The Fattest of Tuesdays: Outer Borough Brass Band and Gordon Au’s Traditional New Orleans Jazz Jam Session 3-8-11

Fat Tuesday in New York City has always felt like a bit of a letdown to me, especially after I had the experience of celebrating Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans in 2007. NYC promoters tend to pull out their big guns for epic bashes on the preceding Saturday, such as (le) Poisson Rouge’s Mardi Gras Ball, featuring Dr. John, Soul Rebels Brass Band, and Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds with yours truly, DJ Cochon de Lait, playing Nola classics in between. The Mardi Gras Ball was such a blast, but since Tuesday is really THE day of celebration, it felt as though we New Yorkers had peaked too early.

What to do on Fat Tuesday? There certainly were plenty of options in the city, ranging from all-you-can-eat buffets of boiled crawfish and mediocre imitations of Louisiana fare to bars with bead-laden fratboys two-fisting cough syrup-filled hurricanes. Most music-centric alternatives offered shows with either Crescent City-sympathizing B and C-listers or quality bands who had some guy from New Orleans sitting in. The traditional jazz scene was represented with New Orleans’ excellent Loose Marbles making a rare New York City appearance before a bevy of eager Lindy hoppers at (le) Poisson Rouge’s Mardi Gras Ball. Wait a sec…(le) Poisson Rouge hosted a second event called the Mardi Gras Ball?!? Couldn’t they think of another name? Well, I guess it was somewhat fitting because balls tend to come in pairs.

Each of these options had some appeal, but I was drawn to the Parkside Lounge, where a free event for Loyola University alumni was showcasing the world debut of the Outer Borough Brass Band, the brainchild of Afroskull’s Joe Scatassa, a talented multi-instrumentalist who had recently acquired a sousaphone and decided to put it to good use. Second lining to brass band music just may be my favorite thing to do on Earth, so I knew I had to be there to encourage the debut of a brass band that NYC could call our own. I didn’t expect them to be all that great, but I considered my presence and support to be a bit of an investment in the future of a band that I desperately wanted to succeed because more opportunities for second lining equal more opportunities for unbridled joy.

I expected the Parkside to be filled to the rim with Brim, but it wasn’t all that packed when I arrived at 10PM. Nevertheless, it was a decent-sized crowd that immediately responded when the band began strutting in while playing “The Second Line, Part I,” an old chestnut that was popularized in the 1970s by a group of session musicians known as Stop, Inc. The Outer Borough Brass Band paraded their way into the room, forming a semi-circle in the crowd before gradually making their way to the stage.

Almost immediately, it became obvious that something was missing. Indeed, Afroskull drummer Jason Isaac was slated to play bass drum alongside someone else on snare, but Isaac had been sidelined after breaking his arm from falling on ice while chasing after an MTA bus. Yes, you read that correctly—the MTA is hazardous to your health. Drummers who have the New Orleans feel don’t exactly grow on trees, so the capable Dave Berger, who has backed up some of Alex McMurray’s NYC visits, took over on a drum kit. Berger is a quality drummer, but adding a full kit to a brass band just feels a little strange, and during both the opening number and the ensuing “Bourbon Street Parade,” the pure, captivating second line rhythms just weren’t there. Indeed, the bass-and-snare-drum combo is the engine that propels people to dance to brass bands with the sousaphone acting as the fuel for the engine. The horns are nice, but they’re a slightly less important part of the vehicle, like the brakes.

In other words, I was listening to a band play traditional brass band music without traditional instrumentation, and it felt a little weird. As if the drum situation wasn’t enough, Afroskull’s Matt Iselin was playing keyboards, which is the first time I can recall keys with a traditional brass band. Apparently, there was supposed to be a guitarist/vocalist, but he dropped out with short notice, so Iselin’s keys and vocals were a late inning replacement. This made me think the band’s first album should be called The Disabled List.

