Saturday, August 8, 2009

Onward Brass Band - The Tradition Continues (CD review)

The current edition of the Onward Brass Band, led by drummer Kurt Nicewander, is the legitimate inheritor of one of the grandest traditions in all of American Music, that of the New Orleans brass band.
With a history dating back over 130 years, the present edition of the band may not sound exactly like the original unit, which was never recorded. The original Onward Brass Band was most likely a fairly straightforward marching band in its earliest incarnation, which predated the era in which historians believe jazz was invented. However, “The Tradition Continues”, the first new CD by the current edition of the Onward Brass Band, ties together most of the other strains of New Orleans music – turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century marching band styles, jazz, blues, and even r&b – into a microcosm of the unique sounds which have developed in the Crescent City throughout the past century.
The album gets off to a rousing start with the standard “Bourbon Street Parade”. This
is, of course, especially appropriate, since the song was written by the great Paul
Barbarin, the man who revived the Onward Brass Band in the mid-1950’s, following an
extended period of inactivity for the band. Although the tune is often played in an Al Hirt/Dixieland style, the Onward’s version is much closer in sound and spirit to the distinctive New Orleans street parade of its title. Where else but on the streets of New Orleans would a syncopated dance rhythm and collective improvisation be superimposed on a march beat? Trombonist Freddie Lonzo’s gritty vocal includes a few cracked notes, but these only add to the genuine air of spontaneity felt throughout the performance. There’s an energy and enthusiasm to the group improvisation on the last chorus and coda that make it seem as if the commercialization and modernization which some observers claim to hear in present-day New Orleans music has never taken place.
The medley of “Closer Walk – Didn’t He Ramble” depicts another New Orleans cultural tradition – the so-called “jazz funeral”. The spiritual “Just a Closer Walk With
Thee” is played as a dirge, which serves as musical accompaniment to the mourners as
they slowly and somberly make their way to the cemetery. After the burial, as it were, the band breaks into a sprightly stepping version of “Didn’t He Ramble” (a long-time New Orleans favorite with a rich history of its own, dating back to a rather rowdy English folk song of unknown antiquity, “The Darby Ram”). The way back from the funeral thus turns into a cathartic celebration of life. The Onward’s version easily evokes images of second-line dancers and a crowd walking rhythmically as they wave hankies and parasols. Dimitri Smith captures the spirit of the affair with an uncommonly agile tuba solo, followed by an ear-catching, polyrhythmic break by the drum line (two snares and a bass drum.
I have to confess I’ve heard “Saints Go Marching In” a few too many times by now.
But let’s face it, the tune is pretty much expected in this context. To their credit, the members of the Onward Brass Band manage to add enough touches of their own to keep it interesting and entertaining nonetheless.
And what would a tradition-conscious New Orleans disc be without at least one tune inextricably linked to Louis Armstrong? The band’s rendition of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” is great fun. Tom Fischer, who proves to be a solid exponent of classic New Orleans clarinet style throughout the disc, comes up with some fine ideas on his solo, and the band turns on the burners for the last chorus once again.
Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” dates from a later period in New
Orleans’ rich and varied musical history. Even so, Longhair’s distinctive rhumba rhythm makes an easy transition to Onward’s syncopated shuffle beat, in an arrangement that ties together elements of many eras and many styles of New Orleans music.
Indeed, in a genre closely associated with collective improvisation, the Onward Brass Band shows off some tight ensemble chops on the album. The riffing horns behind the solos in “Back Home Again in Indiana” are particularly enjoyable. This is another one of those performances that just keeps building in intensity. The ascending ensemble lines on the chorus of “Lil’ Liza Jane” are also noteworthy. And don’t overlook the way in which Smith’s tuba whoops fit into the arrangement of “Whoopin’ Blues”.
I do need to make mention of Freddie Lonzo’s tailgating trombone work, a definite
highlight throughout the album. There is nothing politely decorous about his playing, which is gruff, gutsy, earthy, with a delightful jump in his rhythm. Check out his brassy blats on “Just A Little While To Stay Here.”
The only substantive criticism I can make is that the energy level drops a bit too much when the vocals enter in “Down By the Riverside” and “Lil’ Liza Jane”. Even so, the band builds up a full head of steam again before these tracks are over. This is a really a minor carp when you consider the high level of entertainment maintained through the rest of the album.
Tradition can be deadly when an artist or band tries too hard to slavishly reproduce the past as carefully and mechanically as possible. The Onward Brass Band, however, take the opposite approach, utilizing and combining New Orleans traditions while making them relevant to the present moment with energy, inspiration, and drive. This is New Orleans brass band music rooted in a glorious past, yet still alive and well in the 21st Century. Top-notch!

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