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Onward Brass Band: Press

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John Swenson - Offbeat Magazine-New Orleans

ONWARD BRASS BAND The Tradition Continues (OBB) 01 December 2009

by John Swenson

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.

 

Tom Bingham - WCVF-FM--SUNY Fredonia, NY (Aug 10, 2009)

 Top Notch!

by Tom Bingham

The current edition of the Onward Brass Band, led by drummer Kurt Nicewander, is the legitimate inheritor of one of the grandest traditions in all of American Music. With a history dating back over 130 years, the present edition of the band may not sound exactly like the original unit, which was never recorded.  The original Onward Brass Band was most likely a fairly straightforward marching band in its earliest incarnation, which predated the era in which historians believe jazz was invented. However, “The Tradition Continues”, the first new CD by the current edition of the Onward Brass Band, ties together most of the other strains of New Orleans music – turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century marching band styles, jazz, blues, and even r&b – into a microcosm of the unique sounds which have developed in the Crescent City throughout the past century.

 The album gets off to a rousing start with the standard “Bourbon Street Parade”. This is, of course, especially appropriate, since the song was written by the great Paul Barbarin, the man who revived the Onward Brass Band in the mid-1950’s, following an extended period of inactivity for the band. Although the tune is often played in an Al Hirt/Dixieland style, the Onward’s version is much closer in sound and spirit to the distinctive New Orleans street parade of its title. Where else but on the streets of New Orleans would a syncopated dance rhythm and collective improvisation be superimposed on a march beat? Trombonist Freddie Lonzo’s gritty vocal includes a few cracked notes, but these only add to the genuine air of spontaneity felt throughout the performance. There’s an energy and enthusiasm to the group improvisation on the last chorus and coda that make it seem as if the commercialization and modernization, which some observers claim to hear in present-day New Orleans music, has never taken place.

 The medley of “Closer Walk – Didn’t He Ramble” depicts another New Orleans cultural tradition – the so-called “jazz funeral”. The spiritual “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is played as a dirge, which serves as musical  acompaniment to the mourners as they slowly and somberly make their way to the cemetery. After the burial, as it were, the band breaks into a sprightly stepping version of “Didn’t He Ramble” a long-time New Orleans favorite, with a rich history of its own, dating back to a rather rowdy English folk song of unknown antiquity, “The Darby Ram”. The way back from the funeral thus turns into a cathartic celebration of life. The Onward’s version easily evokes images of second-line dancers and a crowd walking rhythmically as they wave hankies and parasols. Dimitri Smith captures the spirit of the affair with an uncommonly agile tuba solo, followed by an ear-catching, polyrhythmic break by the drum line (two snares and a bass drum).

 I have to confess I’ve heard “Saints Go Marching In” a few too many times by now. To their credit, the members of the Onward Brass Band manage to add enough touches of their own to keep it interesting and entertaining nonetheless.  And what would a tradition-conscious New Orleans disc be without at least one tune inextricably linked to Louis Armstrong? The band’s rendition of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” is great fun. Tom Fischer, who proves to be a solid exponent of classic New Orleans clarinet style throughout the disc, comes up with some fine ideas on his solo, and the band turns on the burners for the last chorus once again.

 Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” dates from a later period in New Orleans’ rich and varied musical history. Even so, Longhair’s distinctive rhumba rhythm makes an easy transition to Onward’s syncopated shuffle beat, in an arrangement that ties together elements of many eras and many styles of New Orleans music. Indeed, in a genre closely associated with collective improvisation, the Onward Brass Band shows off some tight ensemble chops on the album. The riffing horns behind the solos in “Back Home Again in Indiana” are particularly enjoyable. This is another one of those performances that just keeps building in intensity.

 The ascending ensemble lines on the chorus of “Lil’ Liza Jane” are also noteworthy. And don’t overlook the way in which Smith’s tuba whoops fit into the arrangement of “Whoopin’ Blues”.  I do need to make mention of Freddie Lonzo’s tailgating trombone work, a definite highlight throughout the album. There is nothing politely decorous about his playing, which is gruff, gutsy, earthy with a delightful jump in his rhythm. Check out his brassy blats on “Just A Little While To Stay Here.” The only substantive criticism I can make is that the energy level drops a bit too much when the vocals enter in “Down By the Riverside” and “Lil’ Liza Jane”. Even so, the band builds up a full head of steam again before these tracks are over. This is a really a minor carp when you consider the high level of entertainment maintained through the rest of the album.

 Tradition can be deadly when an artist or band tries too hard to slavishly reproduce the past as carefully and mechanically as possible. The Onward Brass Band, however, take the opposite approach, utilizing and combining New Orleans traditions while making them relevant to the present moment with energy, inspiration, and  drive.

 This is New Orleans brass band music rooted in a glorious past, yet still alive and well in the 21st Century.

 Top-notch! - Tom Bingham

School of Music SUNY Fredonia

 

Tom Bingham - Host, “General Eclectic”, WCVF-FM SUNY Fredonia, NY (Aug 10, 2009)

Joseph Blake - Victoria BC Times Colonist (Aug 20, 2009)

 ONWARD BRASS BAND The Tradition Continues 

By Joseph Blake, Victoria, BC Times Colonist August 20, 2009

Arguably this is where jazz really began, with the New Orleans marching band tradition and the founding of Onward Brass Band "sometime before 1877" according to this CD's liner notes. The notes refer to newspaper clips from the band's 19th-century performances as evidence. Manuel Perez led Onward from 1903 until 1930 when the group disbanded. Early members included Louis Armstrong's mentor, King Oliver.

In 1960, Paul Barbarin, son of one of the original members, restarted the band including his nephew, Danny Barker, a brass band legend, historian and griot in his own right. The band continued under the leadership of Louis Cottrell Jr. (godson of Manuel Perez) and later Placide Adams, who died in 2003 before this planned CD session.

Kurt Nicewander has succeeded Adams, and this wonderful recording of the current, nine-piece Onward Brass Band captures the spirit of the tradition with an infectious roar.

© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist

Joseph Blake - Victoria BC Times Colonist (Aug 20, 2009)

staff writer - Gambit-the best of New Orleans.com (Apr 26, 2010)

Onward Brass Band 12:35 p.m., Economy Hall Tent, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2010

One of the oldest brass bands in New Orleans, this jazz group dates back to the late 19th century. Featuring classics such as "Bourbon Street Parade" and "Saints Go Marching In," Onward's 2009 album was appropriately titled The Tradition Continues.

staff writer - Gambit (Apr 26, 2010)