Gregory Davis - trumpet & vocals Sammie Williams - trombone Roger Lewis - baritone & soprano sax Terrence Higgens - drums Kevin Harris - tenor sax James McIean - guitar Efram Towns - trumpet Frederick Sanders - keys Julius McKee - sousaphone
In 1977, the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club in New Orleans began showcasing a traditional Crescent City brass band. It was a joining of two proud, but antiquated, traditions at the time: social and pleasure clubs dated back over a century to a time when black southerners could rarely afford life insurance, and the clubs would provide proper funeral arrangements. Brass bands, early predecessors of jazz as we know it, would often follow the funeral procession playing somber dirges, then once the family of the deceased was out of earshot, burst into jubilant dance tunes as casual onlookers danced in the streets. By the late '70s, few of either existed. The Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club decided to assemble this group as a house band, and over the course of these early gigs, the seven-member ensemble adopted the venue's name: the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
A quarter of a century later, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is a world famous music machine, whose name is synonymous with genre-bending romps and high-octane performances. They have revitalized the brass band in New Orleans and around the world, progressing from local parties, clubs, baseball games and festivals in their early years to touring nearly constantly in the U.S. and in over 30 other countries on five continents. The Dirty Dozen have been featured guests on albums by artists including David Bowie, Elvis Costelio, Dr. John and the Black Crowes. The city of New Orleans even has an official Dirty Dozen Brass Band Day.
The secret to the group's popularity, success and endurance lies in its open-minded approach to music. "We play a lot of different styles of music, and we can Ghange horses in the middle of the stream," says baritone and soprano sax player Roger Lewis, one of four remaining members of the original Dirty Dozen lineup. The band's trademark style is a kinetic hybrid of traditional brass band marches, funk, R&B, bop, gospel and rock that never fails to please their audience of frenzied dancers. Dirty Dozen has also performed a classical suite composed by trumpeter Gregory Davis, as well as accompanying modern dance troupes. Their stylistic range is limitiess, as is their willingness to try new things.
Now the Dirty Dozen Brass Band celebrates 25 years of making music with its ninth album, Medicated Magic, a tribute to the hometown that's always embraced and nurtured them. Original songs are mixed in with covers of tunes by such New Orleans legends as The Meters ("Cissy Strut," "Africa"), Allen Toussaint ("Everything I Do Gon Be Funky") and Dr. John ("Walk On Gilded Splinters," "Junko Partner"). Produced by Craig Street (Cassandra Wilson, Chris Whitley, Chocolate Genius), Medicated Magic is quintessential Dirty Dozen: energetic, festive, eclectic and sporting a musical tone that seems to emulate New Orleans' languid native drawl.
A number of musical friends joined the Dirty Dozen in the studio. Dr. John himself sings on "Everything I Do Gon Be Funky." New York turntablist DJ Logic's scratches and samples grace "Africa" and the autobiographical "We Got Robbed," written by Dirty Dozen drummer Terrence Higgens and inspired by a recent tour stop during which the band woke up one morning to find their trailer and all their instruments and equipment missing from the hotel parking lot. (All of their property was fortunately recovered a week later.) Pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph's spirited slide work is featured on "Cissy Strut," and "Tell It Like It Is," and he joins soulful jaz singer Norah Jones on Naomi Neville's "Ruler Of My Heart." Widespread Panic vocalist John Bell growls out "Walk On Gilded Splinters." Veteran jazz trumpeter Olu Dara lends his considerable talents to "Junko Partner."
But the real core of Medicated Magic is the Dirty Dozen membership. Lewis, Davis and fellow founders Kevin Harris (tenor sax) and Efram Towns (trumpet) form a potent harmonic cannon with longtime comrades Julius McKee (sousaphone) and Terrence Higgens (drums) and relative newcomers Sammie Williams (trombone), Frederick Sanders (keyboards) and James Mclean (guitar). McKee often steals the show with his nimble playing on the bulky sousaphone, often playing sweeping lines that sound much like a skilled string bassist. Mclean's jazzy flair complements the horn players' rollicking bombast.
Medicated Magic is a fitting celebration of a New Orleans institution's silver anniversary. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band have played festivals and funerals, earned five-star reviews from Downbeat and Jazz Times, performed with Dizzy Gillespie and Branford Marsalis, and delighted audiences from New York to Berlin to Tokyo and just about everywhere in between. Says Lewis, reflecting on his band's success, "You look at the encyclopedia and you see all these famous places, and then one day you wake up and you're in the picture!" But he knows that it's all about giving people the good time they're looking for: "When you come to our concert, you get something for your body, your mind and your soul. I don't wake up in the morning and say this is gonna be this kind of music, that's gonna be that. I just wake up and pick up my saxophone and bring some joy and happiness into some people's lives."
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