Rebirth Brass Band
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Rebirth Brass Band

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After almost twenty years, New Orleans's Rebirth Brass Band is still irresistible
By John Anderson

I feel like funkin' it up.

Don't ask me why. Maybe it's the summer weather in the middle of January, or the hot sauce in my beans. Or more likely it's the distant drums from an approaching brass band workin' its way down the street, getting louder and louder with every syncopated step. People are streaming out their front doors, jumping in behind the band, alongside the second-line dancers, joining a writhing mass of revelers, snaking its way along to the stuttering beats.

It can't be helped, this whole funky business, whenever New Orleans's own Rebirth Brass Band takes to the streets. The rhythm gets you, no future tense about it, with the hard blowing from this nine-man battalion of horns and drums. It starts from the bottom up, with the root rhythm from bass drummer Keith "Bass Drum Shorty" Frazier pounding out the liberally accented beat. His brother Philip "Tuba Love" Frazier, founder and leader of the band, bellows out a bass line through a sousaphone wrapped around his body.

"Yeah, we carry on as much as we can," admits Philip, describing the traditional New Orleans jazz-band sound that's been around since before Louis Armstrong. "You know as long as I got strength in my body and still can play, I'll carry on till the day I die," he vows. "I'll probably die with a tuba in my hands."

The snare drum snaps and crackles, the sticks skipping across the skins like a cat on a hot griddle. Two trombones, a couple of trumpets, and a tenor sax round out the top with melodies, harmonies, and mad improvisations always breaking out of the loose structure at the song's core.

But even amid the mayhem, the band knows where the center lies. The brass comes together at intervals, punching up the tension and then spilling out once again into controlled chaos. That doesn't mean Rebirth can't be as precise as a pin when it wants to be, stopping on a dime, changing directions. It's just that the players are more interested in pushing the party to the limit than keeping all the notes in line.

"You can tell it's organized music that doesn't sound so organized," comments Philip on the method to their madness. "You still hear the melody; you still feel the vibe and can tell what song we're playing."

And then in the fever of the moment -- crowd and band mesmerized -- a familiar song just might erupt into a new creation.

"If I come up with a bass line, or one of the guys comes up with a bass line, or comes up with a 4/4 [rhythm], then we don't know what might happen," Philip warns. "And we just keep playing over and over till we get to that itch."

The Rebirth Brass Band started as a high school band project in 1983. The original members were classmates at Joseph S. Clark High School in New Orleans's Treme neighborhood -- a breeding ground for jazz and home to generations of musicians -- when Philip got a request to form a band to play at a local social function.

"Everybody liked the idea," he recalls. "We started practicing, keeping the band together, started gettin' gigs around town. We got a chance to cut our first record when we was all seniors in 1984," Philip says, still amazed at that early success. "Before you know it, we started traveling around the world, Africa, Europe. We were at the right place at the right time."

Success has not spoiled the band. "It started as a fun project, and it's still a fun project," he insists. "I'd be telling people most of the time it's not about the money. The music's about performing for people and playing music because I love doing it so much."

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, groups like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were leading a renaissance of the traditional brass-band sound, taking elements of the old and combining them with their own new and funkier sensibilities. And for young groups just starting out like Rebirth, hearing what those bands were doing was an ear-opening experience, an inspiration.

"Yeah, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Olympia Brass Band, and Chosen Few, they were the bands to model ourselves behind," says Philip. "What we did is we took their styles, put it to our style, and made the Rebirth style."

That style included elements of rap, a new sound that was just emerging in the early Eighties with groups like the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. And as improbable as it seems for a brass band to play rap, the style is recognizable in the chorus of words and lines repeated like mantras during some songs, and through rhythmic horn play.

"When rap started out being real, real strong, that influenced us a lot then also," says Philip. "We was doing it off the radio and putting that into the band. And when we took the sounds off the radio, we started creating more sounds. Basically we took some of the rap lyrics and turned them into useful lyrics, and also some of the beats in the bass line we turned into a brass-b - Miami New Times


"God in his great clemency created Earth, Louis Armstrong, the Neville Brothers and Rebirth Brass Band." - program book for the legendary Montreaux Jazz Fest in Switzerland

"Rebirth can be precise whenever it wants to, but it's more like a party than a machine, as minigroups form and dissolve at any moment. It's a working model of the New Orleans musical ethos: as long as everybody knows what they're doing, anyone can cut loose." - New York Times

"Band founder Philip "Tuba Love" Frazier is the Bootsy Collins of brass; with his brother Keith on bass drum and Derrick Tabb on snare drum they burp and thump out an inimitable rhythm found only in New Orleans." - Cleveland Scene

"It was my home for nearly a decade, and during my time in the Big Easy, I found that few other bands exemplified all that is beautiful and strange about New Orleans better than Rebirth." - Chicago Tribune

"New Orleans brass band music is raucous, rhythmic, sometimes a little dirty and definitely not the polite stuff you hear in gumbo commercials. And it was this dark art that one of Crescent City's best-known practitioners, the Rebirth Brass Band, conjured for the audience at the Birchmere bandstand Saturday night." - Washington Post
- Various


While many locals complain that the “jazz” in Jazz Fest is little more than a pretext for the “Fest” as of late, nobody dances to the rhythm of semantics. For the famously upbeat ReBirth Brass Band the controversy is immaterial; Jazz Fest is the ultimate gig, pure and simple. “Jazz Fest is our reward,” says Philip Frazier, ReBirth’s tuba player and unassuming leader. “We figure we go around the world so much, we spread the word, and at Jazz Fest all those people come to see us on our own turf. When we see that big crowd — man, that’s enough energy for us to do anything.”

