“The Levels” is the newest song in Soul Brass Band’s repertoire. Written by the band’s founder, Derrick “Smoker” Freeman, it’s a harbinger of his plans for a new album. “It’ll be the best brass band record anybody’s ever heard,” he says.
Together with saxophonist James Martin, Freeman released Soul in June of 2018. The project serves as a bridge between the music of the Martin-Freeman-Genius Trio (more on that later) and the forthcoming album from Soul Brass Band; Soul features a lot of the same musicians who are members of Soul. But, as the two have made very clear, Soul “is a family record. It features all of our cousins—including Soul Brass Band. But it’s NOT a brass band record.”
It’s a little complicated, so let’s rewind.
It was a series of flukes that brought Freeman and Martin together. They first played together in 2002, but it was more than a decade later when their careers dovetailed. While on a summer tour with Glen David Andrews in 2015, the two musicians were forced to whittle down the four-person backing band into a trio after the pianist missed a flight. The formula proved fortuitous. Together with tuba player Julius McKee, Freeman and Martin formed the MFG Trio and began recording an album.
Then, another fluke presented itself.
Shortly after MFG’s genesis, Freeman was tasked with providing Grammy-winning vocalist CeeLo Green a traditional-looking New Orleans brass band for “Music To My Soul,” a music video filmed in town. He rounded up some musicians and Soul Brass Band was born… only it wasn’t an actual band. When he was again approached to fashion a band, this time for a Nike commercial, Freeman rallied the same make-believe troops. This time, it got real.
As footage of the makeshift brass band—complete with decorative headwear, patches emblazoned with the word “SOUL” and sashes—found its way (along with social media posts tagged #SoulBrassBand) on the internet, it was clear “nothing” was shaping into a “something.” People were interested in seeing Soul for themselves. Freeman got to work on making Soul Brass Band a living, breathing, performing band.
“The characters I wanted to use for that music video weren’t necessarily the right people for an actual band, per se. It took us a few months to figure out who was really going to be in it,” he says. The MFG Trio was now on hold and Martin joined the Soul ranks. Now three years removed from the band’s debut gig as an opener for Red Baraat at Tipitina’s, it’s still hard for Freeman to nail down the group’s fundamental members.
When asked who comprises the core of Soul, Freeman says “James and I, obviously. Leon ‘Kid Chocolate’ Brown I would consider a core member. Also Michael Watson, Aron Lambert, Danny Abel. But there’s also Terrance Taplin, Kevin Louis, Khris Royal…”
“It’s a revolving nucleus,” Martin quips.
Freeman moved to New Orleans from Houston in 1992 and enrolled in the fledgling jazz program at the University of New Orleans. Prior to that, his entry point into music was one of necessity. “My mom was obsessed with me not going to jail, so I was overly involved in activities as a child,” he recalls. “I got straight As but was disruptive in elementary school and got Fs in conduct.” His second-grade teacher, a Creole woman named Miss Spencer who drove an Eldorado, took a liking to young Derrick and helped save him from school administrators eager to send him to a school for wayward kids. He ended up at Parker Elementary, a school for gifted students.
“The one good thing about Texas in the eighties, even though a lot of them were racist, for some reason they were all about alternative education. At the school interview, they asked me what I wanted to do. And I was, like, ‘I’m eight. I don’t know.’” After turning down math, science and computers, he found his way into the music department.
“On the first day, they gave me a music-aptitude test and I scored 100 on it. It was just math to me, things like quarter notes, half notes. I picked it up immediately. I decided I wanted to play the trumpet, but I’d had multiple dental surgeries because my adult teeth never came down in the front so… the trumpet was not happening. Eventually I quit my piano class because the piano teacher’s daughter was in the class and I beat her in a spelling bee. So the piano teacher started hating on me. I told the school ‘I’m going to join the band.’ I sat in the trumpet section and they were, like, ‘Where the hell are your front teeth? You can’t play trumpet.’ My options were to go to the drum section or go back to piano class.”
Classical percussion it was.
By the time he got to Johnston Middle School, Freeman was under the tutelage of Craig Green, a band director whose notable students include Chris “Daddy” Dave, Eric Harland and Mark Simmons. With Green’s help, Freeman entered the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (“which is like the N.O.C.C.A. of Houston”). It wasn’t until his senior year that he got thrown into the jazz combo because “someone failed out or something.” Another fluke.
