As well known as the brass band is as a musical symbol of New Orleans, there’s no question that its history is under-documented. Released February 10th as an installment in Smithsonian Folkways’ African American Legacy Recordings in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this collection takes a stab at changing that. The methodology is surprising, but the results are nonetheless illuminating and, of course, groovy.
A full-scope chronological audio history of NOLA brass bands would be impossible, as (despite their importance in jazz’s origins) they existed for over a century before the first recordings of the style were cut in 1945. Even so, it would make some degree of sense to chart the evolution of the style via archival records and modern commercial ones, ideally mixing in field recordings of actual street performances along the way. Instead, producer Dr. Michael White divides the dominant styles of brass bands into three branches: traditional, influenced primarily by jazz; transitional, blending jazz with funk and rhythm and blues; and modern, hardening the funk edge and frequently incorporating rap. He chooses a band representative of each style – Liberty, Treme and Hot 8, respectively – and intersperses the fifteen tracks to reflect the breadth of material encompassed by each.
Without an eye on the track listing, it can be a bit tough to keep track of exactly which band is playing which song, but in general Dr. White’s central thesis holds up the listening experience. The Liberty Brass Band, headed by Dr. White himself on clarinet, has a sound somewhere between the popular images of a brass band and a Dixieland band; the Treme Brass Band includes covers and repurposings of popular tunes from outside the brass band tradition; and the Hot 8 Brass Band gets funky and tells you all about it. In some ways a natural progression would be more effective from an educational perspective, but the sequence keeps the tone fresh throughout and forces a listener to pay attention, picking up the pieces of history buried in the music.
To help in that process, Dr. White’s liner notes are essential. As both a performer and an academic, he knows how to make a history lesson listener-friendly. He provides 11 pages of the basics on brass band history, mentioning the watershed musicians, bands and developments from the late 19th century on, and addressing how the bands have always fit into the city’s social fabric. A brief bio follows for each of the three bands included, explaining their selection and place in the tradition. The notes on the Hot 8 close on a note from which purists and traditionalists can take heart: specifically, how after Katrina many of the younger, funkier generation, and the Hot 8 in particular, have taken on mentors from the older generations to make sure that the traditional sounds, songs, and styles are kept alive alongside the new avenues that brass bands will no doubt continue to explore.
— Dan Greenwood