The New Cool: Return of the Brass

Nov 10, 2017

The brass band tradition goes back more than a century both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, and today both countries continue to produce outstanding brass funk that continues to up the ante for old school party music.

Of course, New Orleans has never suffered a lack of brass bands. They're a cultural pillar and funereal tradition that might predate the development of jazz. Some of today's top musicians from the Big Easy started their careers as kids in brass bands, including drummer Stanton Moore and Trombone Shorty.

I was first exposed to the modern movement of brass bands when my English brother-in-law gave me a mix tape full of hip hop, electronic music, odd pop tunes... and a nearly 9 minute cover of Marvin Gaye's iconic "Sexual Healing" by the Hot 8 Brass Band.

Released in 2007 on their debut for England's EDM-heavy Tru Thoughts label Rock with the Hot 8, it's become a massive hit in the UK.

That's not really a surprise, as the brass band tradition in England goes back nearly 200 years. These bands were a primary outlet for amateur musicians in blue collar communities, a way to express local solidarity. Mining companies often sponsored the bands, in the hopes that organizing workers into brass bands would keep them from organizing into labor unions.

The Tru Thoughts label has also signed the Youngblood Brass Band from Wisconsin, and British groups like the Hackney Colliery Band and the Riot Jazz Brass Band have started blended hip hop rhythms into their classic New Orleans funk styles.

The house band for Jimmy Fallon's Late Night and Tonight Show, The Roots feature the brass sounds of sousaphone and tuba as played by Damon Bryson, aka Tuba Gooding, Jr. Playing a hip hop/funk hybrid demands an aggressive, "thumping" delivery, and Bryson's work over the past decade has been widely influential.

In Seattle, the 45th St Brass keep the flame burning brightly. You may have seen and heard the group marching up Ballard Avenue this past Summer playing the opening blasts of the Ballard Jazz Festival's multi-venue jazz walk.

The Curtain Show is their new album, delivering a healthy dose of soul and funk with smartly crafted melodies soaring over the beat and a few well-placed solos and vocals.

The bass line is often shared by sousaphone (Nelson Bell) and baritone saxophone (Peter Daniel, also on alto sax), a pair of trombones (David Marriott & Jason Cressey) play with and against each other. The trumpet of Carter Yasutake shines on bright solos, also sharpening the ensemble melodies.

Ehssan Karimi's drums mix thick marching bass with snare, percussion and a heavier use of high hat cymbals than most brass groups. Karimi is a flexible drummer, at times he even swings, but funk is the main ingredient.

Half of The Curtain Show features guest spots from singers Eva Walker, Davin Michael Stedman and (7th band member) Annie Jantzer. They all bring plenty of drama and power, and a soulful indie-pop sound. It's also a kick to hear iconic Seattle drummer D'Vonne Lewis' rapping 90 seconds of boasting about the undeniable talents of the 45th St Brass, and his own on "The Pursuance".

Don't miss the 45th Street Brass live on 88.5 Monday at 12:15, they're at Conor Byrne in Ballard the night before Thanksgiving, November 22nd with lots of special guests. Hit the show, dance until you drop, and earn yourself an extra slice of pumpkin pie!

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.