In the mere half-century that snare drummer Benny Jones has been marching through streets of New Orleans, the repertoire of brass bands has shown a determined flexibility, absorbing new currents of popular song, while holding the traditional sound solidly in place. If Jones is the guiding force of the Tremé Brass Band, his uncle and veteran sidekick, the lithe bass drummer known to all as Uncle Lionel Batiste, is the spiritual pulse of the group. The two stalwarts are smiling on the cover of their latest CD, New Orleans Music. The CD cover photo features Uncle Lionel in a button-down white shirt, bow-tie, sailor hat and the sunglasses he wears night and day, poised aside Benny, with a gentle smile, the snare sticks resting on his shoulder, both men behind drums.
The Tremé band has paraded, performed and recorded with various jazzmen over the years. The new disc on Mardi Gras Records, produced by Warren Hildebrand, is one of the band’s best. Roger Lewis, a veteran of the Dirty Dozen, lays out a sweet lyrical essence on alto sax and provides depth on the baritone. Julius McKee’s rolling tuba work drives the melodic embellishment on “Grazing in the Grass,” the song Hugh Masakela made famous, with a bravura trumpet and warm echoes of South African township music. The Tremé version is steeped in the interplay of ensemble jazz, with Kenneth Terry’s trumpet and trombonists Corey Henry and Eddie King Jr. in an easy, jostling polyphony.
Instrumentals such as “Sing On” with the rising clarion melody of church song, and Bruce Brackman’s silken clarinet lines refit a swinging dirge that connects Benny Jones’s guys to bygone groups like the fabled Eureka Brass Band, which was led by trumpeter Percy Humphrey in his 1950s’ prime. A half-century later, Tremé displays a tight melodic cohesion that few of the younger funk-driven groups can muster.
Perhaps the best song of the baker’s dozen is a rarely heard standard of the old brass repertoire, “Bugle Boy March,” arranged by Jones and producer Hildebrand with ripples and flourishes to remind us that the parade fare from the 1920s through the late ’50s clung to its military origins. The essence of the march is still a heartbeat in the traditional jazz bands including the Young Tuxedo, led by Gregg Stafford, and Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band. But the improvisational dimension has always been the elastic in brass band repertories, borrowing and refashioning pop standards of the day. Tremé reaches back to an older song bag on this recording, with a version of “You Are My Sunshine” – shades of Gov. Jimmie Davis! – without sung lyrics, and a sturdy version of “Canal Street Blues.”
The album does have its weak spots. The vocals on “Caledonia,” a buoyant jump blues as sung by Louis Jordan, is muddied by poor enunciation and little pump to the singing; “Mack the Knife” sadly falls flat, too.
But the throaty tenderness of Uncle Lionel’s vocals of celestial vistas on “I’ll Fly Away” – “Some glad day/when my life is over/ I’ll fly away” – carries the fervor of a down-home Sunday service. In like measure, the band’s take on “Amazing Grace” as a dirge puts sorrow and sweetness in equal parts.
Among the personnel who give the recording its heft are pianist Mari Watanabe, banjoist Carl LeBlanc, tenor sax player Khari Lee, and Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell who handle hand percussions, behind the drumming duo of Jones and Batiste.
Uncle Lionel has become an elder statesman of the Tremé neighborhood and the larger jazz community. He marched as a kid in a color-coordinated green outfit for the Square Deal Social & Pleasure Club, before people had television. Now, in an age of hand computers and lasers in the jungle, he ambles along with a hipster’s grin and gentlemen of jazz. It is always a pleasure to see and hear Uncle Lionel, even if his pipes are sometimes a tad worse for the wear.
In 2006, the National Endowment for the Humanities gave the Tremé Brass Band a National Heritage Fellowship Award, a prestigious tribute that’s particularly notable for the careers of Benny, Uncle Lionel and Roger Lewis. The band carries a tradition in its music, a memory of the city registered in the songs as much as the uniforms they wear and body language they convey. They do so in parades through the streets or bandstand performances for people of all ages.