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Plus and Minus 12 : The Dirty Dozen Brass Band Pares Down Its Name and Embellishes Its Pop-Funk Sound and Jazzy Style


The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is dead.

The irreverent, irrepressible purveyors of traditional New Orleans marching-band music cross-pollinated with bebop, funk and rock influences have abandoned their long-standing all-acoustic lineup, adding electric keyboards, guitar and bass and a trap-kit drummer, accentuating the pop-funk elements of their music and re-christening themselves the Dirty Dozen.

Some will be appalled; others will be delighted. Fans from Orange County will have the chance to judge for themselves tonight when the band kicks off the Long Beach Museum of Art's Summer Concert Series.

Newly signed to Mammoth Records after four albums with Columbia, the new Dirty Dozen's first release for the label, "Ears to the Wall," is set for July 9. An advance copy reveals an almost startling new approach: Whinnying synthesizers, "Shaft"-like wah-wah guitars, spanking bass lines and funk backbeats now accompany the customarily playful sousaphone runs, creative ensemble brass charts and classy, masterful trumpet playing of leader Gregory Davis.

(The band now consists of original members Davis, Kevin Harris on tenor sax, Roger Lewis on baritone and soprano saxes, and Efrem Towns on trumpet, along with Revert Andrews on trombone, Julius McKee on sousaphone and bass, Terence Higgins on drums, Richard Knox on keyboards and Jimmy Moliere on guitar.)

Davis says the new sound came out of the band's 1995 tour with the Black Crowes and from associations in concert and on records with other rockers including the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Los Lobos.

"We're not going to be limited," Davis, 39, said during a recent phone interview. "We did that Black Crowes tour, and we had to adapt a little bit to that crowd. We couldn't go out there and browbeat them and say, 'This is jazz!' I think that having to entertain and play for that crowd sort of led to doing this particular record.

"And going to Mammoth, we knew they were not looking for just a jazz band, although they're not going to stymie us and tell us we can't play jazz."

He said that being stymied is what led to the band's acrimonious parting with Columbia. In 1993, he said, the label had dictated that the group record "Jelly," a tribute album to New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.


Davis was outraged at the time that he wasn't being allowed to follow up on the group's previous album, "Open Up," and its compositional advances. The 1991 album had shown tremendous artistic growth, particularly in Davis' stunning, original jazz suite, "The Lost Souls of Southern Louisiana," an Ellingtonian work of tremendous emotional depth, sophistication and beauty.

Now it may be somewhat ironic that, finally free from Columbia, the group now is taking off in a decidedly commercial, less complex direction. Has the band changed gears because it wants to move in a poppier direction, or is this simply an attempt to sell more albums?

"It's both," Davis answered. "Certainly there's a yearning to sell more records. We want to get through to another audience, because there's more of them out there. I can do all the same jazz festivals year in and year out, but there are other listeners who don't come to those festivals, who have different notions of what jazz is and is not and what you can or cannot do with it."

Is he concerned that the band may be accused of pandering to rock audiences? Is he worried about the reaction of, say, fellow New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, who has been a one-man force in the cause of jazz traditionalism?

"First of all, Wynton Marsalis is one of the few jazz artists who doesn't have to worry about [making a good living]," Davis replied. "He will be taken care of. For us, we grew up entertaining people, making them sweat and dance and want to get involved with the music. His music has never been conducive to that.

"I saw him at a recent jazz festival, and he knows what it is we're doing, just like he knows what it is his brother does." (Marsalis has criticized his sax playing brother Branford for commercialism.)


"He may not like or agree with what we're doing, but he has never been impolite or disrespectful about it. He's entitled to his opinions. I believe in what he's trying to accomplish and what he's doing, but there's a place and a market for what we're doing too."

Davis added that this is just one album and that it does not necessarily signal a permanent shift in style and that, indeed, the band is talking about releasing a traditional New Orleans record.


In any case, this wouldn't be the first time he and the band have been accused of selling out. Since its inception, the Dirty Dozen have been charged with compromising traditional New Orleans jazz by assimilating bebop and myriad influences.

"They've yelled 'sellout' at us from the very beginning," Davis noted. "People always said we wouldn't last, and here it is almost 20 years later. And you know what? In another 20 years I'll be able to turn around and say, 'Hey, I'm still here.' "

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