Last week I took my first journey to one of the most exciting places I’ve been. New Orleans, LA, often called “The Birthplace of Jazz” or “The Big Easy” is still a brewing pot of music, with rich ingredients as old as the city itself, and as new as today’s top 40 hits.
These varieties in music are celebrated during The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, known to the locals simply as JazzFest.
This massive conglomeration of musicians includes not only the bands playing at the festival itself, but the shows going on through the night in the bars, venues, and streets of New Orleans.
This article is a commentary on some of the bands I saw during my four days in the city, and will focus on the brass musicians involved as well as the stylistic differences in their music.
Kirk Josephs Backyard Groove
Official Blurb: Kirk Joseph, “Master of the Sousafunk”
Sousaphone player Kirk Joseph clearly has his roots in the early jazz and brass band style of New Orleans, his hometown. His show, however, more closely resembled that of a pop group rather than a traditional band.
His sousaphone playing included the normal blasts and figures of a brass band, but intertwined with walking bass lines, supporting the rest of the band, including drumset, singers, keyboards, background horns, and even two rappers, who mostly stuck with a pop / hip hop feel with funky tendencies.
The substitution of a tuba rather than an electric bass gave the groove an interesting and rootsy feel.
Original Royal Players Brass Band:
Official Blurb: Traditional brass band style and repertoire are the mainstay of this New Orleans ensemble led by bass drummer Anthony Bennett.
Walking up to the tent gave me flashbacks to a time I was never alive for. True Dixieland style playing defined The Original Royal Players Brass Band, who were as close to a traditional brass band as I have seen.
Composed of marching bass and snare drums, sousaphone, three tenor saxes, clarinet, two trumpets, and two trombones, the band hit hard with intertwining lines and melodies that drove the rhythm perpetually forward.
Solos were shared by all members of the band, showing their excellent musicianship and range. They also had a fantastic way of focusing on a melody, many players in unison, and breaking off one by one into countermelodies and background solos as it repeated, slowly descending into joyous chaos.
Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Orchestra
Official Blurb: Delfeayo Marsalis is one of the top trombonists, composers and producers in jazz today. Known for his “technical excellence, inventive mind and frequent touches of humor…”
Trombone player Delfeayo Marsalis, like his brothers, represent a mostly traditional jazz style. He was on stage with a big band, full trumpet, trombone, and sax sections as expected, only standing in one line across the stage, with the rhythm behind them.
Nobody on stage was reading music, and the band went seamlessly from composed sections to solos from almost every member on stage.
Delfeayo let the other members of the band shine, and refrained from soloing until the middle of the set, where the group dispersed, leaving a combo band of only a few horn players. The big band rejoined the stage at the end, and the whole group walked off into the crowd in a marching band style grand finale.
Soul Rebel Brass Band
Official Blurb: Imagine blending the sounds of Mardi Gras funk, soft rock, and reggae so seemingly it defies category. Now shrink that idea into a seven-piece ensemble, add a hip hop sensibility plus a hundred years of New Orleans jazz tradition, and you get the Louisiana sound known as the Soul Rebels.
Arriving to the festival late this day (I attended a conference that morning) had me rushing to get in the front gates. I hurriedly showed my ticket, checked my bag, and ran for the main stage. I was nearly blown back to where I started as I approached the stages inside.
Drowning out the sounds from closer stages and the hubbub of the crowd was the sheer power of Soul Rebels Brass Band. Their sound was totally unlike the traditional and mixed brass bands I had seen so far. It was pure hip hop, with a danceable groove that had people moving from hundreds of yards away.
The comparatively small band was driven by the sousaphone, and was backed up by a tenor sax, two trumpets, two trombones, and two drummers.
The musicians were very tight on the choruses and composed parts, composed mostly of unison and simple harmony parts, which added most of the power. Soloists came straight over the top, with a harsh sound but clean playing to add depth and show off their musicianship.
Official Blurb: Even in a city that doesn’t play by the rules, New Orleans’ Bonerama is something different. They can evoke vintage funk, classic rock and free improvisation in the same set; maybe even the same song.
Immediately following Soul Rebels on the main stage, Bonerama certainly had their work cut out for them. Having never seen them live, I was expecting to hear three trombone players come in and blast their way through the set, with loud, obnoxious anthems. What I heard at first was totally different than I expected.
Danceable rock and funk grooves came out, enlightening the massive crowd. The horn lines were sprinkled in as normal, harmonized behind the singer. It was all just perfect. Like your favorite classic rock band with a whole lot of trombone players.
About two-thirds of the way through the set, all hell broke loose. Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” played by three screaming trombone players, with a mix of harmonies and effects pedals, drove people mad.The crowd left their slow dancing for head banging and yelling.
Bonerama kept this madness going through the end of their set, bringing back the funk and rock grooves from the beginning, but with a new unsympathetic attitude. They showed their mastery by mixing in the stylistically appropriate and the incredibly over-the-top.
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
Official Blurb: Growing up in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, “Trombone Shorty” was participating in brass band parades as a child… Originally attracting attention for his youth, by his teens he was attracting attention for his musical virtuosity as well.
Another New Orleans native, Trombone Shorty came up in a modern era of brass players, and his set of grooving funk rock and screaming brass solos was proof of his roots. He had a distinct sound when he played that separated him from all the brass players I had seen so far. His tone was harsh, almost overpowering the instrument, with a tone that sailed over his band and the sax players backing him up.
I was amazed when the sound was nearly replicated as he played the trumpet. Being a multi-instrumentalist is difficult for brass players, but Trombone Shorty moved seamlessly between the two, often in the same song. He had incredible range on both instruments, and employed a multi-tounging technique on a single note, which when interrupted by high screeches, made his solos exciting and unique.
The crowd reveled at every move he made, singing along the whole way, packing tighter and tighter into one of the corner stages they had set up. Why he was not on the main stage perplexed me as more and more showed up with every song.
New Orleans comes alive for JazzFest, 24hours a day, spanning both festival weekends and the time in between. All the extra musicians and tourists in the area during this time only add fuel to the fire.
Walking around at night after the festival, even into the morning, there is music everywhere. Every city I have been to has street musicians. These are not the guitar players that play outside after baseball games, or the horn players that squeak around the subway system here on the east coast.
I saw ten piece jazz groups, sitting on the street corner, with stand up bass, full horn sections, even swing dancers who travel with the group. Roving marching bands fill up streets with crowds as they wander through downtown.
The most remarkable thing I saw outside the festival itself were the brass bands posted up in the French Quarter late at night. Bands had a mix of old and young players, with almost no discernable difference in skill level. Songs played were more like open jams than compositions, and players took turns soloing into eternity. Grooves would go on for 20 minutes or more, driven by a sousaphone and marching bass drum.
These sights in New Orleans were a glimmer of hope in our fading music industry. There, the whole city was affected by the music, and the hardships they have suffered in recent years seem to be reflected in their passion. Children and adults alike seem to rely on the music for not only financial support, but personal entertainment and pastime. Anyone interested in music should add New Orleans to their list of must-see places before they die, and I recommend JazzFest as an optimal time to realize this aspiration.
by Kyle M. Bagley, http://www.kylembagley.com