big brass

the dirty dozen brass band: gregory davis, roger lewis, julius mckee,

the dirty dozen brass band: gregory davis, roger lewis, julius mckee, kevin harris, revert andrews, efrem towns.

Over the last two decades, which encompasses just over half of its lifespan, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has played nearly every music club and corner in Lexington.

In the early ‘90s, when word on the ensemble’s mix of traditional New Orleans brass band music and jazz accents began to spread thanks to such extraordinary Columbia recordings as The New Orleans Album and Open Up: Whatcha Gonna Do For the Rest of You Life, the Dirty Dozen made concert stops at the long-since-demolished Breeding’s and the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall.

As the decade drew to a close with more progressive minded Mammoth albums like Ears to the Wall and the John Medeski-produced Buck Jump, the band could be counted for an annual visit (at least ) at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club.

With the opening of The Dame in 2003 came the first of two brilliant records – the indie live album We Got Robbed and the back-to-basics Funeral for a Friend. That’s when it seemed like six months didn’t go by without a Dirty Dozen Dame date.

Then in 2006 came a night at the big house – a Rupp Arena performance with jam band fave Widespread Panic a mere six weeks after the release of What’s Going On, a Dirty Dozen take on the classic Marvin Gaye album that served as a requiem for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Retrace those funky footsteps and you get a sense of just how chummy the Dirty Dozen and Lexington have become over the years.

“Lexington is one of my favorite cities on the planet,” said Dirty Dozen baritone saxophonist and co-founding member Roger Lewis. “I mean that. I love playing there.”

On Wednesday, the band returns to town to play yet another venue. Actually, it’s a new version of a room it has performed in many times – Cosmic Charlie’s, which now occupies the old Lynagh’s Music Club. And a celebration is being planned. The concert will be part of a tour commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Dirty Dozen’s debut album, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.

Lewis doesn’t make much fuss over the milestone. When the Dirty Dozen formed in 1976, a point when working gigs for brass bands in New Orleans grew scarce, he knew that with some serious hard work, both on the road and in the studio, there was no reason the then-young group couldn’t roar into the next century.

“When we put this band together, I knew that if we practiced and kept practicing, we would have a successful project on our hands. So we did. Then we started trying out these different types of music like bebop and mixing it in with the traditional brass band sound. And that made for a different sounding band. Nobody was doing anything like that at the time.

“A lot of people were saying, ‘Man, that’s not going to work. You’ll never get that band off the ground.’ But in my mind, I always knew it would work.”

In sticking to its stylistic guns, the Dirty Dozen possessed a fearsome compositional giant in trumpeter Gregory Davis along with a huge ensemble sound that never lost sight of its roots.

Among Davis’ greatest works is a 15 minute suite for the 1991 Open Up album titled The Lost Souls of Southern Louisiana. From the funereal beginnings to its funky finale of percussion and sousaphone to the brilliant shades of jazz and blues that fill the spaces in between, The Lost Souls remains a benchmark work for the band.

“Yeah, that’s a beautiful piece,” Lewis said. “Gregory Davis wrote a suite that was totally different from anything we had recorded.”

As far as interpretive works go, 2004’s Funeral for a Friend, remains a triumph. Designed as a suite of spirituals for the actual street funeral of one of the band’s own – brass man Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen – the album wound its way luxuriously from the solemnity of Just a Closer Walk With Thee to the serious testifying of Jesus on the Mainline to what might just be the funkiest blues reading of John the Revelator ever heard by human ears.

“That’s a beautiful album,” Lewis remarked. “What I really like about Funeral for a Friend is that it captures the feel of a real New Orleans funeral even though we cut it in a studio.”

The Dirty Dozen also knows how to compile a guest list. Among the disparate greats to appear on its recordings are Dizzy Gillespie, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Branford Marsalis, Dr. John, Chuck D. and Bettye LaVette.

But the band also sounds commanding in the sparest of settings. After an especially exhausting set at The Dame several years back, Lewis and trumpeter Efrem Towns ended the evening with a hushed but profoundly soulful duet of St. James Infirmary that quickly silenced a room full of revelers.

“When you’re playing with musicians that are open minded, you can play almost anything,” Lewis said. “At the same time, if we weren’t such a tight band, these people wouldn’t want to play on our records and wouldn’t be asking us to play on their records.

“When you’ve got a tight horn section… man, people just want a piece of that.”

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band performs at 9 p.m. Nov. 11 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Call: (859) 309-9499.


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