During the first episode of HBO’s Treme, members of the Rebirth Brass Band and the show’s trombone-playing character Antoine Batiste end a jazz parade in front of a neighborhood bar owned by Batiste’s ex-wife, LaDonna Batiste-Williams. The uncomfortable nature of their reunion is underscored when the younger band members try to flirt by asking why she left Antoine. “You wanna know what went wrong?” she replies, dryly. “Married a goddamned musician. Ain’t no way to make that shit right!”
New Orleans musicians may not be the best marital timber, but there’s no denying the irresistible party music Rebirth delivers on the way to LaDonna’s front door. They–and the street dancers that magnify their power–show how musical self-expression enhances daily life in New Orleans as in no other American city. Watching the first season of Treme, which was released on DVD March 29 (the second season premieres Sunday on HBO), reminds the viewer of how central live music is to the storytelling; entire songs are performed on camera, and world-class musicians are encouraged to play–and be–themselves. One of the many unexpected pleasures of Treme is how it captures the true tones and rhythms of how black folk speak when comfortable among ourselves; you hear those same rhythms in the raucous banter between brass solos and snare licks, and in the seductive patter of improvised piano riffs. Suddenly the prolific innovations of black jazz composers can be seen to spring from an obvious, inexhaustible source–the noises black Americans make when life kicks them from pillar to post. Just listen to the hooky syncopation in LaDonna’s manipulative sweet-talk, or the silken bump and slide of Antoine’s endless equivocations, and you’ll hear music waiting to happen.
Launching a TV show about post-Katrina devastation with a band named “Rebirth” to lead the Crescent City’s first second line parade after the levees broke would seem contrived if the iconic young combo didn’t already exist. Formed in 1982 by young men from the Treme who’d played together in high school, The Rebirth Brass Band built their fame via recordings, tours, and famous alums who bridge generations and genres. To have this ensemble (plus Rebirth alumn Kermit Ruffins) on tap to contribute dialogue, attitude, and Carnival anthems steeps the show in an authenticity that serves these working musicians almost as well as their HBO collaborators. Even Stafford Agee, the “horn double” who plays the trombone solos so convincingly mimed by the actor who plays Antoine Batiste, belongs to Rebirth. On the DVD commentary track, Treme creators Eric Overmyer and David Simon note that they could easily build a half-hour program around the group alone.
Originally co-founded by Phil Frazier (tuba/sousaphone), his brother Keith (bass drum), and Kermit Ruffins (trumpet), the band’s lineup expands or contracts according to the needs of each recording. (Rebirth of New Orleans‘ lineup is made up of Derrick Tabb on snare, Byron Bernard and Vincent Broussard on sax, Stafford Agee and Corey Henry on trombone, Glen Andrews and Derrick Shezbie on trumpet, plus the founding Frazier brothers; Treme faithful will also notice that composer David Bartholomew and guest vocalist Lionel Delpit appear in the credits.) Guest rappers, vocalists, and percussionists have appeared whenever the material dictates, but hybridized arrangements of Dixieland swing, uptempo rags, gospel, and Mardi Gras tunes are easily handled by the group’s core.
Heavy on original compositions–Stafford Agee’s “Dilemma” and Glen Andrews’ “AP Touro” are particular standouts–the 11 tracks on Rebirth of New Orleans fuse the dancefloor intensity of jump blues to the cerebral virtuosity of bebop with the cool discipline of a military drum corps. Long respected for their ability to fall out of a deep funk pocket and into a controlled moment of harmolodic freedom (and back) like a kid demonstrating difficult yo-yo tricks, Rebirth proves that serious jazz chops don’t have to kill an exuberant street party vibe. There are no rap or pop-soul covers like the ones that graced Hot Venom or We Come to Party, but neither does Rebirth try to recreate anything resembling a “vintage” New Orleans sound.
The Dixieland lilt of album opener “Exactly like You” lets a militaristic snare solo introduce the best tune Louis Armstrong never recorded. But this hat tip to cabaret sophistication is quickly abandoned for a range of uptempo instrumentals, ensemble chants and playful shoutouts geared toward crowd participation. Tracks like “The Dilemma,” “Why Your Feet Hurt,” and “What Goes Around” offer brief confessions or sly taunts that reveal the band’s collective personality in concise bursts of information.
As an index of new directions and new vitality within Rebirth (and the evolving category of “tuba-funk”), Rebirth of New Orleans is a rousing triumph. But if the band really wants to carry the brass band tradition further into the 21st century, which has embraced genres like reggaeton, crunk, and dubstep, it may have to turn one of LaDonna Baptiste-Williams’ many memorable one-liners into a hit. How about “I’m Gonna Kill That Man Twice”?