“Brass bands are inherently subversive in America,” declares Slavic Soul Party bandleader and bass-drummer Matt Moran, between bites of his portobello sandwich at Korzo, the Hungarian outpost in Park Slope. “It’s a rejection of convenience: ‘Let’s buy these weird, hard-to-play brass instruments and take three or four people to make one frickin’ chord.’ It’s like living off the grid and growing your own food.” Interesting analogy for an instrumentation rooted in military marching bands and now driving the decidedly unmellow drum-and-brass maelstrom his nine-piece juggernaut generates every Tuesday night nearby at Barbès. (How long will this residency last? “Forever!” according to the venue’s calendar.)
Blasting jazzy Balkan funk with a hard second-line kick, Slavic Soul Party took its sweet time arriving at a place where they could finally sound like themselves. For Moran, it all began with a 1999 quintet inspired mainly by Macedonian music from the Lake Prespa area. The idea, he says, was to “drink from the fuckin’ well and then go and do what you’re gonna do.”
Further spurred on by New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band (who’ve held down a Tuesday-night gig at the Maple Leaf Bar there since 1991), Moran decided to establish his own hometown residency in 2004: “I thought, if I wanted a band that sounds this good in 20 years, I’d better start now.” Barbès co-owner Olivier Conan agreed in a wink. “They had many an empty gig before it caught on,” he recalls. “They used to parade outside, until someone called the cops.” These days, though, the cozy, narrow boîte is usually packed by 9:15 or so, when Moran straps on his vintage Serbian bass drum (with attached cymbal), lights the fuse, and waits for the explosion.
One recent Tuesday, SSP opened the first of three sets with “Baltik,” from their terrific fifth album, Taketron (out on Barbès’ own label). Moran and snare drummer Chris Stromquist prowl the floor like hungry cats, weaving Brazilian maracatu beats into trombonist Brian Drye’s foreshortened horn lines. It starts loud and exciting—two trombones, two trumpets, and a saxophone take off at full throttle—and subsides only when Peter Stan steps in for an intimate, fleet-fingered accordion interlude.
Trombonist Jacob Garchik wrote the new album’s title track as a showcase for beloved SSP snare player (and otherwise ubiquitous local drummer) Take Toriyama, who recorded it with the band prior to his heartbreaking suicide in June 2007. A dazzling wave of acoustic-sounding electronic beats, “Taketron” sets the stage for an album-length celebration ending with “Hymn,” Moran’s stately yet joyous Balkanized second-line funeral march honoring a passing that obviously still resonates. “Take is a great friend and a great colleague and dearly missed,” is all Moran will say about Toriyama, the present tense speaking volumes.
In the Roma villages of southern Serbia and New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, brass bands function as community organizations, offering solace and joy to their friends, neighbors, and relations; consider Taketron‘s version of Rebirth’s “Get It How You Live” as something of an economic indicator. (Though, obviously, given the personnel involved, being in a brass band is nearly always a labor of love.) And by performing at regional trumpet festivals as well as studying with Ekrem Mamutovic, Vranjski Biseri, and other unpronounceable masters, Matt Moran and Slavic Soul Party still draw deeply from the Balkan well. They’ve gathered what they needed abroad and have brought it all back home to create a Balkan brass-band tradition of their own. They make Tuesdays feel like Saturdays and Sundays rolled into one.
Slavic Soul Party play Southpaw (with Watcha Clan) on October 2 and Barbès on October 6