[6 August 2014]
New Orleans brass band music is the kind of surging, high energy joy ride that few people who like American music can resist. It’s tempting to say that it hardly matters who’s playing or what the tunes are — you get a bunch of brass together with a funky set of drums and put that hip-swaying groove into it and . . . what’s not to love?
But of course it’s not that simple.
A great New Orleans brass band plays together in a loose-but-tight style that combines certain simplicities (a backbeat, driving blues-based melodies, clear emotion) with complexities of rhythm, arrangement, and interplay between improvisation and arrangement. A terrific brass band performance is an act of slight of hand, a party prepared for with great care but performed with abandon and relish.
Move Your Body is a standard title for a brass band recording, but the Rebirth Brass Band is no standard band. Founded about 30 years ago by the Frazier brothers (Philip and Keith) and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, the band is real deal. While the band is a smart collaborator with pop stars and others in various guises, what it remains at core is a New Orleans brass band. That is, there is a tuba that gives you heavy, dancing bottom. There are drummers in the street tradition: bass drum and snare and tambourine. And there are horns/singers who give off the joy and pain and cry of life that is close to a kind of religion in places like New Orleans. This recording opens with a strutting blues, “Lord, Lord, Lord, You Sure Been Good to Me”, that features all of that. The call and response between the lead singer and the ensemble of voices is pure America, as is the raggedy beauty of the horns as they play both precisely and not to precisely. Redemption feels gooooood.
But Rebirth is not all about the Big Guy Up Above. They’re mainly about the party. (Or maybe there’s not that much of a distinction?) The bulk of the tunes here are really about getting the bottom in motion, regardless of the spirit. One tunes like “Move Your Body”, the groove is somewhat more modern. Not that there are electric guitars or synthesizers in the mix to make the brass band sound more up-to-date, nope. Rebirth does not require that. They simply harness multi-layered funk rhythms that are less in the straight New Orleans parade tradition and render them with their wondrous sound. On this title track, the chatter of partying voices never lets up, but then they come together into a chorus of harmonized vocals that focus your ears. “Rebirth Makes You Dance” follows a similar model, with the big vocal feature coming about two-thirds of the way through the track, this time featuring a soulful female vocal that makes things just a little slicker.
There are other styles that Rebirth plays well. “On My Way” is a fat slice of brass band reggae, with the saxophones and trombones supplying the jagged, off-beat heartbeat that the style is known for. It’s a slower groove and a welcome change of pace. “Who’s Rockin’, Who’s Rollin’” has the fanfare-ish sound of some of the recent Trombone Shorty anthems, with rat-a-tat percussion bubbling under a slower moving pulse as the horns keep playing a surging theme. When the voices enter, of course, the question is answered: “Who’s rocking’ and rollin’? REBIRTH! Can you take me where the party at? RIGHT HERE!” “HBNS” throws in some slick harmonized vocals that rhyme “Did you get my text” with “I want high, buck-naked sex” with “I love it when you make me sweat”. Lord, you sure HAVE been good to me.
The tradition still doesn’t wander far off. “Take ‘Em to the Moon” is jazzy brass band stuff, high-wire playing that doesn’t rely on racy vocals. “Texas Pete” (a tribute to the hot sauce, we will assume) is just glorious down-home playing that doesn’t skimp on the improvising, with fairly adventurous tenor sax, trombone, and muter trumpet solos at its center. And there is even a Louis Armstrong-ish take on “Your Mama Don’t Dance (and Your Daddy Don’t Rock ’n’ Roll)”, the Loggins and Messina song, if you like. I do, what with the Rebirth version using the melody as simply a blues theme that let’s them do their thing.
And that’s what Rebirth does, whatever the context: their thing, which is a moving, fun, spiritual, emotional form of an essential American style.
It’s hard to say what recommends one Rebirth performance or recording over another — what they are and what they do is straight-ahead and probably shouldn’t change all that much. But “Move Your Body” is as good a current example of brass band music as you’re likely to find. You can enjoy it for all time.