January 13, 2012

Steppin' Into Carnival 2012

Well, I just looked up for a minute from the near constant keyboard tapping, information seeking, and record cleaning/listening rituals around here to find the new year fully engaged and Twelfth Night already past. Damn, tempus fugeddaboutit. It’s time to stand back up and start celebrating all over again, and not just because the Saints continue their winning Who Dat ways....

It's Carnival season, y'all, in no way to be confused with the current Circus of the Absurd masquerading as presidnetial campaigning, traveling state to state to peddle assorted vaporous remedies purported to cure all ills. What better time for a far more efficacious remedy, two quick shots of street-occupyin' funk to help get the juices flowing for all the partying, parading, and other polymorphously festive proclivities to come, as anticipation builds for Mardi Gras, February 21st, 2012. Eh las bas!

On deck we have some early Rebirth Brass Band action transferred from rare vinyl, plus an LP cut from the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gas Indians, featuring the late Big Chief Jolly. Let’s go get ‘em!

“Put Your Right Foot Forward” (Kermit/Philip)Rebirth Brass Band, Syla 986, ca 1987
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

This single on Milton Batiste’s Syla label likely came out around Mardi Gras in the late ‘80s, no doubt as a fairly limited edition, since Syla releases got spotty distribution at best, even around their city of origin. My bunged up copy - the only one I’ve run across, so far - turns out to be an interesting artifact in the Rebirth’s coming of age saga.

The group formed in the early 1980s, when three teenage high school friends and marching bandmates, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and the Frazier brothers, tubist Philip and bass drummer Keith, started a brass and percussion unit, Rebirth Jazz Band. The group was inspired by the revolutionary Dirty Dozen, who were already busy around town making a splash and the resulting waves by updating traditional street parade sound with slamming new material, both originals and adventurous cover tunes. The Dozen, Rebirth and a host of other new groups who would follow revived the dying brass band genre, injecting it with the fresh, improvisatory energy, and unstoppably funky grooves that define it to this day.

Rebirth honed their chops playing for tips on the street in the French Quarter and around their home base, the historic Treme neighborhood. With a well-chosen name that was a straightforward statement of their intent, they have kept the innovative intensity going for 30 years. In the early 1990s, Kermit left them to pursue a successful solo career; but neither that nor the Federal Flood stopped the band, whose latest in a long string of albums, Rebirth of New Orleans, is up for a Grammy this year.

In 1984, the group’s first LP, Here To Stay (re-issued on CD in 1997), was recorded live by roots music propagator Chris Strachwitz at the Grease Lounge in the Treme, and released on his Arhoolie label. By the time they made their next LP/CD, Feel Like Funkin’ It Up, for Rounder Records in 1989, they were going by Rebirth Brass Band exclusively. The Boston-area label was bigger and had much wider distribution than Arhoolie, plus two fine producers, Scott Billington and Ron Levy, focused on bringing numerous New Orleans artists, old and new, to national prominence with well-produced showcase releases.

I’m thinking Rebirth cut this single somewhere in-between those two albums. Although they were shown as Rebirth Brass Band on the label, Kermit’s spoken intro to “Put Your Right Foot Forward” says it’s “...a new one by the Rebirth Jazz Band....” - either a slip, or the name was still in flux. Batiste had taken them into Sea-Saint Studio in 1987 to record a number of sides, four of which appeared two years later on a Rounder brass band compilation,
Down Yonder. There the band was billed as the Rebirth Marching Jazz Band, an awkward variant that thankfully did not stick. Anyway, the tracks on this single (with “The New Second Line” on the flip) may well have been cut at the same session.

At Sea-Saint, the band was again recorded live, pumped up to ten pieces from its typical eight in those days, but the the core as listed on the notes to the CD were lead vocalist Ruffins and Derek Wiley on trumpets, the Frazier’s holding down the bottom, Eric Sellers on snare, plus tenor saxophonist John Gilbert, with Keith ‘Wolf’ Anderson and Reginald Stewart on trombones. As the track attests, by this point they were already well-seasoned and smokin’.

