The Dirty Dozen Brass Band at 35

Bringing the real NOLA funk

Gregory Davis with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Dr. John (piano), Ivan Neville (organ) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Brooklyn, 2012

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At 8:05 on Friday, April 13, a date replete with hoodoo implication, Dr. John, in an electric blue sharkskin suit and fedora, balancing on his conjure cane, launched his Funky But It’s Nu Awlins revue with a strutting second line down the center aisle of the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Sashaying close behind were cast member Tami Lynn, the soul singer, and Bonnie Raitt, along for the ride. Bringing up the rear, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band propelled the mini-ballyhoo with old-school streetbeats on a number called “Bestival”; once onstage, as the personnel coalesced, they transitioned into “Tomorrow,” an anthemic swamp-funk-meets-reggae-meets-gospel number with a ferocious bassline that opens their new release, Twenty Dozen (Savoy Jazz).

Centered by Dr. John’s imperturbable presence, the next two hours were as good as it gets. Big Chief Donald Harrison channeled New Orleanian Louis Jordan with good-time vocals and blistering alto sax on “Nobody’s Business” and the Mardi Gras Indian staples “Hey, Pocky Way” and “Indian Red.” Ivan Neville sang a swamp blues (“Hercules”) and a ballad (“Just Kissed My Baby”). Nicholas Payton channeled the essence of Louis Armstrong on “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” in duet with Dr. John on piano, and uncorked a growly declamation to signify on Dr. John’s spectral vocal during a Spanish-tinged “St. James Infirmary.” Perched over the Hammond B3, Davell Crawford, whose grandfather composed “Iko, Iko,” hollered an intense, flamboyant treatment of “Junko Partner.” Irma Thomas, in full voice at 71, had the crowd in her pocket with reprises of two early hits, playing the blues matriarch with “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man” and torching as only she can on “Wish Someone Would Care.” Then the Dozen returned to close the show, juxtaposing Paul Barbarin-meets-Earl Palmer streetbeats and horn lines from the Dave Bartholomew-Wardell Quezergue lexicon on Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.”

It was all in a night’s work for DDBB, which, trumpeter-cornetist Gregory Davis relates, has averaged 200 or so performances a year since they burst into public consciousness in the early ’80s. “Even before we started traveling on the road, we’d sometimes do two or three gigs a day, five or six days out of the week,” Davis said, hearkening to the Dozen’s roots playing street parades and other NOLA vernacular functions.

It was a few hours before hit time, and Davis, 55, and fellow DDBB co-founder Roger Lewis, the 71-year-old baritone saxophonist, sat in Lewis’ room in the Brooklyn Marriott. “I came up playing rhythm and blues, where guitars and keyboards play all the time,” Lewis said. A professional since his mid-teens, he’d spent the previous two decades playing behind such icons as Big Joe Turner (“I didn’t know how famous this guy was; all I knew was we were going to be playing the blues, and it was going to be in C all night”), Irma Thomas and Fats Domino. “But in a horn band, you’ve got to do continuous playing. The opportunity to play with all these horns has been a beautiful experience.”

Davis elaborated. “In an R&B band, you play a line, play a lick, then you rest four or five minutes, then you play another line, whereas in the brass band you are the rhythm section.”

“We started out playing the traditional music of New Orleans,” said Lewis, noting that, when DDBB formed in 1977, he was paying attention to the funky feel of the Olympia Brass Band, as well as traditional ensembles like the Tuxedo Brass Band, the Onward Brass Band and the Eureka Brass Band.

“But we were practicing on Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and we brought that music to the street,” he continued. “People loved it. Then we started playing Jimmy Forrest, ‘Night Train,’ and then Michael Jackson-all these different influences. It worked. We got a lot of static in the beginning from the older guys, who said we weren’t a traditional band. But we were. We were just playing music we wanted to play, like an experimental workshop type of thing.”

That this spirit continues to inspire DDBB in their 35th anniversary year is palpable on Twenty Dozen, to which each band member contributed a new piece. These six tunes-and an arrangement of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music”-comprise a kinetic 40-minute opening suite, fueled by an array of diasporic Gulf Coast-Caribbean rhythmic feels and animated by sousaphonist Kirk Joseph’s force-of-nature basslines. Then they switch gears, closing with an ebullient trio of New Orleans good-old-good-ones-“Paul Barbarin’s Second Line,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “E Flat Blues”-and Lewis’ “Dirty Old Man.” This strategy contrasts the m.o. of such recent concept-driven releases as What’s Going On, for which DDBB brought in such rappers and vocalists as Chuck D, Guru and Bettye LaVette to interpret Marvin Gaye’s iconic LP, and Funeral for a Friend, on which they attack 10 spirituals with a well-stocked arsenal of traditional brass band, gospel and blues tropes. “If you have an original piece of music, we sit down and work it out,” Lewis added. “That’s pretty much what we did on Twenty Dozen. Someone comes in with a melody, someone else figures out the changes, someone else comes up with different parts to interject. You have the opportunity to say, ‘Yeah, I like that,’ or not to use it.”

Augmented by Jake Eckert’s guitar and, for two songs, Nigel Hall on Hammond B3, DDBB’s five horns breathe as one, often evoking a feel not unlike such contemporaneous units as Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy or the World Saxophone Quartet. “We did a few gigs with Lester, and he certainly checked out what we were doing,” Davis said, before enumerating a list of high-profile connections, including Elvis Costello, the Manhattan Transfer, the Neville Brothers, the Black Crowes and Derek Trucks. These artists have retained DDBB’s services to frame their respective sounds with New Orleans streetbeats. And that undoubtedly was what Dr. John-who joined DDBB on their 1989 album, Voodoo-had in mind by bringing them to New York for five days to play three numbers in the revue.

“Several times over the years, he’s had to choose a band or horn section, and he put in the call for the Dirty Dozen,” Davis said. “We’re quite honored to be part of this.”