The Brass-A-Holics have made a powerful impact on the New Orleans music scene in an extremely short period of time. Formed in 2010 by trombonist Winston Turner, one of the architects of the iconoclastic sound of the Soul Rebels, the group took time to fill out its concept but by last year the band was dropping jaws all over town, as much by virtue of its performance strategy as its instrumental chops. The Brass-A-Holics are tight and energetic as you would expect a great brass band to be, and the shows feature plenty of solo pyrotechnics, but more than anything this is a band backed by ideas. Discerning listeners are well aware they’re seeing something out of the ordinary, but no one has really put a finger on what makes them different.
“The brass band moniker is a plus but it’s a little bit of a hindrance sometimes,” says guitarist Matt Clark, “because as much as we love playing our music we’re not a second line band. I don’t really think of us as a brass band but we do play brass band music among other things. We play all kinds of New Orleans music and we also do our original stuff and we also do rock stuff, Go-Go stuff. But everybody in the band knows how to plays brass band, second line, Fats Domino, Paul Barbarin.”
The band’s tightly focused brand is officially described as “Go-Go brass funk,” which offers a handful of clues to what it sounds like. The identification with Go-Go, Washington D.C.’s nonstop dance music, is a hook that dovetails with the dance contest intensity of the modern brass bands. The Go-Go reference also makes you think of the success Galactic has enjoyed applying that style to a new kind of New Orleans funk. Funk is the lingua franca of New Orleans music since the 1970s, played in this city in a way unlike anywhere else in the omniverse, and the ‘Holics have funk aplenty, brilliantly applied from the drum/percussion duo of Ricky Caesar and Dwayne Muhammad and Jason Slack on “bass horn” out to Clark’s extraordinary rhythm guitar work and Keiko Komaki’s savvy, sophisticated keyboard accompaniment. The front line of Turner on trombone, Tannon Williams on trumpet and Robin Clabby on saxophones is as tight as any in the city, and Williams and Turner are also dynamic vocalists.
“I knew they were going to be special because I knew how charismatic a showman Winston was with the Soul Rebels,” says Blue Nile GM Jesse Paige, who managed the Soul Rebels when Turner was in that group. “But with this group Winston has more freedom to be himself. He’s an incredible talent and they are on a quick rise. The response from the fans reminds me of the times Trombone Shorty would play here for three hours without taking a break.”
Like other members of the Soul Rebels, Turner was part of the St. Augustine Marching 100 and was also in the Southern University Marching Band. In fact he credits the St. Augustine band with his desire to become a musician.
“To see the Marching 100 come down the street,” he says, “that was like seeing the president or something. I had to do it. It was not just cool, it was a drive. I had to be a part of that.”
Turner began to play with the Pinstripe Brass Band and was recruited by Lumar LeBlanc to join the Soul Rebels.
“Lumar was instrumental in getting me started,” Turner notes. “I wasn’t one of the original members but I joined maybe a year after the band formed. A lot of the original members actually left the band. Myself and Tannon were two of the longest lasting members that they had. I wrote most of the tunes on the No More Parades record. I wanted to push the limits of what instrumentation you could use. It’s like ‘Why can’t I play Michael Jackson the way I hear it?’ There’s more that you can create when you add those other instruments. When you’re playing with a brass band you’re trying to mimic the sound of a piano with the horns instead of just having a piano in the band. It’s a cool sound but it’s not a widely recognized sound all over the world. If you’re playing like an Earth, Wind and Fire song they have real cool horns but they also have synthesizers and it’s more recognizable if you actually add the real components. So that was one of our dreams: Without changing the elements of Soul Rebels, how can we do what we want to do?”
That proved more difficult to achieve in the long run than it seemed and led to some disputes in and out of the recording studio.
“I learned from being in the studio with the Soul Rebels that the studio can be a very tense environment,” says Turner. “You can actually not become friends in the studio with some of the differences that you encounter with your colleagues. We did a CD back with Soul Rebels where we added a lot of electrical components. We thought it was good but the public didn’t agree because it wasn’t what we did every night. It was considered at the time, quote- unquote, overproduced. It really affected us as a band. It kind of demeaned our identity. We didn’t know where to go.”
The creative differences ultimately led to Turner leaving the group.
“I got as far as I could go without actually changing the foundation of what those guys started,” he says, “without actually disrespecting their ideas of what they intended it to be. You can’t keep adding things and changing things, it’s just better to try to start it another way.
Everybody’s better off for it.”
Turner and Williams were the frontmen of the Soul Rebels, and when Turner left that band to pursue his own vision Williams joined him soon after.
“Not to take anything away from anybody else,” says Turner, “but in the other bands that I’ve played in I’ve never had a chance to pick members.”
Turner was aided in his search for the perfect lineup by Caesar, an old friend from his uptown childhood with quite a musical pedigree of his own.
“I grew up uptown in the 13th Ward on Valence Street, the home of the Neville Brothers, the Meters and the Wild Tchoupitoulas,” Caesar says proudly. “I was lucky enough to be born in 1972 so I got a chance when I was growing up to meet some of the city’s best musicians. I always wanted to be a musician. It was in my blood, man. I wanted to be a musician so bad. The first band I was in was Deff Generation, which consisted of all the Nevilles nephews and sons. This was around ’89, ’90. We were the first band to do the rapping with the second line beats as a live band.
“After Winston left the Rebels I ran into him on Frenchmen Street and sat in with him at Vaso. He was looking to put something together so I gave him a few names, like guitar player Matt Clark, we did a few gigs and he liked the flavor that I was putting on the grooves behind the horns, locking everything in, because I put the uptown gumbo on it.”
