There is no better example of the continuity of New Orleans’ musical traditions than the back-to-back sets by the Midnite Disturbers and the Treme Brass Band on Sunday afternoon at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The first band is an ad hoc, T-shirted, all-star group of New Orleans funk musicians rounded up by Stanton Moore, the brilliant drummer for the rock’n’funk band Galactic. The second is an old-school, uniformed marching band that has been a local institution since the 1960s.
And yet both groups were firmly grounded in the legacy of the city’s brass bands that take to the streets for funeral processions, Mardi Gras parades and block parties. Both relied solely on horns and percussion to create all the melody, harmony and rhythm anyone could ever want. Both drew on the same stockpile of New Orleans standards that they reworked for their own purposes. In fact, they were so much the same that three musicians played in both groups: baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis (Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Fats Domino), trombonist Corey Henry (Lil’ Rascals Brass Band, Galactic) and trumpeter Kenneth Terry (ReBirth Brass Band).
Each member of the Midnite Disturbers wore a red T-shirt that read “Listen to …” with a different New Orleans legend at the end. Moore’s shirt, for example, read, “Listen to James Black,” while his Galactic bandmate, saxophonist Ben Ellman, saluted Fred Sheppard. But this was no pious history lesson; one of the set’s highlights was a raucous version of the Lil’ Rascals’ “Fucking like a Horse,” with trumpeter Shamarr Allen leading the title as a call-and-response chant. Even better was the version of the Mardi Gras Indian song, “Indian Ruler,” led by Monk Boudreaux, the big chief of the Golden Eagles.
The Funky Nation’s Big Sam Williams, Bonerama’s Mark Mullins, Skerik and tuba virtuoso Matt Perrine were all on hand to pump up the elephantine beat. But amid the funky grooves were some truly inventive jazz solos, especially by Moore and Lewis. Then it started pouring on the outdoor stage, and the audience, with Katrina always in the back of the mind, fled for the tents.
In the Economy Hall Jazz Tent, there was a 20-minute wait for the Treme Brass Band, which was paying tribute to longtime bass drummer Uncle Lionel Batiste, who died last July. Known for his dapper clothes, amusing dance and rock-steady beat, he was a beloved patriarch of the city’s brass band revival. Thus the current members of the Treme Brass Band were joined by many alumni, including Lewis, Henry, Terry, clarinetist Michael White, trumpeter Greg Stafford and tuba player Kirk Joseph.
The show began with a mournful version of “Amazing Grace,” as if the band were taking the coffin from the church to the cemetery. Terry stretched out the words in his vocal, and the band played that slow, rolling march beat that encourages the mourners to sway as they take one step at a time. The Men of Class Social Club, dressed in peach-colored suits and carrying giant feathered fans were doing just that as they led a procession through the aisles.
Just when the music seemed to heavy to bear, the band exploded into “Big Fat Sarah,” a bawdy dance number, as if they had left the coffin behind and were celebrating the life left to the rest of us. Silver-bearded Greg Stafford played piercing trumpet solos, while moon-faced Michael White, wearing a blue admiral’s hat with “Treme” written in gold, countered with sweet bubbly clarinet. The marchers started dancing in the aisles, big women in tiny peach dresses sashaying behind tiny men in baggy suits. Audience members rose from their chairs and spilled into the aisles, twirling umbrellas and shaking off the rain.