Rebirth Brass Band brings taste of New Orleans to Hill Auditorium
One could almost taste the crawfish as the octet breezed through an exuberant, if uneven, two-hour set that offered just enough taste of transcendent playing to whet an appetite, but not enough for a substantive meal.
Part of the problem was the result of the band’s eagerness to share its spotlight. Despite the participation of legendary Crescent City stylists as saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., clarinetist Dr. Michael White, trumpeter James Andrews, trombonist Glen David Andrews, and percussionist Cyril Neville (of the Neville Brothers), Friday’s concert had trouble achieving liftoff.
Too many cooks can spoil the roux and, on Friday, as soloists were interchanged, the concert’s pacing suffered.
Not that there weren’t some incredible moments.
Harrison’s plaintive, alto-saxophone reading of “St. James Infirmary” was breathtaking. With an impeccable, mellifluous tone, Harrison brought a grace to the traditional number, without ever losing a sense of playfulness in his phrasing.
Likewise, White, who channeled the early days of New Orleans jazz, found harmonies within his harmonies and beautifully played off of the full band’s prodding rhythms. Clarinet is such a key element to the true New Orleans sound, and on Friday White captured that spirit beautifully.
James Andrews is an exuberant trumpeter with a full, brassy tone. But the self-titled “Satchmo of the Ghetto” seemed more intent on Friday to dance and showboat than push the music forward. Despite his billing as a featured attraction, his portion of the show was more detriment than bonus. Likewise, Cyril Neville, whose sole meaningful contribution was a half-hearted reading of the traditional spiritual “I’ll Fly Away.”
The setlist was about what one would expect: "When the Saints Come Marching In," was included, naturally, as was "Hey Pocky Way." But the band also delivered a few surprises in a mean reading of Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," as well as a somewhat disjointed take on Bobby Womack's "All Over Now."
The concert picked up some steam during the second half, when, unassisted, the Rebirth Brass Band allowed itself some room to stretch out. Left to its devices, the band is an organism unto itself. Harmonies soared over the rhythm section’s relentless pulse, creating the kind of cacophony found only in music from New Orleans.
Before long, audience members were climbing on stage to join in the celebration, creating a miniature Congo Square.
As the guests soloists began to rejoin the band as the performance reached its peak, the joyful noise only increased. And it was here, for a few fleeting moments, as saxophones screeched over trombones, as the snare drum beat out a syncopated cadence and Phil Frazier’s Sousaphone laid down its oom-pah-pah foundation, one could finally hear—and feel—that musical ecstasy that’s particular to New Orleans.
By then, it seemed a long time coming. And it was over too soon. In the end, though, maybe it took all those cooks to get the fire hot enough to really burn.