The Rebirth Brass Band will narrowly miss Mardi Gras season when they hit town next week; in fact they’ll be playing the Crystal Ballroom on Ash Wednesday. If that sounds odd or even sinful, you probably haven’t been to New Orleans.
“In New Orleans Ash Wednesday is like January 1, the day people start making their resolutions and saying ‘This is what I’m going to start doing better,” band cofounder and bass drummer Keith Frazier said this week. “Mardi Gras isn’t even the busiest time of the year for us, it’s more like people are into drinking . . . it’s a big free party where they’re not really thinking that much about music. The big season for us is JazzFest (in April and May), and we’re getting ready for that now.”
Formed in 1983, Rebirth was one of the first to modernize the New Orleans brass band sound, bringing new styles into the mix. “We were all in our high school marching band playing jazz tunes, and we added some of that to the brass band sound. The Dirty Dozen had already started, but we went further bringing in some R&B, some reggae and hip-hop. So it didn’t sound like those old-school guys wearing suits and skullcaps. Wherever we play, we can cater to what the audience wants to hear — If they want jazz tunes, we’ll do jazz. And if they want some hip-hop, we’ll give them that.” One key to the sound is always the interplay between Frazier’s bass drum and the snare. “When a drummer’s playing a kit, they’ve only got two hands. We can do a lot more with four.”
One of the earliest Rebirth tunes, “Do Whatcha Wanna,” went on to become a Mardi Gras standard; they wrote it with original trumpeter Kermit Ruffins who’s since become a solo star at home. “That came from a guy in our neighborhood who was always saying it; Kermit picked up on that and we put a melody to it. It became a hit right away, because people in New Orleans have a tendency to do what they wanna.”
There have been numerous personnel changes over the years, but Frazier remains with his brother Philip as the mainstays. “At this point we have quite a few new faces in the band, 50 percent is new within the past three years. It doesn’t affect the sound as long as they play the right notes, but it does affect the energy.”
The band won a Grammy in 2012 for its album “Rebirth of New Orleans,” and they’re about to hit the studio for the first time in a decade. And Frazier hints it may be a little different than usual. “The name of the album is ‘We the People,’ and it’s leaning kind of political. We usually try to stay from that kind of arena, but people can protest if they don’t agree with something that’s going on. We wrote all the songs and a lot of them are about people doing what they can to improve their own lives, telling them that the power is in their hands. We’re going to be playing the new songs live, and the people always tell you whether they like it or not.”
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