Like Jazz Fest, ReBirth must confront the disparate demands of success, struggling to keep tabs on that ever-elusive concept called “fun” without abandoning tradition. ReBirth’s new CD, Hot Venom (Mardi Gras Records), reveals a more complex and confrontational version of the Fest favorite. This alter ego offers a bold charter for the future of brass band music and the traditions that surround it.

The history of the brass band is intertwined with the “social aid & pleasure club,” and together they conjure up the antiquated image of a solemn procession of proud people dressed in their Sunday best, shuffling forward to the rhythm of the band. Ajay Mallery, the snare drummer for ReBirth, used to watch the secondlines from the steps of his childhood home. “It never did interest me,” he recalls. “It was quite boring — back then, brass bands were an older thing — only parents and grandparents.”

When Philip and Keith Frazier began playing traditional brass band music in 1983, social aid and pleasure clubs and the second-line parades they sponsored were on the verge of becoming an anthropological footnote. Still, the Frazier brothers had no trouble finding inspiration, and they combined the intensity of the Dirty Dozen with a youthful sense of adventure to create a new kind of brass band, simultaneously innovative and irreverent; from the beginning ReBirth was willing to incorporate everything from R&B to television jingles into its music. With Kermit Ruffins as the front man, ReBirth fueled a resurgence of interest in brass band music with far-reaching effects.

In the recent documentary Let Me Do My Thang, filmmaker Keith Reynaud captures the striking contrast between the staid secondline procession of yesteryear and the raucous rolling block party that it is today. The ReBirth Brass Band deserves credit for revitalizing the secondline and for inspiring a new generation of like-minded bands. But ReBirth’s success has pulled them in several directions: on tour as the quintessential New Orleans brass band for festival-goers worldwide; at the Maple Leaf as the mind-altering substance of choice for Tulane and Loyola students; and in the secondline as the bastion of New Orleans’ street culture. If We Come to Party (1997) was a nod to their world-music-festival fan base, and The Main Event: Live at the Maple Leaf (1999) was a tribute to their college following, then their newest album, Hot Venom, is a long-overdue homage to the streets that inspire them.

By incorporating hip-hop in sound and in sentiment, Hot Venom has the dubious honor of being ReBirth’s first album to warrant a parental advisory label.

The label will come as a shock to many fans, who had grown comfortable with ReBirth’s signature covers of Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye. But after playing virtually every day for 18 years, ReBirth had begun to lose its edge. Its music seemed less like an exciting departure from tradition and more like the emergence of a new, equally intransient tradition. For many young people the brass band tradition both begins and ends with ReBirth, period.

“Whenever you’re an innovator of something new, if you want to stay that way, you have to constantly challenge barriers,” explains saxophonist Roderick Paulin, who played with ReBirth for six years before leaving in 1997 to pursue a solo career. It was time for ReBirth to re-establish itself at the vanguard of New Orleans music.

“We get our energy, our motivation [and] our creativity from the streets,” Mallery says. “As long as we are connected with home and the people, we don’t have any worries. A lot of people are going to be shocked, but hey — it’s all about trying to get the music out.” To ReBirth’s credit, the music differs from their earlier work only in the quality of their performance and the extent to which individual talents can be heard against the formidable rhythm section. The compositions are more ambitious and the horn arrangements tighter, underscored to great effect by Derrick Shezbie on trumpet and the recent addition of Revert Andrews as the band’s third trombonist. Revert’s cousin Glen Andrews distinguishes himself as the lone author of “Doing Bad,” one of the album’s most driven pieces. Saxophonist James Durant provides his usual smooth and seemingly effortless solos throughout the album.

Hot Venom also marks ReBirth’s coming-of-age as vocalists, both with sophisti - bestofneworleans.com


Discography

Throwback(2005) - Kermit Ruffins and Rebirth Brass Band
Rebirth For Life(2004) - RBB
Hot Venom(2001) - RBB
Main Event: Live at the Maple Leaf(1999) - RBB
We Come To Party(1997) - RBB
Rollin'(1994) - RBB
Take It To The Street(1992) - RBB
Rebirth Kickin' It Live(1991) - RBB
Do Watcha Wanna(1991) - RBB
Feel Like Funkin' It Up(1989) - RBB

Photos

Bio

Simply put, The Rebirth Brass Band is a New Orleans institution. Formed in 1983 by the now infamous Frazier brothers, the band has evolved from playing the streets of the French Quarter to playing festivals and stages all over the world. Rebirth is committed to upholding the tradition of brass bands while at the same time incorporating modern music into their show. Their signature brand of brass funk has won over several generations of music lovers, and in a post-Katrina world, their name and music have become the soundtrack to their musically rich hometown. In the wake of the sometimes-stringent competition amongst brass bands, Rebirth is the undisputed leader of the pack, and they show no signs of slowing down.