“Indians Here Dey Come” (George Landry)from Wild Tchoupitoulas, Antilles, 1976
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Of course, Mardi Gras Indians are another phenomenon of the by-ways of the city’s black neighborhoods, traditionally appearing in their colorful regalia on Mardi Gras, and again around St, Joseph’s Day. With their increasing popularity, some also suit up at other times of the year for special events and paying gigs, such as JazzFest. Their long, intriguing history, with cultural roots going back to pre-colonial Africa, is well worth exploring.

George Landry, who wrote and sang this tune, was the uncle of the brothers Neville: Aaron, Art, Charles, and Cyril. He is best known as Big Chief Jolly, leader of the Indian gang, the Wild Tchoupitoulas. that he founded during the early 1970s on the family’s Uptown 13th Ward home turf.

In 1970, another group of Uptown Indians, the Wild Magnolias, under Big Chief Bo Dollis, had a historic jam session with Willie Tee and his funk group, the Gaturs, which resulted in the two groups having a succession of fecund collaborations on recordings over the next few years, including several local singles, and two LPs in 1974 and 1975. Their popularity added yet another facet to the inter-related marvel that is New Orleans music and brought the Indians to the eyes and ears of the world. Naturally, coming from a highly musical family, Jolly and his nephews sought to make their own recorded statement based upon his take on the Indians’ songs and the many cultural influences within them.

The resulting Wild Tchoupitoulas album, was recorded at Sea-Saint and released in 1976 on the Island Records subsidiary, Antilles, and had a couple of 45 spin-offs. Although Sea-Saint owners Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn of Sansu Enterprises got the production credit on the LP for working the deal, they at least allowed Art and Charles to have co-producer and arrangement props; but, as Art pointed out in the brothers’ autobiography, he, Jolly, and all the musicians involved had a part in the production process and contributed more than just their fine chops to the overall sound.

Art and Cyril were part of the legendary Meters, under contract with Sansu at this point; and the group became the rhythm section for the project, with added percussion by members of Jolly’s gang. Aaron, whose career was at loose ends, contributed his unmistakable vocal skills; and Charles, who was living in New York, was summoned down to play saxophone. It was the first time that all four brothers had recorded together and set the spark that encouraged them to unite as the Neville Brothers band for an epic, multi-decade ride, once Art and Cyril left the Meters in 1977.

Obviously, a lot of incredible talent and good energy was devoted to this LP, which proved to be a charmingly melodic experience with a pronounced Caribbean feel at times, riding relaxed but highly poly-rhythmic grooves. Though well-received by New Orleans aficionados and the music press, it never was a big seller. Sansu claimed it barely made enough money to recoup the production costs; and, thus, little or no royalties were paid out, souring Jolly on doing any more recording. Still, over the years,
Wild Tchoupitoulas has become a Carnival music classic and a must-have for any decent collection of the city’s feel-good music.

I'll be back closer to the day with more Carnival tunes. Party on.....


Anonymous Jipes said...

Great tracks Dan, I always found the music of the Indians very intriguing specially their rythm'n roots. this oral tradition is one of the great aspect of New Orleans music and I would really like to see a Indians parade once in my life during a visit in New Orleans !

BTW Treme is broadcast on France Ô, one of our TV channel in France i love it !

8:08 AM, January 16, 2012  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

You know the way over. Hope you can get back soon, jipes. Great about Treme, too. I heard it was going to be available in Europe at some point. Glad you're diggin' it.

10:58 PM, January 16, 2012  
Anonymous Colby said...

For a long time, off and on, Rebirth would still call themselves the "Rebirth Jazz Band" if they were playing mellower gigs and/or with less people (5 instead of 8-10, lol)......so I think they used it interchangeably for quite a while...

1:09 PM, February 05, 2012  

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