept moving, finding the sunshine in the fact that it still exists and still plays with joy. Twenty albums and 35 years into a wonderful career, you should be enjoying them as they keep the joy coming.
// Notes from the Road
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