Archive for February, 2008

The ReBirth Brass Band: First-rate Second Line

February 27, 2008

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ReBirth Brass Band: Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band

A QUICK UPDATE: I’ve gotten a number of comments to this post from people asking if the band is available to play weddings. Unfortunately, I have no connection to the band other than loving their music. To contact them, please visit the Rebirth Brass Band’s MySpace page.

According to the New Orleans Jazz Club, The Second Line “has several definitions. Basically, it’s the people that follow the brass bands on the street. These Second-Liners also have a special step, shuffle or dance they do when following the band. This is called ‘Second Lining.'”

Second Liners follow these brass bands for all kinds of occasions—parades, funerals and perhaps New Orleans’ defining occasion, Mardi Gras.

In this YouTube video, the ReBirth Brass Band plays for a Threadheads “patry” at the 2005 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. According to their website, Threadheads are the denizens of the chat board on the festival’s website. At some point, the word party was misspelled patry on the message board and it stuck.

The ReBirth Brass Band grew out of the Second Line tradition. Formed in 1983, they have taken the music beyond the parades and streets of New Orleans to, as their website proclaims, “theaters and festivals all over the world.” They are committed to upholding the tradition of brass bands while “at the same time incorporating modern music into their show.” Including their signature brand of heavy funk.

The fine 2004 release Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band demonstrates this blend of tradition and modern music beautifully. Although for me, the Second Line comes through strongest. The big brass sound—produced by a tuba, two trumpets, two trombones and a saxophone [technically a woodwind, I know] and driven by a bass drum and a snare drum—at times sounds like nothing so much as a marching band, albeit a loose-hipped marching band. It is parade music, but with a syncopated rhythm, and listening to it, you can’t help but move.

Besides the music’s strong, driving rhythm, the parade aspect comes through in its repetition. The basic melody is laid down right away, and the music never strays far. Ensemble playing and solos repeat and reinforce it, embellishing it, to be sure, but in the end, repetition is in the driver’s seat. When there are lyrics, this becomes even more obvious. In my favorite track on the album, Do Whatcha Wanna, the lyrics for the entire eight-plus-minute song consist of minor variations on, “Do whatcha wanna, hang on the corner,” repeated again and again and again. And it works, wonderfully.

If you’ve ever heard a marching band in a parade, you’re typically standing in one spot and only hear their music as they approach you, pass you by and then fade off into the distance. So they can keep playing variations on a theme for an ever-changing audience. For Second Liners trailing along after the band and dancing, this repetition lays down a steady groove that lets them improvise their own variations in movement.

The ReBirth Brass Band celebrates its 24th anniversary with a show at Tipitina’s Uptown in New Orleans in 2007.

Of course where the band’s music differs from old school Second Line music built on traditional New Orleans jazz [think Louis Armstrong] is in the funk. And this turns great parade music into great party and dancing music. Think of the repetitiveness of disco or house music. Now add some funk and Creole spices. One tune almost flows into the next, and the effect is stirring, uplifting and energizing. Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band is the kind of music that gets the party started or makes chores less chorelike. Or, on a winter walk to the subway with it turned up on your iPod, it makes you wish the walk were a little longer.

Neither of us even remembers now how this lovely disk joined our music collection. But what put it back into the rotation on the kitchen boombox is this: Over the weekend, Marion happened on an episode of This Old House set in New Orleans. As its website says, the show “follows stories of rebuilding and recovery in New Orleans, while helping one fourth-generation resident of the Lower Ninth Ward return home by renovating her flood-damaged shotgun single.” It also tells the story of “the building of Musicians’ Village, a Habitat for Humanity community in the Upper Ninth Ward that has affordable housing for 82 musicians and other families—conceived by, among others, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and musician and actor Harry Connick Jr.”

In other words, it tells the stories of people and organizations doing the Post-Katrina rebuilding that the government either can’t or won’t. And if that’s not rebirth, what is?

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Books and dogs and rock & roll

February 20, 2008

The bookish, slightly geeky and very fun Harry and the Potters play for an appreciative crowd.

You know how parents and kids rarely see eye-to-eye on music? How parents are usually the ones yelling, “Turn that [insert desired expletive here—or not] down!”? Not so much in our household. I’ve been known to ask the girls to turn it up, more often than not. And as often as not, when I’ve gotten in the car after Marion’s been driving alone, the music will be cranked when I start the engine.

Still, we’ve gone through cycles of overlap and divergence with the girls and their music. For a long time, influenced by local bands we saw when we went out, mainly in St. Louis, Marion and I gravitated to roots rock and roadhouse music. But as first Claire and then Laurel got into going out for music [which usually entailed one or both of us taking them to shows], we got exposed to garage, punk, art rock and various other iterations often involving power chords [never more than three], screaming and plentiful F-bombs. Eyes [and ears] were opened. This stuff was loud, raw and even dangerous—you know, what rock is supposed to be.

