Saxophonist Martin Krusche is sitting at the dining room table in his Ninth Ward home alongside saxophonist Dan Oestreicher, trombonists Wes Anderson IV and Jon RammGramenz, tuba player Steven Glenn and drummer Paul Thibodeaux, the musicians who these days comprise his long-running, ever-evolving band, Magnetic Ear. It’s early spring and they’ve just wrapped a rehearsal for the CD release party for their latest album, Live at Vaughan’s. Krusche, with some help from Oestreicher, is trying to pinpoint the elements that combined to make the recording feel like their strongest release to date.
Topping the list is the fact that they cut the disc immediately after returning home from a tour in Germany during Oktoberfest, where their unusual sound—a jazz-based blend of brass band styles from New Orleans and Europe mixed with influences ranging from funk to West African music to Cuban music to rock—had the crowd rocking out on beer tent table tops and dancing along with the second line they led through the town of Oberammergau.
“People lost their fucking minds,” says Oestreicher, who has some experience judging strong audience reactions given his years of work as Trombone Shorty’s baritone player. “It was like we were Justin Bieber or something.”
Madonna might be a more apt pop star comparison, given Magnetic Ear’s propensity for reinventing itself. What began as an experimental jazz trio platform for Krusche’s notoriously knotty compositions has evolved over time into its own version of a New Orleans brass band. These days, the six-piece group toys with expectations about things like time and genre in complicated ways that push listeners to keep their ears and minds as flexible as their feet at a live show.
The new disc moves gracefully between Cuban rhythms, ska motifs, punched-up brass takes on Nirvana and Roger Lewis–inspired funk grooves. In most cases, those seemingly far-flung ideas are executed with a loose, New Orleans feel that belies the complexity of the compositions. In some cases, even the inspiration for the music is complex, like “Bavarian Second Line,” which Krusche wrote for the tour as a reimagined version of a German tune called “The Ox.”
“We could not have made this record a year ago even. The trip to Germany was a big part of what helped us turn that corner,” says Krusche.
Behind Krusche, a yellowed poster on the wall reflects how different Magnetic Ear was when it first began. Advertising the band’s “world premiere” circa 2004, the concert announcement lists just three musicians: Krusche on sax, Kirk Joseph on tuba and Kevin O’Day on drums.
“It started as a trio but I was using harmonizer and effects to just bring sound to it and even second voices,” says the Munich-born saxophonist, who came to New Orleans via New York in 1995.
“The harmonizer’s not smart so you can say, ‘Play major thirds,’ but you can also write something that works to a certain extent to that [effect]. Like ‘Handsome Ransom’ is a tune that’s made to work with the static interval. So I was looking for a horn section, basically, without having other horns. And then I started adding other horns, which first led me into the arranged jazz tune area.”
Krusche speaks with a determined intensity that matches the way he plays and composes. Maybe it’s the passion that seems to drive him, but there’s also an almost poetic angle to whatever he’s expressing, be it a complicated chord progression or the mission statement for his sax repair business’ website. (“Imagine, for a moment, a saxophone without tone holes. Just mouthpiece and body…” the statement begins.)
Krusche has a copilot of sorts in the Pittsburgh–born Oestreicher, whose raw delivery and quips often balance his bandmate’s seriousness like some kind of Munich/New Orleans yin and yang.
“I remember how it happened,” Oestreicher says of Krusche’s move away from the harmonizer. “It specifically was a gig at Snug Harbor … right after Katrina, like 2006. And Martin had the music and Kirk couldn’t make the gig and he was like, ‘Well, I can’t get somebody as awesome as Kirk, so you can do the gig,” he says, laughing, “and then we’ll just get a regular tuba player who’s not famous.”
In the years that followed, Krusche expanded the ensemble to a five-piece jazz combo with brass band leanings. That version of the group, which Krusche describes as “a jazz band with a tuba at the bottom,” appeared on 2009’s Live at the Saturn Bar.
“We morphed more and more from there, and eventually moved into the brass band format for the first time,” Krusche recalls. “As soon as you’re a brass band where the paradigm’s not based on swing in the jazz sense but on the groove, now you can play everywhere. It has everything to do with jazz in a way, historically, but it’s also totally not [jazz]. To be a brass band on tour now we’re out of the jazz ghetto.”
The shift, which Oestreicher says he noticed on tour in 2009 when audiences began responding to shows like a gig at Berlin’s White Trash with Meschiya Lake differently than what the band was used to seeing. “It was more of a party atmosphere,” he says, adding that the move away from straight jazz “was a natural progression.”
They added a second trombone and Krusche discovered he could open things up, writing and arranging-wise, with the new instrumentation in place. It allowed him to write as if he had a bigger ensemble to work with, though when they recorded 2010’s far-reaching, guest-peppered Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, the core band remained capped at six players.
“Over time, people come and go,” he says. “This particular cast, if it was up to me I would never change anything ever again. We grow together. We get better together.”
They’ve had to. Krusche’s music is hard, even for Krusche, who likes the challenge of writing something as a way of forcing himself to set up and eventually reach a musical goal.
“You write something you aspire [to be able to do] and now you’re forced to do it,” he says. “This is not where I’m coming from, I’m really coming from jazz. This whole business with the really uptempo second line stuff that we’re doing right now, I had to grow into this. It requires a different set of skills than playing a good jazz solo.”
His bandmates share his perspective on the thrill of learning by doing. Trombonist Anderson’s first gig with Magnetic Ear was at Bacchanal. “They had lead sheets and stuff but Magnetic Ear, it was always a mind-blowing thing. I was 20 or 21 and I’m looking over at Jeff [Albert] and he was showing me a couple of lines. I’m like, ‘Man, you gotta help me out. And he was like ‘Good luck!’” he says, earning smiles and knowing nods from the musicians around the table.
“The vibe every time I came and played with Magnetic Ear stayed that way. I loved it because it was a chance for everybody to create—but within the foundation of something that was only grounded within the band. You have the sheets there but I had to depend on everybody to do their thing and be like, ‘OK, this is where I fit,’” he explains.
Oestreicher adds that they’ve also all improved as individual musicians and as a band. “I used to get so exhausted from Magnetic Ear gigs, just mentally, physically. I would go home and be like, ‘I might have to quit, I just can’t do it, it’s beyond me.’ I look back on it now and it just doesn’t feel as hard and taxing.”
When it came to making the leap from jazz ensemble to pocket brass band to the group’s current iteration, they employed the same ethic of setting a bar above their grasp and forcing themselves to reach, then surpass it.
First, they wrote and recorded the studio album, Aliens, then used it as a learning tool from which they could spring forward again towards their next goal.
“It takes a certain type of horn player to really be able to roll in this type of section where there’s no rhythm section player but then you learn a lot,” says Oestreicher. “You’re a better horn player because of it if you can adapt.”
And they have adapted, both to the format and to the demands of playing music with sudden shifts in tempo, dynamics and feel. The band spent much of July performing the new album material for festival and club audiences in Germany and Switzerland—an experience that rejuvenated their communal spark and inspired Krusche to start thinking about new music and new gigs.
Despite the amount of work and financial risk it took to book and manage the July tour, Krusche went into it with the same perspective he came home with: Magnetic Ear is truly at the top of its game in 2016.
“As hard as [the tour] was, I’m thrilled to see even under the most difficult circumstances, the music is holding it all together,” he mused after returning to New Orleans this summer. “In those situations, you just say, ‘The music has to carry this.’ And it did.”