“All the kids in my neighborhood were actively being recruited by the Navy, hard. And this was during Desert Storm. They were selling me wolf tickets, telling me I’d be able to play in the Navy band. They didn’t tell me I was going to be on a boat in the Persian Gulf getting my head shot off,” he says. “Even though I was in an arts school, I was unaware that you could get a scholarship playing music. I was heavily considering going [into the Navy].”
Once he learned of scholarships, he set his eyes on Juilliard but was rejected. Embraced by Oberlin, University of Miami and University of Michigan, Freeman opted for Texas Southern University. “They gave me a free apartment and it was across the street from the church I played at.”
Freeman was now a high-school graduate with a clear path ahead.
For James Martin, a New Orleans native whose father played the clarinet and saxophone (and served as the drum major at De La Salle High School), pursuing music never felt like a choice. “There was always music in the house. I wanted to play guitar in the Archbishop Rummel High School band. The band director at the time had this rule: You couldn’t be in the jazz band unless you were also in the concert band or marching band. Of course, there’s no guitar. So I chose the saxophone and I fell in love with it.”
Martin entered the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (N.O.C.C.A.) where his career launched when he began playing with Trombone Shorty. He opted to stay in New Orleans and enrolled at Loyola University.
“Katrina hit on what was supposed to be the first day of my senior year at Loyola. I kinda took that semester off. There wasn’t a lot of anything going on in town, so I was just at home a bunch, not going to school, not gigging, just writing. I think that kind of changed my course a little bit,” he says. “Writing became more of a focal point as opposed to just playing the saxophone.”
Freeman’s college experience was also abruptly interrupted, though not due to a storm. Already enrolled at TSU, he performed with his jazz combo at the Hyatt Regency in Houston a few weeks after graduation from high school. They opened for Ellis Marsalis.
“Turns out, [Dr. Charles] Blanc, who was head of the music department at UNO at the time, was college roommates with my high school band director,” says Freeman. “Ellis approached me and said ‘I don’t know who you know at my school, but they’re telling me you get a full scholarship.’
“My mom got wind of this. She just heard ‘full scholarship’ and she was, like, ‘I called them people and she said you can move in to the dorms, tomorrow. Greyhound bus. Bye. Your uncle will bring your shit next week.’” Freeman became a UNO student overnight.
Ten years later, Martin first became aware of Freeman while subbing for Kermit Ruffins with Trombone Shorty. It was around 2002, when Martin was a senior in high school. Freeman, who was in the midst of a years-long tenure as a member of Kermit’s Barbecue Swingers, remembers that night with a clarity belying the thousands of gigs worth of memories he has stored. “It was a Funky Butt gig [defunct music club on Rampart Street]. Joey Peebles, who played bass drums [for Trombone Shorty] was only 13 and his mom wouldn’t let him come to the bar. So I was subbing for a 13-year-old [laughs].”
When Glen David Andrews called Freeman to say he needed a drummer for a 2015 summer tour, Freeman was momentarily hesitant. He asked Andrews who else was in the band and, upon hearing Martin’s name, warmed up to the idea. “I was like, ‘I’ll do it if I can room with that guy.’ I wanted to pick his brain and find out about him. Like, what’s up with James Martin? Let me find out about this cat.” Martin had been performing with Andrews regularly since 2012, the same year he released his debut solo album, Blue (two songs from his 2017 solo effort, Something’s Gotta Give, appear on Soul).
By the time the Andrews tour ended, Freeman and Martin (and McKee) began molding the MFG Trio into something more permanent than an extemporaneously built band.
“When we started doing the MFG Trio by accident, it sounded good. It was fun and it made sense,” James remembers. “We were doing gigs as the Trio but pretty much simultaneously, Derrick had started Soul. I was not yet a part of the band at that point. We went to record the Trio and then we just started calling in more musicians and it became something beyond what just the Trio is. Around the same time, I started playing with Soul and then we became an actual thing, doing tours all over the place. It took precedence over the Trio. So the MFG recording was on the back burner for a while. The recordings we originally did with the Trio kind of formed into this makeshift Soul album that we have.”
For Freeman, shaping Soul Brass Band with Martin signifies the end of a dream deferred. “I had quit Kermit’s band about two months before Katrina. Kermit got back fast after the storm hit and called me. He said, ‘I got gigs, come home.’ I was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m in your band again.’ We started playing at Bullet’s in January of ’06. From then until 2014, that was my life, [a life] which I didn’t want.”
