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Playing the Legacy 

New CDs from The Dirty Dozen and ReBirth brass bands are filled with nods to their mentor, the late Tuba Fats.

During the brass band conference that took place as part of this year's French Quarter Festival, one name kept coming up in panelists' remarks -- the late Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen. Hiding in plain view down in Jackson Square all these years, Tuba Fats was a Rosetta Stone for the New Orleans brass band tradition, remembered as the main man involved in filling the larger-than-you-think gap between the traditional and contemporary brass bands.

In 1977, Fats helped found a new band with trombonist Charles Joseph, another Olympia alumnus. They named the group The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and while Fats encouraged his buddies in the Dozen to bring new ideas to the tradition, panelists recalled how he also schooled and tested them on the music's language.

The players in this new wave of brass bands hung out at each other's gigs and often played together, so Fats' influence extended to everyone, including Coolbone and ReBirth Brass Band.

The Dirty Dozen and ReBirth, the two flagship bands of the new wave, have just released Funeral for a Friend (Ropeadope) and ReBirth for Life (Tipitina's), respectively -- each in time for Jazz Fest and each dedicated to Tuba Fats.

The jazz funeral for Fats on Jan. 8 was one of the largest of these events in history, a four-hour procession and celebration with The Dirty Dozen taking pride in its place in the lineup. In what can be viewed as a remarkable twist of fate, the Dozen had just completed its 10th studio album, a recreation of a traditional jazz funeral, when members heard of Fats' death.

Though the songs on the album are drawn from the funeral dirge/second-line canon and the liner notes walk listeners through a jazz funeral procession, the Dozen's musical trademarks are fully evident. The band features former member Kirk Joseph back in the fold sharing sousaphone duties with Julius McKee and Jeffrey Hills Sr. With Joseph on board, the Dozen plays with soulful restraint on the gospel dirge "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," cranks up the heat on "I Shall Be Moved," then adds a little more edge to "Please Let Me Stay a Little Longer." They hit full-out celebration mode with "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and transcend to full-throated ecstasy with perhaps the wildest version of "Jesus on the Mainline" ever recorded. Trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns, trombonist Sammie Williams and saxophonists Roger Lewis and Kevin Harris testify along with the Davell Crawford Singers.

As rigorous as the Dozen is in its recreation of the jazz funeral, the band remains innovative. "Down by the Riverside" features a slide guitar solo by Jamie McLean, and the Mingus-like vocal phrasings add a spooky air to "John the Revelator."

Given the Dozen's conceptual daring in the past, a formal studio project with the gravity of these sessions gives Funeral a stark, contemplative cast, despite the exultant second-line sequences. On the other hand, at one of ReBirth Brass Band's first gigs in 1983, the band started a second line at a convention gig and spontaneously took it to Bourbon Street. In that spirit, it offers a looser tribute to Fats with ReBirth for Life.

ReBirth for Life offers a good example of how the new generation interprets the brass band sound. They emphasize the funk, but play it at a breakneck pace -- frenetic, supercharged, polyrhythmic cadences that often speed up unexpectedly. The new melodic themes are facile and light-footed, phrased in unison or antiphonal call-and-response. The result is much closer to contemporary jazz, particularly on the medley "Gemini Rising"/"Who Took the Happiness Out," with its hot saxophone and trumpet solos. This is modern dance music made from traditional parts.

The album opens with Philip Frazier's sousaphone evoking Fats' spirit on "Tubaluba," with Keith Frazier and Derrick Tabb smoking cross rhythms on bass and snare drums. The toe-tapping, march-time intro to "Talkin' Loud," with band members urging each other on, breaks down to a raucous tenor saxophone solo from special guest Rudolph Weber, then more handclapping-accompanied solos from trombonists Herbert Stevens and Stafford Agee and trumpet solos from Glen Andrews and Derrick Shezbie. "Tuba Fats" includes a favorite brass band theme, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," reconfigured as "Tuba Was a Rolling Stone."

The New Orleans brass band tradition could have withered at several points were it not for the nurturing provided by the social aid and pleasure clubs, the dedication and sense of purpose of traditionalists such as the Olympia Brass Band and the vision of Tuba Fats and his cohorts in The Dirty Dozen and ReBirth. As they have combined the blues and gospel that accompanied generations of African Americans with high school marching band rhythms, post-bop jazz soloing, cartoon themes, R&B classics, and hip hop chants, they've helped keep cultural roots from passing into history.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band performs at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Louisiana Music Factory and Thursday with several other bands in a sold-out show at Tipitina's French Quarter. ReBirth Brass Band performs with several other bands Friday and Saturday at Mid City Lanes Rock 'N' Bowl, Sunday with the Wild Magnolias at Southport Hall, and at 8 p.m. Monday, May 3, at the Louisiana Music Factory.

click to enlarge While The Dirty Dozen's new CD, Funeral for a Friend, mines the gospel and blues aspects of the second line, ReBirth's latest, ReBirth for Life, keeps it funky.
  • While The Dirty Dozen's new CD, Funeral for a Friend, mines the gospel and blues aspects of the second line, ReBirth's latest, ReBirth for Life, keeps it funky.
click to enlarge ae_feat-9014.jpeg
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