So of course, as we were really getting into this, the girls veered off into an area we couldn’t follow. I’m not sure what the technical term is, but the layman’s term is whiney singer/songwriter. You know. Rufus Wainwright. Conor Oberst. There were seriously times I would drop them at one venue for a show of nice, sensitive, introspective music and would drive to another for a screaming punk show.

Younger daughter Laurel has gotten into more rock music again, some of it pretty interesting. It’s not the primal stuff I crave [someone recently loaned me a Sonic Youth disk and, while it’s all right, it feels a little too commercial to me], but, well, interesting.

And perhaps no band she’s following is more interesting than Harry and the Potters. To get the most out of them, it helps to be a fan of the Harry Potter franchise of books and films. I’m not. But what this Boston duo—brothers Paul and Joe DeGeorge—has done with it, both musically and how they choose to perform, is fun, off-center and apparently genuine. I’ll let their website tell you their story.

The idea is that the Harry Potter from Year 7 and the Harry Potter from Year 4 started a rock band. And now, no one can stop the wizard rock.

Paul and Joe are brothers. They started this band in the summer of 2002. The legendary tale of their origin goes like this:

Joe was planning to have a rock show in the shed in the backyard. People had been invited. But then all the bands cancelled. So that morning, the time was finally appropriate to bust out an idea that had been incubating in Paul’s head for some time: Harry and the Potters. That morning, over the course of an hour, Paul and Joe wrote 7 songs. Then, they went out to the shed and practiced them for half an hour. And then, later in the day, they performed them for about 6 people. It was awesome. The place went nuts.

“The place went nuts.” Six people. How can you not smile at that?

Another thing I like about them is the venues they choose to play. Libraries. Bookstores. Art galleries. Oh, and a hot dog jamboree. Which is how they made it onto the Kitchen Boombox, where they will be seen by ten men and a dog, as we like to say in the advertising business.

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A few days ago, Laurel sent me a link to the blog I am an American and I Eat Hot Dogs. She knows I write a food blog, of course. And that I like hot dogs. But why she thought I might find this particular blog interesting is that it is by one of the Harrys, brother Paul. In his blog, he reviews hot dogs eaten in his travels. Or as he puts it on his home page, “Paul chronicles the inseparable adventures of everyday life and hot dogs.”

Like the band and its music, the blog is fun and unexpected. And with the decidedly punkish performance below, Harry and the Potters just may have found another fan.

Notes from the underground—above ground too

February 13, 2008


Beatbox flute and cello duo in a New York City subway station.

On the way home from dinner in Chicago’s Chinatown last Friday, we switched from the Red Line train to the Blue Line downtown at Jackson and Dearborn. It’s a busy subway station, and there are almost always performers trying to make a living there. Many are fairly ordinary, but sometimes they are wonderful.

Like Friday night. As we came up out of the tunnel to the platform, we first heard the jazz clarinet and a drum—a West African djembe drum, to be exact, an odd but beautiful match for the clarinet. Two young men stood watching the musicians more intently than most of the others on the platform. As the clarinetist nodded at one of them, we soon knew why: He began to dance.

The bright staccato clicking of the taps on his shoes added to the music. His movements were tight and precise, not the big, sweeping athletic moves of Gene Kelly. But he had his flourishes—long, rapid-fire bursts, for instance, punctuated with dramatic pauses as he balanced on his toes.

The younger man was a little less confident, a little less poised. But the clarinetist kept nodding at him, kept drawing him out, and you could see him open up a little more to performing each time. Our train pulled into the station, but Marion just said, “Let’s take the next one.” It was that kind of moment. And yes, we tipped well.


Japanese folk musician, in a New York City subway.

Subway stations and the trains themselves are home to all manner of performers. They offer at least a modicum of climate control compared to the streets and at least temporarily captive audiences. Both in Chicago and New York, performers have to audition for licenses, so there’s at least a baseline for talent too. And in New York, competition can be fierce for the best spots in the best stations.


Auditions being held in Grand Central Terminal for the MTA’s Music Under New York program.

Watching these clips—and remembering countless subway and street performances I’ve seen—I’m struck by how many people not only don’t tip, but don’t even acknowledge the performers. And I’m reminded of these lyrics of a wonderful Joni Mitchell song about seeing a musician playing a clarinet on a street corner, For Free:

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free

Yes, there is plenty of, well, crap. But when it’s wonderful, it’s truly wonderful. Marion tells the story of someone on the Paris Metro who suddenly strung up a curtain between poles and performed a short but brilliant puppet show. And once when I was in New York, a half dozen teenagers suddenly turned on a boombox in a subway car. Expecting an uninspired rap performance, I jammed my hands in my pockets, determined to keep them—and my dollars—there. Instead of rap, they broke into a well-rehearsed tumbling routine, doing cartwheels and backflips; grabbing wrists and ankles to form two-man wheels, rolling through the moving car, carefully judging the placement of the center poles as they did; hands came out—even the most jaded among us applauded. And tipped.


