Keith and Philip Frazier and the other members of the Rebirth Brass Band have to answer two questions every time they play a gig: 1 – Are you going to play some traditional stuff? 2 – Are you going to play your own stuff?
The answer, Keith said in an interview for BandWagon, depends on the location. If they’re home in New Orleans, where brass bands play as often as bluegrass bands play in Kentucky, the Rebirth will most likely play its famous hybrid of funk, second line, jazz, hip-hop, soul and marching band brass that got them a Grammy in 2012 for Best Regional Roots Album, the first album to win that category, for Rebirth of New Orleans.
“But if we’re in Wichita, Kansas, a city that may not understand the tradition of a brass band, we may play ‘When The Saints Go Marching In,’ a tune that they can relate to and understand,” Keith said in a phone interview for BandWagon.
Even today, that’s what it means to be a brass band: That new style may be lost on those unfamiliar with them, and so it’s up to Rebirth to keep the tradition going, even as many consider them one of the most innovative in that tradition’s long history.
The Frazier brothers started the band in 1983, while they marched together in high school. Philip was asked to put a group together for a band booster function. They were a hit, so they decided to test themselves by playing for tips on the more demanding Bourbon Street circuit. They actually made some money and played occasionally as a hobby — as a summer job, it was better than cutting lawns — until they played at a youth organization called Rebirth. The band, especially snare drum player Derrick Tabb, continues to do a lot of work for organizations that help kids. And that’s all it took.
The band continues to separate itself from the long line of excellent brass bands to come out of New Orleans, Keith said, even if he likes the music they’re producing. Rebirth leans toward a more mellow sound by quieting the trombones just a bit, using the tuba to play bass lines you might hear in a funk band (courtesy of Philip) and playing the kind of dirty, soulful tunes such as HBNS (that’s “Hot Buck-Naked Sex,” folks) a tune off their album Move Your Body, inspired by a line from Eddie Murphy. The music itself comes from the brothers’ marching band days, which honestly, for them, was as simple as red beans and rice.
“A lot of the bands coming up, they are really loud,” Keith said. “We’re not as harsh. We almost have more of a concert band set-up.”
The show Treme, an HBO production created by David Simon, who also did The Wire, helped the general public answer questions about brass bands. Rebirth appeared on it many times, giving them more of a boost than even the Grammy, although that obviously helped as well.
“That show provoked a LOT of interest,” Keith said. “It’s a very big country, but the bigger cities know who we are now.”
Even so, Rebirth DOES sound like a brass band, and with so many of the newer bands playing hip-hop and other styles that don’t reflect the tradition, the Fraziers continue to feel a responsibility to stoke the flame a bit and make people remember the past, lest it fade into history.
“We’re not trying to recreate the wheel,” Keith said. “We do like what the new bands are doing, but they are all doing the same thing. We want to do something different.”
That means working on a new album that may be drastically different than anything Rebirth’s ever done before. The band put out an album nearly every year since 1984, but it’s been five years since they released Move Your Body. They’ve been spending that time looking for a new direction, even as they continue to tour and play their own hits as well as traditional songs.
“We are trying different grooves,” Keith said. “It’ll still be Rebirth. But it’s gonna be something different.”
Catch the Grammy winning Rebirth Brass Band on Friday, October 25th at Washington’s in Fort Collins with Emma Mays & The Hip (tickets at washingtonsfoco.com) and Saturday, October 26 at The Gothic Theater in Englewood.