Clark had played with a number of brass bands, but his main post Katrina gig before the ‘Holics was with New Birth.
“I played with them the first Jazz Fest right after the storm,” says Clark. “The Edge from U2 came on stage and jammed with us. I was really excited about playing with New Birth, then of course Kerwin James the tuba player, he died, and we did the second lines for him. I was standing right there when Glen David Andrews and Derrick Tabb were arrested. When HBO came to recreate that event for Treme they gave me a call so I was there for the event itself and then also for the reenactment which was really bizarre.
“New Birth had to disband for a while so I started playing with a bunch of musicians around town until Winston called me and told me he was no longer with the Soul Rebels and he was forming this new group called the Brass-A-Holics. The rest is history. We weren’t making any money at first but we were just loving the music we were playing. All of a sudden things started happening right and left, we started winning awards, we played on the Acura stage at Jazz Fest, we got asked to play this huge concert in DC, because of our Go-Go connections. It’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster, it kind of came out of nowhere. I’m having a lot of fun and it’s all just about the music for me, but as far as what it is that’s making all this stuff happen I can’t put my finger on it.”
Caesar has a firm idea about what differentiates the ‘Holics from other brass bands.
“The difference is in the different grooves you get from the elements you use,” he says. “Basically the brass band sound is built around the horns. I play trap drums in this band, and a trap kit has more drums that a marching band where you just have the snare and the bass drum. And we play a lot of different music. We play rock things, we got a Mardi Gras Indian sound. We got a lot more than just a brass band sound. We reach out to bring in different sounds from across the world. We gotta make plans to reach everybody, that’s how I like to look at it. We don’t go by set lists, we just go. We might start a song and if the groove is there just sit another song on top of that groove. Nobody wants to hear the same thing over and over. We might do a song with a funk Go-Go beat and the next time do it with a completely different beat.”
Distilling all that into a coherent recording is not easy, but the band’s debut album accomplishes that feat. As Turner knows from the Soul Rebels experience, translating the excitement of the band’s live act in the studio is a perilously tricky task. But the ‘Holics, with help from producer Irvin Mayfield, recorded an album that is likely to propel the band’s trajectory even higher.
“The first thing you need to do is have a real good producer come in,” Turner explains. “We contacted Irvin Mayfield and one of the main things he said was ‘Make a good record. Your show is good, but make a good record. Take what you actually do and clean it up the best that you can.’ Our other goal was we didn’t want to put any song on the CD that you could not hear any night that we play. These are songs that emerged from our playlists, the songs that worked best live and were some of our own favorites. We came up with a list and we narrowed it down.
“We wanted it to be like the live show without being the live show. It’s actually who we are. Some nights we may just play ballads. Everybody else may leave the stage and it will be just myself and the piano player playing ‘In a Sentimental Mood.’ It’s like a football team with an unlimited playbook.”
The recording reflects the many aspects of the ‘Holics sound without relying on segues or jams to establish continuity.
“Irvin has a nice perspective on the music,” notes Clark. “We tried to get a really great sound and he brought a more polished and professional feel to it. And that’s about 25 percent of what we have. The hardest part about making the record was what we didn’t put on it. We’re already ready for the second and third record, we’ve got that much material. The most frustrating part of this record was choosing which songs not to put on it.”
There are a couple of songs on the record that suggest another source for, or at least a parallel development to, the Brass-A-Holics philosophy — Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. Clark’s guitar work bears some resemblance to Pete Murano’s approach in Shorty’s band, and Turner’s trombone playing over blistering riffs resembles some of Shorty’s arrangement strategies. Both players acknowledge the reference.
“Well, those are big influences also,” Clark admits. “I’ve been following Trombone Shorty since he was actually short.
“I love Shorty’s sound,” adds Turner. “I totally appreciate what he’s doing musically and I think it probably sounds like that. Good minds think alike. I listen to what he does and I totally appreciate it and it’s actually naturally what I hear. That’s why it may sound that way and it’s appreciated by both of us. I can listen to something of his and might say ‘I can do that. I should be able to rock it’.”
Both Shorty’s band and the ‘Holics represent a new style of music that’s emerging in New Orleans post-Katrina, an approach that is based on fundamentals of New Orleans music history but is searching for ways to bring new elements to the mix. It’s wrong to call it a mash-up because it’s not eclecticism for its own sake, clever game playing to call attention to ironic similarities between disparate elements. It’s more akin to the search for a kind of Universal Groove.
And why not? Brass band music actually predates jazz itself and has shown a remarkable affinity to absorb just about any influence it comes into contact with. The differences have become about function, not form. A brass band funeral, or New Orleans Function, is a specific event that has very particular requirements about what gets played on the way to delivering the body and on the way back from the grave. Things happen, of course; nevertheless the ritual itself always prevails. But brass band music is free to be anything it wants beyond that. It’s free, in fact, to be liberated from its original ambulatory function altogether, something Turner has been exploring since his time in the Soul Rebels and is now fully realizing in the ‘Holics.
“We think about it,” confirms Turner. “We encourage change. Maybe a while ago it wasn’t encouraged to add different things to New Orleans music and change the traditions. But just by having a tuba in the band, that keeps the tradition even if you have a violin on the stage. It’s still here and it’s still the same as long as you know the same songs, as long as you really respect the culture. As long as you appreciate and embrace everything that comes with it I think now guys are willing to accept whatever creativity you have to offer to our culture.”
Turner is not resting on his achievements, either.
“We’re going to go further than we did this time in the future,” he vows. “We want to make the music as creative as we can make it. We want each band member to achieve a goal musically that they’ve really dreamed of. And then we want to achieve our collective dream.”