Everything old is new again — at least for New Orleans-based funk/jam outfit The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who have been making records and touring longer than many of their fans have been alive. According to saxophonist Roger Lewis, who has been with the group since its official start in 1977, today's Dozen is a different band that it was back then.
That change is made clear by the group's 25th anniversary reissue of My Feet Can't Fail Me Now. The Dozen have performed the album in its entirety during this year's shows. According to press, over time, songs such as the title track have become show stoppers, while other songs have "been on the proverbial shelf too long."
When it comes to the lineup, change is a given. Back then, "We had two drummers, sousaphone, trombone, two trumpets, two saxophones. It was all acoustic," says Lewis. "Now we duplicate it with an electric guitar and a set drummer."
He adds, "Music you haven't played in a long time, you've got to relearn it and you've got to practice it. That very first CD was so accurate. We were younger and we were hungrier. Oh my god, I don't even know if I can play that fast."
My Feet was recoded on Concord Jazz Record's George Wein Collecetion. "George Wein started all these jazz festivals and he took us all over the world and put us on these different festivals, which really helped us to get known internationally," says Lewis. Two-and-a-half decades later, the Dozen have released nearly 20 albums (including live records and collaborations) and have worked with everyone from pianist Dr. John and jazz keyboardist John Medeski, to soul singer Joss Stone and turntablist DJ Logic.
"We've collaborated with Manhattan Transfer, The Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco," Lewis ticks off a seemingly endless list. "Branford Marsalis, Dave Matthews, we've got a platinum and a gold record with Modest Mouse. Norah Jones performed with us before she blew up to be a superstar." (That was on 2002's Medicated Magic.)
Topping his list might be "The project we did with Widespread Panic. And Elvis Costello. And Dizzie Gillespie. Yeah," Lewis laughs, "it's hard to say a favorite, you know, because all of these guys are great musicians and great artists and it's always a treat and a pleasure to perform with these people."
It was through sharing stages that the Dozen met Warren Haynes in New Orleans years ago, and that connection has the band (who have frequented Asheville since the opening of The Orange Peel, thanks to its Big Easy connections) playing this year's Christmas Jam.
It will be interesting to see what jams evolve, at the Jam, between the Dozen’s members and other performers — perhaps a brassy revamp of Steve Miller’s “Wild Mountain Honey”? Here’s hoping.
It’s not really too far-fetched: Half a decade ago, musicians from the Dozen teamed up with local players Bryon McMurry, Jason Krekel, Woody Wood and honorary locals Larry and Jenny Keel to record The Bluebrass Project’s The Same Pocket, Vol. 1: Bluegrass Meets the Big Easy. That particular experiment juxtaposed trombones and mandolin, tuba and banjo for a sound both age-old and contemporary. It also brought new listeners to both the bluegrass and brass-band genres.
Collaborations, personnel changes and a willingness to evolve with the times keep music — and audiences — current for the Dozen. "Every CD we put out has always been different from the one before,” says Lewis. The band's last CD was a tribute to Marvin Gaye; they're currently at work on a collaboration with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.
“As the years go by we'll revisit the work in our past. We go back and play music from Jelly Roll Morton, Live: Mardi Gras in Montreaux or Open Up: Whatcha Gonna Do For the Rest of Your Life,” says Lewis. “The music that we played when we first started out hasn't been exposed to this audience we have now, so it's still fresh and new to anybody whose listening to the Dirty Dozen now. "
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.