For 20 years, the Soul Rebels have remained a modern face in brass band music. “We are trying our best to push the envelope,” says Lumar LeBlanc, snare drummer and Rebels cofounder along with bass drummer Derrick Moss, both late of Dejan’s Young Olympia Brass Band. “The initial point of Soul Rebels was to put a mainstream spin on brass band music, incorporate hip-hop, original R&B, all the elements, to make an urban contemporary sound.” As a result, Soul Rebels have fit nicely on bills with everyone from Bootsy Collins to A Tribe Called Quest, Better than Ezra to James Brown, Green Day to the Fugees. And now the Soul Rebels will have a chance to bring its new brass vision to the world.
“We just scored a pretty big deal with Rounder Records, which is a subsidiary of Universal,” says LeBlanc, sounding a bit relieved. Producer and Rounder VP of A&R Scott Billington is right now producing the album with engineer Steve Reynolds. “Rounder has recorded all the greatest brass band records of all time,” LeBlanc points out. “From the Dirty Dozen, to Rebirth’s Do Whatcha Wanna, to all that stuff with Dizzy Gillespie. So to have them choose Soul Rebels out of all the other current groups is a big complimentary feather in our cap.” The Rebels have stepped up their management game as well, hiring booking agent Ted Curler (who handles Branford and Wynton Marsalis, not to mention jazz legends Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea) to split management duties with Adam Shipley of Hep Cat Productions. “We made some big moves real fast. I could say it’s been a long time comin’,” sighs 43-year-old LeBlanc. “But, I am just sitting back and enjoying it.”
However, most of his “sitting back” is being done in airplanes flying the Soul Rebels around to big jazz festivals around the world, and a lot of sitting is also done in LeBlanc’s car, as he continues to drives back and forth each week between New Orleans and Houston, Texas, where he has lived since the flood. “I can’t afford to fix my home,” he says. “And in the meantime, my wife got a good job and my kid is at a good school in Houston. I am still a New Orleanian, don’t get me wrong. I own property there. I just can’t afford to rebuild right now.” Recently he’s been spending even more time in New Orleans as the Rebels record the band’s Rounder Records debut at Music Shed studio on Euterpe Street. “We been in that studio grinding, man,” LeBlanc brags. “Hours upon hours! We’re also practicing again, at the Music Shed and at the Musician’s Union on Esplanade. We on fire.”
Said fire can also be attributed to several new band members added to the mix in anticipation of the upcoming push. “The new guys are gifted and enthusiastic about being in the band, so everything has really been energetic,” LeBlanc says. “Them having watched us when they were young and getting started, they’ve come into the band with that push, and given all of us new life. It’s like a rebirth, a rejuvenation. We got Paul Robertson and Corey Payton both on trombone now—we going back to the two trombones for that powerhouse plus! New people bring a new spin to it!”
All the members have also been participating in the process of writing new songs for the album, which will be decidedly different than the pure party music Soul Rebels are known for locally. “We were pushed by the record company and the management team to be as songwriterish as possible,” says LeBlanc, who happily dove into the idea. “Not just songs with chants, but more on the level of any songwriter, like Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan. We wanted songs that have a message, and present some peace and love and entertainment. So each member put all their ideas on the table; some people are bringing reggae, roots music, Latin songs, songs with a rock feel. R&B. Rap. And of course New Orleans second-line.” Guests slated to appear on the as-yet-untitled album include Cyril Neville (who gave Soul Rebels their name in 1991), rapper Curren$y, and Trombone Shorty among others. “We are in the process of reaching out to Robert Plant,” says LeBlanc. “He sang with the band in the early ’90s after he flew us out to do a birthday party. I am not sure we could get him, but we are trying!”
All of this newness, admits LeBlanc, goes mostly to service one juicy goal: “We are hopefully going to bring that Grammy home,” says LeBlanc. “First brass band to do it! They usually put brass bands in with the Contemporary Jazz category. But I think this new album is going to qualify us for a lot of different categories.”