Before you dismiss this as “Just another traditional brass band album,” understand that the Onward Brass Band was performing at functions in New Orleans 30 years before jazz in any form was recorded (obviously, not with this lineup). So let’s not go comparing this album with the latest Thom Yorke release. That said, the point of this music is its effective connection to the tradition it represents, which is to ask if it moves with similar purpose, or is it just a museum piece?
Thankfully, this live performance, recorded around the time of Satchmo SummerFest last year at the University of New Orleans, lives up to every realistic expectation of what traditional brass band music is supposed to sound like. Snare drummer Kurt Nicewander, who sets the tone for the session with his press roll at the beginning of “Bourbon Street Parade,” is the latest Onward leader in a line of succession that goes back over 100 years (with a hiatus between 1930 and 1960). “Bourbon Street Parade” was written by former Onward bandleader Paul Barbarin, and it gets a great arrangement here with spirited clarinet playing from Tom Fischer, who interacts beautifully with Joseph Torregano on saxophone. Freddie Lonzo’s voice is a little creaky on the track, but his trombone playing is superb throughout the record, carrying the bottom along with Dimitri Smith’s tuba.
One of the highlights is a jazz funeral, with its tar pit-slow dirge of a “Closer Walk with Thee” that explodes into the second line “Didn’t He Ramble” complete with a dazzling double snare and bass drum breakdown. Mark Braud, current frontman of the Preservation Hall band, and Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown of NOJO, share trumpet and vocal duties, with Brown bringing home a wild 8:43 of “Lil’ Liza Jane” and Braud delivering Prof. Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” The energy these musicians give to what must be head arrangements of familiar material keeps things at a rapid boil as the second line rhythms roll off the snares, and the individual voices keep the dancing interlace of collective improvisation moving at an irresistible pace.