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I'll never forget the first time Isaw THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND live; it was at a small jazz club in New York City in 1985. Instrumentally set up like a traditional New Orleans marching band, the group took a decidedly nontraditional approach to the music. Sophisticated hard bops, solos, razor-honed R&B rhythm, sousaphone licks so nimble they seemed to be emanating from an electric bass, and an untamed rock & roll attitude all stole into the sound, producing something wonderfully odd. Breathing fresh life into new arrangements of such N'awlins chestnuts as "Little Liza Jane," the group was marching through the audience and jumping up on tables by the end of the show, enticing people to get on up and shake their asses right along with 'em.
It made no difference to them whatsoever that there were only about 20 people in the club—they were gonna have a good time, and they were gonna take you with them by any means necessary. It worked, too. A dozen rather uptight-looking jazz-snob types wound up performing spazz dances in the aisles and on the tables, much to the horror of the nervous-looking waiters on duty. This did not look like a work force accustomed to dealing with grimy footprints on the fancy table linen.
I became a die-hard fan immediately. I bought all their albums and caught them live whenever they came to town. And I wasn't the only one who noticed: subsequent albums featured an impressive list of guests, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. John, Branford Marsalis, Danny Barker, Dave Bartholomew and Elvis Costello—who in turn used the Dirty Dozen Brass Band extensively on his 1989 album, Spike. But the group really hit its stride on 1991's Open Up! Whatcha Gonna Do for the Rest of Your Life? album. No guest stars, just eight (never really was a dozen of 'em) great musicians who partied as always but this time took their jazz side much more seriously. Trumpeter Gregory Davis' "The Lost Souls (of Southern Louisiana)" was a mournful, impressionistic, Ellingtonian song suite, one of the finest pieces of '90s jazz composition. It seemed the group was branching out in whole new directions, ready to be reckoned with as a legitimate force in jazz, as well as being a party band without peer (the title cut made it clear that frivolity wouldn't be abandoned in favor of the headier stuff—these guys were gonna do it all, in the tradition of giants like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Gillespie and Charles Mingus).
Then the Dirty Dozen Brass Band followed Open Up! in 1993 with Jelly, a Jelly Roll Morton tribute album that, while fun and exciting, seemed a bit of a regression. Why follow an album of originals that showed so much potential with a collection of antique covers? Why look backward when the future seemed so full of promise? I interviewed Davis on the heels of the album's release, and he told me the Morton project was an idea mandated by their then-label, Columbia Records. He further expressed frustration and disgust at having his band's progress put on hold and said an acrimonious parting with Columbia over the whole matter would be forthcoming.
My hero! Get 'em, Gregory! Don't take their shit! I felt sorry for the guy and damned the corporate turds who refused to let this precious flower bloom.
So what happens next? The band jumps the good ship Columbia in 1996 as promised and signs with Mammoth Records. But instead of picking up where they left off a couple of years before, the band drops the "Brass Band" from their title, adds a drummer and (uuurrrggh!) synth player, decides to be "acid jazz" (hominahominahomina!!!) and comes up with Ears to the Wall, maybe the most transparent sellout CD of the whole damn decade, all genres inclusive. At its best, Ears sounded like Maceo Parker and the All-Stars ODing on Mardi Gras. At its worst, however, the album sounded like Grover Washington Jr. ODing on Xanax.
According to a suddenly less-than-art-conscious Davis, the new sound was the natural result of the Dirty Dozen's tour with butt-rockers the Black Crowes in 1995, and of their concert and recording association with other rock groups such as the Grateful Dead, Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Los Lobos.
"We're not going to be limited," Davis told me at the time. "Certainly there's a yearning to sell more records. We want to get through to another audience because there's more of them out there. I can do all the same jazz festivals year in and year out, but there are other listeners who don't come to those festivals, who have different notions of what jazz is and is not, and what you can or cannot do with it. There's an effort to reach out to some of those people who we met doing Black Crowes and Grateful Dead shows and some of the other events we've been able to play."
In my sensitive little soul, Davis was immediately transformed from heroic jazz paragon to traitorous Philistine greed-boy.
Well, the good news for longtime fans is that the group rebounded with last year's Buck Jump. The album is at least something of a return to form, if not the next step in evolution from Open Up! A funk-heavy collection produced by keyboardist John Medeski of acid-jazz heroes Medeski, Martin & Wood, Buck Jump features boiling horn chops, relentless hooks, manic energy and a particularly deep-fried ambiance. They've even reinstated "Brass Band" into the group's handle. But there's nothing therein that recaptures or expounds upon the promise of "Lost Souls," and I'm still pissed-off about that. But not so pissed-off that I won't catch the band Thursday, Feb. 3, at the Sun Theatre, where they'll open for Robert Cray—a raging party is still a raging party, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band will always pitch a wang dang doodle like no one's bidness. But if you hear someone in the audience heckling the band all night long to play "Lost Souls". . . that would be me.
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