Music

Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Twenty Dozen

Thirty-five years down the line, this groundbreaking New Orleans band keeps things funky and slick with its 20th jazz inflected brass band excursion.


Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Twenty Dozen

Label: Savoy Jazz
US Release Date: 2012-05-01
UK Release Date: 2012-05-01
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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.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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