On the second day of a winter tour with Kermit in 2014, Freeman made a resolute decision to live the sideman life behind. Though he’d already released three albums of his own—including 2012’s Blurple Pain, which OffBeat’s John Swenson said “has just about everything you ask for from a contemporary R&B/hip-hop record”—Freeman felt slighted.
“I’m on [Kermit’s] most famous records, but I’m not on most of his records. It’s fine with me but in the annals of history, when it’s all said and done, there will be a lot of things I wasn’t included in because the recordings didn’t really tell the actual story about what was happening. At this time I was turning 40 and I was thinking about that. I was getting fucked over, historically. So I quit.”
Martin is gently earnest about his own transition from sideman to frontman. “I’ve definitely had some great experiences being a part of the bands that I’ve been involved with. Playing with Glen and Troy was fantastic, but there’s something much more fulfilling for me about getting on stage in front of a packed crowd at the Spotted Cat, singing my own songs, and having the crowd sing along. There’s something about making my own choices, the freedom of that and also the responsibility that you don’t really get being a sideman. After over a decade of playing with other people’s groups, it’s finally time. Reconnecting with Derrick at this point in our lives, it was a perfect combination. We both felt the same way at the same time. Now we’re having more fun, doing what we want, writing our own music. For that matter, we were on the same level.”
Freeman and Martin are now back in New Orleans after touring with Soul Brass Band in Ireland, Israel, Turkey and elsewhere. On that tour, while his bandmates returned to the States, Martin took a solo detour elsewhere at the invitation of Danish musicians.
“These musicians from Denmark had been coming to New Orleans for a while. Derrick had known some of them for a while and he brought Soul Brass Band to Copenhagen. I was able to go play my own music and do my own shows there,” he says. “A bunch of Danish musicians learned my music. We rehearsed in a Cold War bunker. It was the first time I really got to do my own shows abroad. I was headlining shows in the festival. One of the programs put me on the cover. I got some press and reviews when I was out there. I did my own Fats Domino tribute. It was great. The crowds were amazing.”
Now, it’s time to begin recording an album, something Freeman was initially dreading.
“It’s 2018 and nobody really listens to whole records,” he says. “Actually, fuck all of you people for asking for brass band records because nobody’s going to buy that. For some reason, I have to make this brass band record to legitimize us.” But now, a chance encounter (fluke!) on the road has him animated for the shape of things to come.
At a bar in Tel Aviv, Brown and Freeman met an EMT who told the story of a man whose life she’d saved. She never saw the patient again, nor learned of his progress. “Somehow, she ended up on a plane sitting next to the daughter of the dude she saved,” says Freeman. “I was, like, ‘Oh, it’s a full circle.’ And right when I said it, I got floored by an idea. ‘Holy shit, I just came up with the concept of the record.’
“The album is going to be about shapes. Leon is always reading crazy shit and when I told him about this idea he said ‘I’ve been reading these texts about shapes.’ So he just goes in on me for an hour about shapes and colors and how that’s relevant. It all just lined up. I feel like I went from writing a throwaway record to writing a record we might win a Grammy for. Conceptually, this shit is going to be insane.”
Next, the group will pen “The Circles” while continuing to perform. Focus is also being funneled into diversifying the portfolios of band members. N.C.I.S.: New Orleans has already licensed two of Freeman and Martin’s songs: “Maintain Composure” and “Grandma Cunningham.” Though neither of those songs are “particularly New Orleans-y,” says Freeman, there will always be a market for New Orleans in the capricious industry of music. “Licensing is really about survival.”
Freeman champions contemporaries like the Soul Rebels, Rebirth Brass Band and New Breed Brass Band for eschewing the fundamentally simple format of brass bands and elevating the art form. “People see brass bands differently now.”
The album will be buoyed by “The Levels” (“The race is not always given to the one who’s swift or strong/ But to the one who endureth/ And I’ve been running all night long”), though as of now it hasn’t been recorded.
“It’s a philosophy, levels,” Martin says. “It encompasses a lot of epiphanies Derrick has had about how there are different steps to achieve certain goals and different levels of vibing with musicians. I think we can actually make [the album] something special. With the personnel that’s involved, we can put our stamp on brass band music and further that sound through our own compositions and playing.”
Freeman takes a deep breath. “We’re in a position where we can control the narrative now.”