An especially impressive group in New York. Note how one of the horn players makes sure they get paid.

Perhaps the most amazing moment like this for me happened above ground, in Paris. My brother and I spent a week there, doing museums, cathedrals and cafĂ©s during the day and looking for music and booze at night. Every night, we would drive around aimlessly, looking for clubs. When we found a promising neighborhood, we would abandon the car. Legal parking was non-existent, and people would pull up on medians, the sidewalk or wherever and leave their cars. We did too. Unfortunately, we would always rush off without bothering to note where we’d left the car. So we would end every night wandering whatever neighborhood we’d landed in until we found it.

One such night [well, three or four in the morning, if you’re a stickler for detail] while searching for our car, we happened on a duo just setting up on the sidewalk. They had strung a couple of ropes from a tree to a ladder, one about eight feet off the ground, the other about two feet. The apparent leader, dressed in a circus ringmaster’s red coat with tails and a top hat [and inexplicably, with a big, bouncy kangaroo tail protruding between the coat tails], grabbed several people from the crowd, including me, and had us hold the vertical ladder. He told us dramatically [and in French] that the other performer’s life depended upon us.

The other performer, dressed as a mime, but by no means silent, reluctantly climbed the ladder, protesting the whole way. He then proceeded to walk the makeshift tightrope, urged on by the ringmaster’s orders, threats and whipcracking [did I forget to mention the whip?]. Soon, he was juggling too. The ringmaster worked the crowd, collecting money in his top hat. When someone tossed in a mere ten centimes, the ringmaster took it from the hat with an angry flourish, spat on it and threw it into the street.

For all the drama, the finale was serenely surreal. The tightrope walker balanced on the top rope, juggling flaming torches. The circus ringmaster balanced on the lower rope [we’d all wondered what it was for], balancing a cello in front of him and playing a sad sonata. It was like a moment from a Fellini film, only better, because it was real and it was Paris.

Dexter Gordon’s Ballads: Smoke gets in your ears

February 6, 2008

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Ballads: Dexter Gordon

Chicago jazz sax player Frank Catalano isn’t a big fan of ballads, so you rarely hear them at his Green Mill gigs. And more often than not, I agree with him. Generally, I want my knee bouncing involuntarily as I lean into the music from my barstool; I want to be suppressing the urge to snap my fingers to the sheer energy of some breakneck-paced sax solo, straining to keep up with where it’s going.

But then there are those other times. Like last Saturday afternoon when I was pulling things together in the kitchen to start marinating the beef for this week’s post on stew. Outside the kitchen window I could see big fat snowflakes falling, piling up in my neighbor’s yard. It was a day made for simple chores and quiet introspection. Still, I dropped some avant garde jazz into the Kitchen boombox—Blue Universe Trio’s NYC Free Jazz, an obscure, probably self-produced disk given to me by the bassist’s uncle with a “you like this sort of thing, don’t you?” I do. A lot. But halfway through the first track, I popped it back out and put on this disk instead.

Dexter Gordon’s album Ballads is a collection of eight tunes culled from as many different albums, recorded mostly in the early 60s, with the lone live track being recorded in 1978. The personnel varies from track to track—sometimes there’s a trumpet, sometimes a piano, sometimes both. Six different drummers and seven different bassists play on this album. But thanks to Gordon’s unmistakable smoky tenor sax, it all hangs together beautifully.

Gordon embraced bebop completely and was one of its key figures. Some even include him among its founders. That’s not always apparent as you listen to these ballads. He spends a lot of time coloring within the lines, sticking close to the melody line—embellishing it beautifully, to be sure, but not often straying far. But then suddenly, he stretches out and takes you unexpected places. That’s when Ballads shines for me.

Probably the best track on the entire disk for me is, ironically enough, one of the jazz standards I’ve grown the weariest of: Body and Soul. But drummer Eddie Gladden and bassist Rufus Reid lift it out of its usual sultry torpor with an insistent, syncopated beat that invites Gordon and pianist George Cables to wander way far afield. Even when Gordon is playing pretty close to the melody, his hard, muscular notes strain to break away. The track is a generous 17 minutes long, and it keeps covering new ground and bringing the listener right along with it. Late in the track, it sounds as if everyone’s bringing it home; but suddenly it morphs into a nearly four-minute tenor solo, the other musicians silent as Gordon weaves and invents and flirts with the melody. Absolutely brilliant.

There are a couple of ways to listen to this album. One is actively, listening to all the many nuances as I did Saturday afternoon. I am never the speediest of prep cooks—I wouldn’t last a day in a professional kitchen. But as the snow fell outside my kitchen window, I positively dawdled, savoring the smells and textures of the food, the weight of the knife in my hand, as the music filled the room. Then Sunday evening, as we had friends over for one of our not frequent enough Sunday dinners, Ballads became a beautiful, unhurried backdrop to conversation, clinking wine glasses and the clatter of china around the table. Again, absolutely brilliant.