Drummer Derrick Freeman leads the Soul Brass Band, which was formed just a year ago. Its name was obtained by pure circumstance with no intention of stepping on the toes of the well-established, world-renowned brassy Soul Rebels. Here’s how it went down.
A friend of Freeman called him and said that noted rap, neo-soul and contemporary rhythm and blues artist CeeLo Green wanted to shoot a video in New Orleans to go with his song, “Music to My Soul.” Freeman, who probably remains best recognized for his many years with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, as well as now leading his own funky group, Smokers World, was first asked to be a consultant for the project. As it turned out, Freeman was expected to lead a brass band for a jazz funeral shot. “I don’t have no brass band and I don’t have no name,” Freeman remembers uttering or least thinking.
Because the word soul was central to the video’s theme, Freeman deemed it appropriate to perform as the Soul Brass Band for the project. The producers provided the traditional black and white uniforms, caps and a bass drum with the word SOUL prominently displayed on both. Freeman was offered to keep all the brass band paraphernalia, and he thought it might come in handy in the future. He was very content doing his old-school hip-hop thing with Smokers World which, in 2014, released its debut album, DWB (Driving While Black). Freeman, a trap set drummer, wasn’t really interested in entering the brass band scene.
The Soul Brass Band’s next offer was to shoot a Nike commercial that featured Pelicans star Anthony Davis walking down a French Quarter street. Soon, Freeman was receiving requests to hire the band.
It’s little wonder that the all-star ensemble quickly gained attention considering the line-up: snare man Freeman, bass drummer Aron Lambert, trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, trombonists Michael Watson and Terrance Taplin, saxophonist James Martin, guitarist Danny Abel and tuba player Steve Glenn. After consulting with the Soul Rebels, a group Freeman highly admires, and explaining how the band ended up with the name, the Soul Brass Band was on its way. Its first gig was in the fall of 2015, opening for Red Baraat at Tipitina’s.
“There’s not many things that I don’t like about playing in a brass band. It’s strange that it took me so long to figure that out. I’ve been in New Orleans the whole time [almost 25 years] literally surrounded by brass bands and all my friends are in brass bands.”
Freeman has booked the band at festivals in Ascona, Switzerland and Copenhagen, Denmark for next summer and looks to book more dates to make its visit a full European tour. “Once we get there, we’ll just roll until we run out of gigs,” he says with a laugh.
At the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival the Soul Brass Band will expand to 9 or 10 pieces, with 2 European musicians who Freeman met on his travels sitting in on trumpet and saxophone. “It’s like a cultural exchange,” he explains, “and they’ll be here for 10 days and do a bunch of gigs.”
Freeman, primarily a trap set drummer, hadn’t really played snare since he attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where his focus was on classical percussion.
“At first playing just snare was more of a distraction,” he offers. “It was weird not using my feet and trusting the other guy. But Aron and I have a great chemistry. Now it helps me a lot because I’ve learned to get different sounds out of it. My drum set has benefited greatly from playing snare drum. It’s a different instrument.”
Another twist is that Freeman is the Soul Brass Band’s lead vocalist. “That I sing most of the lead is strange because Michael and Leon are literally my two favorite singers in the world and by far I’m not the best singer in the band,” Freeman says, adding that Michael, Leon, James and Aron all do backup vocals, and each steps out front on some tunes.
Though the Soul Brass Band is well-versed in traditional music its stage shows are more eclectic, as it turns not only to material from fellow brass bands like the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth but also funks it up. Listen for tunes that range from old-school artists like Sly and the Family Stone and the Jackson 5 to hip-hop stars Snoop Dogg and Juvenile.
“The versatility is there to do that,” Freeman proclaims. “We’ll do some traditional songs in the set and just mix it up and mess with people’s heads a little—reel people in and shock ‘em. Expect to be wowed.”
“My love for New Orleans and New Orleans music is genuine,” Freeman says as he turns more serious. “The love that I received from the city over the past 25 years has made all this stuff possible.”