Hearing several brass instruments all at once can be exhilarating. Hearing a pack of loud horns with a deep, thumping drumbeat underneath can be almost overwhelming. It's one thing to hear a large orchestra, marching band, or horn ensemble in a formal setting, but it's quite another when the brass blasts and the heavy rhythms come at you while in an intimate venue.
New Orleans brass bands tend to prefer smaller settings, whether it's a street corner, a jazz club, or a funeral march. They draw from a wide variety of influences, ranging from African folk music and early blues and swing to European chamber orchestras and military bands. They make fiery music, tight and funky and with a unique sense of syncopation and Louisiana flavor.
The Frazier brothers — tuba player Phil Frazier and bass drummer Keith Frazier — founded the Rebirth Brass Band in 1982, and they're on a major roll these days. Under the Fraziers' guidance, the band pulls equally from traditional and modern styles.
"We like to think that we're supporting and representing a special piece of musical history," Keith says. "We bring a connection between the old and new. We're playing older musical instruments, but we do a lot of new stuff with them. We try to capture all audiences with it all. You can connect jazz, blues, R&B, and hip-hop using the horns. People really respond to it."
The Rebirth Brass Band kicked off as a casual jam session between the Fraziers and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, along with other members of the Joseph S. Clark Senior High School in New Orleans' Tremé neighborhood. "We started playing on Bourbon Street when were in high school, just for fun," Keith remembers. "We never thought we'd be releasing records or winning awards." The band made a splash at the 1982 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and recorded their first studio album in 1984.
It may seem ironic that the Rebirth Brass Band's rhythm section — the two Fraziers — were the ones to form the group. They continue to act as the bandleaders, taking care of the business side of things while delivering the backbeats and bass lines. But Keith doesn't find it unusual at all. "We pretty much take care of all the band stuff, and we're really the foundation of the band," he says. "But the bass is always the foundation of anything. Here, we have two brothers doing it on tuba and bass drum."
Keith wasn't initially drawn to the drums. He started learning percussion in school bands in high school before switching to horn in college. "I ended up helping a band with the bass drum parts, which came easy because I'd already played drums and percussion instruments before," he says. "It went well and it kind of stuck. Having bass drummers in brass bands is very unique to New Orleans. It's something you see almost as often as a full drum kit drummer in a rock 'n' roll band. It's a key role."
These days, Keith handles the bass drum alongside Derrick Tabb on snare and cymbals. Phil anchors the low notes on tuba and sousaphone as part of the solid front line. The lineup is complete with Gregory Veals and Stafford Agee on trombones, Derrick Shezbie, Chadrick Honore and Glen Andrews on trumpets, and Vincent Broussard on tenor sax. They maintain a regular Tuesday night gig at the cozy Maple Leaf club in their hometown.
Rebirth's music has earned a lot of positive press via the HBO hit series Treme (produced and created by David Simon). Set in post-Katrina times, the show is shot in New Orleans in and around the Tremé neighborhood. Both Frazier brothers composed and contributed music for the series. Its soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2011.
The current lineup recently released an 11-song album titled Rebirth of New Orleans (Basin Street). It covers all the bases, from the Dixieland swing of "Exactly Like You" to the upbeat fun of the funky "I Like It Like That" and "You Know You Know." There's the slinky big-band swagger of "What Goes Around Comes Around" and the Latin flavor of "Shrimp and Gumbo." The disc earned its own Grammy Award in February for Best Regional Roots Music Album of the year.
Even with the spicy blend of styles in the new collection, Keith believes the overall texture of Rebirth of New Orleans reflects the core of every New Orleans-style brass band.
"New Orleans has a very different tradition with brass bands than other cities around the country — and with other countries," Keith says. "It's not something that you can really get some history on from a library. The tradition goes back more than a 100 years, but you have to hear it to get it authentic. When you get into it, you really appreciate it."