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Album Review: The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - "What's Going On"


By Kalamu ya Salaam

Source: What’s Going On (xxx – 2006)
11 God Is Love.mp3 (4.13 MB)

For many reasons, there is no way that I can be objective about this musical statement. There are a lot of Katrina songs out there, but this project got the Crescent City spirit slapped all over its butt. This is a Charity (Hospital) baby!
From the opening downbeat with the sample of mad-mouth Mayor Ray-Ray Nagin, we all get the message that this isn’t going to be nothing nice.


When Marvin Gaye recorded this classic music, there was elegance to it, sweetness in the melodies and an easy roll in the rhythms. But, you see, this here is “knee-deep” in filthy flood water up to your asshole. The Dozen really got up for this masterful down-stroke.

You know an album got to be funky when the strong-ass vocals are the weakest part. Even rappers Chuck D and Guru sound tame next to these horns. It’s the heavy bottom these Dirty Dozen cats roll with: a sousaphone and a baritone sax. And not just any sousaphone and baritone; we’re talking Kirk Joseph and Roger Lewis.

Kirk’s sousaphone lines rival any combination of electric bass/computer bass. Kirk is as musical as an elephant dancing, and if you isn’t never seen a pachyderm hot-footing it, well, you better ask somebody, cause an elephant is amazingly light on its feet. That kind of nimbleness is how Kirk has pioneered a new way to play the big horn. And he is so musically advanced; he chooses what might never occur to anyone else.

    The Dirty Dozen Brass Band


Roger Lewis, in all his sartorial elegance, is both the old man of the band and the most “out” of the horn players. In large part, the success of this document is due to Roger’s directions—the way he holds the ensemble together and the furious solos he takes on baritone and soprano saxophone. I have always been crazy about this cat’s contribution to brass band music.
This brings me around to my man Gregory “Bloodie” Davis, one of the leaders of the Dirty Dozen. I’ve known these cats for decades, worked with them, marched with them in parades, wrote liner notes for one of the early albums, Live at Montreaux, produced all kinds of shows with them.


I’m telling you what I know: Bloodie is the quiet cat who takes care of business. He’s not the flashiest soloist nor even the best composer, but brother man is absolutely essential to the depth and longevity of the band. He’s the managerial and intellectual gorilla glue that’s kept the band functioning for almost four decades. If you think that’s easy, just try it. Try keeping a bunch of folk together for thirty-something years and you still be sane and they still be talking to each other.

The Dozen is the beginning of modern brass band music in
New Orleans
. I remember the group’s first hit, “Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.” And now they are dropping a post-Katrina remake of “What’s Going On.” This is dark and brooding music with an uplifting New Orleans bounce and wicked backbeats.


But there is also some wonderful jazz. I don’t mean “jazzy” or “jazz-like.” I mean true jazz with innovative arrangements that take the source music other places and strong solos throughout that let you know these cats are seriously talking with their horns. Plus, they got the street rhythms down to a tee, so no matter the occasion, there is a funk buttressing the feeling.

New Orleans during Katrina


Originally Gaye was writing about conditions in the Vietnam era and specifically about his brother who was a returning vet. The Dozen are dropping their heartfelt feelings about Katrina, so what we get is an interpretation of a message album to deliver a whole other message.

Right quick, I will tell you three things I like: 1. Almost all of the arrangements; 2. Almost all of the horn solos; and 3. Betty LaVette’s angry, snarling lead on “What’s Happening Brother.” She completely misinterprets the lyrics, but what she gets right is the feeling: a razor-sharp anger that is all in the
Crescent City
air these days.


Her attitude is a perfect snapshot of how people be feeling as we fight through our daze of trying to manage what’s left of our city, wrapped up in red-tape, re-flooded with bureaucratic bullshit, limping along with broken-down infrastructures, beat up and down by rampant crime, and blighted by pot holes and rats. (Literally. Big ol’ river rats running up and down the streets like it’s carnival time and they are the second liners!)


Did I say that Betty’s vocals misinterpret Gaye’s intentions but perfectly capture our city’s conundrums and contradictions, what we feeling and the anger in our eye as we watch the parade of political bullshit? Just check out the album. It’s all there up in the music.

Give thanks….


 With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.

 Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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