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Dirty Dozen Brass Band

What's Going On

(Shout! Factory; US: 29 Aug 2006; UK: 29 Aug 2006)

After the Levee Broke

Marvin Gaye’s long been off my listen list, so I needed to read up on the Gaye album on which the present one’s based. See All Music Guide for not so much a review as an essay comparing both projects, fascinating even if you might not like all of the music, one beyond that site’s normally decent call of duty.


The music does one of the things art is for, providing reminders that forgetting and neglect breed vast portents.


This is no more an updating of Gaye than is the Dirty Dozen band an updating of what New Orleans marching bands have been doing consistently for decades. Not entirely alone, the Dirty Dozen got to the root of the music and extended New Orleans marching band music across the distance that had opened between the early jazz practices it maintained and the later jazz and popular music that had common roots with it. This is a reminder of the depth added by that extension.


It can also fairly be compared with some music George Russell has been making in the not so distant past, with a complexity of feeling not remote from attention to big and difficult issues, not excluding losing your house and everything in it. There’s technical complexity, which often begins with a need for it and frequently falls into self-indulgence, then there’s this, and membership in a band tradition intimately involved with funerals does foster awareness of complex situations, celebration and grief, however ritualised. This band that could deliver the traditional ceremony for the funeral of Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, one of its founders, now takes on subject matter on a different scale.


There are hints or impressions of the makeshifts which can be heard where amateur performers play a repertoire taken off sophisticated recordings, but here superbly accomplished musicianship let such echoes sharpen the message.


On the first anniversary of Katrina, why not play a tape of Mayor Ray Nagin, bleeping his f-ing display of humanity, and quickly bring in the deep deadpan of sousaphone? The solo trombone sounds sardonic over the stylistic counterpoint of tuba and overbusy R&B bass, and this intensifies the obvious importance of trombone contributions throughout what can be called the whole work.


The trombone’s angry, muted trumpet smoulders, and “What’s Goin’ On?” is a great challenge of a question. When Bettye LaVette asks, “What’s Happening, Brother?”, she has a good general idea. She wants some explication. I very much take to the initially R&B tenor solo starting to sound like the old New Orleans saxophonist Emmanuel Paul, another significant resonance throughout.


“When will it end, when will souls start gettin together again?”


Ivan Neville assures us that God is his friend, and when G. Love tells us “things ain’t what they’re supposed to be”, the baritone saxophonist knows the meaning of what he’s playing. Another vocal refrain, and the music opens out in a bright relief of tension, a dream of what should be, in strong contrast with the earlier “Save the Children”.


“Right On” is an R&B instrumental, into which the trombone’s commentary works an impression of continuing struggle. “Wholly Holy” opens with tuba and more Emanuel Paul-style tenor, a New Orleans funeral lament turning half into not so much a Soul Music lament as a Southern Baptist hymn.


Electronic instruments and a rap mark the beginning of so-called “Inner City Blues”, the noun expressing rather the mood than the musical form of the slow rap. In comes the tuba, and the trombone, and the Motown-New Orleans brass with impressive trumpet. The trombone again speaks, the workhorse whose traditional function in New Orleans music commonly involved playing a simple part. Not here, where the meaning is liberation, or maybe the fight for it. The tenor takes the lead in other instrumental passages between raps, the music smouldering.


Seventy years back, Kansas Joe McCoy recorded a brilliant “When the Levee Breaks” in unexcelled expression of a desolation I wish I hadn’t been enabled to appreciate quite so deeply. Well, there have been differences between the flooding catastrophes I’ve seen bein reported in Europe these past ten years, and the horror which took the homes of some of these very musicians. Although the answers belong with the empowered, this music’s concern is with the importance of these answers being delivered.

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