Different Ingredients, A Lot of Flavor: Twenty Dozen by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band

By Daniel Garrett

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Twenty Dozen
Produced by Scott Billington
Savoy Jazz/SLG, 2012

With the repetition of the rhythms of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, attention becomes reverie and duty turns to dance.  The group—including now, for its eleven-song music album Twenty Dozen, the trumpeter Gregory Davis, tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris, drummer Terence Higgins, sousaphone-player Kirk Joseph, baritone and soprano saxophonist Roger Lewis, keyboard-player Kyle Roussel, and flugelhorn-player and trumpeter Efrem Towns, with newly returned guitarist Jake Eckert—is a New Orleans brass band of groove and rhythm celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary.  Form and frenzy, and beauty and dissonance, can be found in the music of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  This is a New Orleans group that exists to bring sounds together—jazz, southern funk, and something African, maybe high-life music—and to make people dance.  Pleasure and pride can be found in purpose.  Some cities teach that.

Anyone who has ever lived in a large city knows that sunlight and dark have a distinctive presence in that place; and that there is no dark like country darkness.  The air in a city is different, as are its sounds.  Athens, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Lafayette, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Madison, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle.  The challenges in a city are peculiar, sharp but often impersonal—and the people of a city can embrace you, or hold you at a distance.  You can claim a city, but whether or not you do, the city will claim you for better or worse: its pains and pleasures, its frustrations and rewards, are how it claims you, how it changes you.  Its winters claim you.  Its summers claim you.  The air in a city is different.  Every city, like every man, has its own fragrance, its own musk.  Circumstances, excitement, effort, friction, hard times, lack of preparation and necessary properties, nerves, play, pressure, and sex can produce funk.  Funk can be reassuringly familiar, the scent of the living human; or it can be embarrassing, an eruption of desperate, nasty, unpredictable shame.  Musicians, of course, produce funk, by accident or design: the sensuous, warm groove that inspires dance, desire, memory, pleasure, and sweat is significant funk.  The rhythms of southern funk are not as hard as northern funk, which expresses or encourages sexual desire; rather, southern funk is about a kind of pleasure that can occur at any time.  Southern funk is like a floating spore that carries no poison but can land and flower on any surface, in a cane field or a kitchen, on a baseball diamond, a parade float, or a fishing boat, in a church pew, a bingo hall, or on a dance floor, at a baby’s christening or a backyard barbecue—anywhere.  It sprouts with the knowledge that pleasure, like purpose, does not have to be confined to predictable activity.

Gregory Davis has compared the music of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to a gumbo.  It may not be an original comparison, but it is apt, true.  “It’s impossible to think that you can be exposed to the harmonies that Duke Ellington was making, the rhythms coming from Dizzy Gillespie or the funk being done by James Brown, and then ignore it when you’re playing New Orleans music.  New Orleans music is all of that,” Gregory Davis, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band trumpeter and singer, has been quoted as saying.  Davis, with Kevin Harris, Kirk Joseph, Roger Lewis, and Efrem Towns, is one of the group’s original members, musicians whose work has led them to perform on the same stages, or in the same studios, as Elvis Costello, the Black Crowes, Galactic, Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. John, Norah Jones, and Widespread Panic.  The eleven songs on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s album Twenty Dozen, songs of experiment and tradition, of personality and purpose, are full of energy, full of life, and are the genuine result of group collaboration, each musician adding his favored spice and sweetness.  It is rare that one can hear a strong African element in black American music, but it can be heard clearly in that of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; and, in fact, echoing elements of the African diaspora can be heard in several of the group’s compositions.

Yet is hard to believe that the hot, roiling jazz-funk of “Tomorrow,” which has melody and what I hear as African accents and shouts of “tomorrow,” was either composed or improvised: but how else to account for its existence?  An articulate cacophony might be the best description for “Jook,” an earthy piece with wailing horns that escapes all categories but its own—the elements are so completely fused and strong.  “Best of All,” with its skipping, even quickly trotting percussion and whistles, has several distinctive qualities and does not seem linear, but I do not know if the rhythms could be called circular.  There is the echo of the Caribbean.  Throughout the album the music is earthy, grounded, not something that merely comes out of the mind or spirit, but something of the muscular body, that walks the earth, that dances.  “Git Up” has a cool even glamorous vibe, though both the blues and the church can be hear beneath its surface, in the worrying tones of its churning rhythms.  It is fascinating that a serious intent can be found in Rhianna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” which here is searching and testifying, with its jazz horns and dance percussion; and the rhythms of “We Gon’ Roll,” apparently written in tribute to the citizens of New Orleans, and “Trippin’ Inside a Bubble” have a discipline that one expects of jazz, not funk.  This is one brass band that is not confused about the present purpose of jazz.

The Louisiana band suggests both ceremony and play in “Paul Babarin’s Second Line” on Twenty Dozen.  Purpose and pleasure.  Life that accepts death.  Reconciliation.  The relinquishing of the expectation of a fight between different qualities.  Louisiana, with its unique culture and troubled history, is one of those places that people are always trying to define, but its music is diverse: among its makers, Amede Ardoin, Louis Armstrong, Bad Chad and the Good Girls, Dewey Balfa, Better Than Ezra, Marc Broussard, Harry Connick Jr., Kenny Cornett and Killin’ Time, Geno Delafose, Fats Domino, Michael Doucet, Dr. John, Feufollet, Galactic, Matthias Gautreaux, Givers, Buddy Guy, Slim Harpo, T.K. Hulin, Mahalia Jackson, Huddie Ledbetter, Corey Ledet, Jerry Lee Lewis, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Tim McGraw, The Neville Brothers, Santeria, Joel Savoy, Trombone Shorty, Britney Spears, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Lil Wayne, Lucinda Williams, and Buckwheat Zydeco.  Amede Ardoin’s fiddle music is at the foundation of divergent folk traditions, Creole and Cajun, that lived beyond him; and the members of the band Givers have been making a frothy, fun rock music with high-voiced harmonies and African elements that has been gaining international appeal.  The diversity—the ambiguity, complexity, difficulty, and possibilities—of human existence forces the stretching, if not obliteration, of definitions.  The lyrics and music of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line” recognizes human differences, but issues an invitation to forget argument, complaint, and despair—and dance.  Its rhythms are fast, hard to keep up with, like life.

The last three songs on Twenty Dozen are “E-Flat Blues,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “Dirty Old Man,” and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band usually performs them as a medley in live performance.  The first is jubilant; and the second is a rendering of a New Orleans classic, and a song the band’s audience expects, and it contains blasting horns, humor, and a Louis Armstrong quote; and the last is a fun, horn-playing, rapping, risqué, sultry party.  Thank you, Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  A good time was had…

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.