As slightly awkward as the entire situation may have been, something great happened on the third number. Scatassa started playing a now iconic bassline, and when his compatriots jumped in on the melody of “Blues For Ben,” the band suddenly coalesced. Frankly, never in my life have I heard a spontaneous transformation like this. It was as if all of the jumbled pieces of this aggregation instantaneously locked into place, immediately resulting in a confident band with their own unique and vibrant sound. The keys worked. The drumset worked. The horns really worked…and everyone was loving it!

From this point forward, the Outer Borough Brass Band launched themselves into Nola classics, such as “Lil’ Liza Jane,” “Mardi Gras Mambo,” and “Big Chief,” playing with funky abandon. Saxophonist Scott Borgeois, a utility man who backs many Nola residents passing through town, was taking the lead, playing bold lines and gleefully dueling with aggressive trombonist Mark Miller, while trumpeter Jeff Pierce was clearly relishing his rare opportunity to summon the ghost of King Oliver. Scatassa proved to be shockingly proficient on the mammoth sousaphone, playing basslines with a remarkable degree of skill for a guy who had only picked up the instrument two months ago. And when it came time for the aforementioned “Big Chief,” Iselin went berserk on the keys and vocals, but Berger blew everyone away with a hypnotic drum solo that left the entire crowd transfixed.

By now the crowd was relishing every note of music, but once the band opted to play Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a lot of folks quickly looked at their watches and decided to depart in hopes of placating the ugly spectre of Wednesday morning work. It was a shame that they picked this moment to leave because the gang really nailed this tune, playing it with the proper dynamics and feel it requires. All too often, musicians fumble this song like a middle school jazz band (and if you were in middle school jazz band, you DEFINITELY played “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” at some point), but the Outer Borough Brass Band utilized their novel instrumentation and experience as jazz artists to make the most out of what can easily be a clichéd number.

In closing with the fitting “All Over Now,” the band paraded out of the room, leaving a den of thrilled fans in their wake. (Okay, that’s not entirely true, as there were three people doing heroin in the bathroom, and nothing could really thrill them, but the bouncer did provide them with a first-class escort out of the building.)

While the lineup will likely shift, I sincerely hope the Outer Borough Brass Band attempts to get more gigs because they’ve stumbled upon a truly original sound and can fill an important musical void while bringing lots of joy and sweat to the audiences of New York City.

After the show, I planned on heading to nearby Mona’s for a traditional New Orleans jazz jam session. Like any good music fan, I attempted to recruit each and every musician in the Parkside Lounge to join me, as this jam was right up their alleys, but they all had other plans. Scatassa was intrigued but concerned about showing up unannounced. I pleaded, “Dude. If you walk through the front door with the sousaphone, I guarantee they will part like the Red Sea and make way for you, if not worship you unconditionally.” No dice. He wasn’t biting.

I made a quick pit stop at Snack Dragon for a tasty pulled pork taco. I love this little shop, and it’s always a very interesting visit after midnight. On this night, I found myself deep in an entertaining conversation with a couple of friendly strangers, charting the death of modern music as a result of Autotune and pondering whether Charlie Sheen is proof that narcissistic assholes gravitate toward cocaine or whether cocaine turns people into narcissistic assholes like Charlie Sheen. The question went unresolved.

I made it to Mona’s around 1AM and discovered a packed house, which was rather impressive for a (now) Wednesday morning. Within seconds, I was glad that my earlier pleas had been overruled because had we showed up with a sousaphone, half the joint would have had to leave in order to fit the instrument inside. The band was playing at the far end of the bar and serendipitously, I was able to grab a seat nearby. There was also a backroom with the remnants of a “New Orleans buffet,” and my first thought was “Damn, I shouldn’t have eaten before I came here,” but after I saw the buffet, I quickly thought, “Damn, I’m glad I don’t have to eat here. This ‘food’ could kill someone.”

The jam session was led by trumpeter Gordon Au, who has made a name for himself by leading and playing in numerous local swing bands. With members of the Grand Street Stompers, the Cangelosi Cards, and other swing groups on hand, it was clear that the musicians were very familiar with one another and had no qualms about jumping in to add their two cents to a traditional jazz standard. No one was amplified, aside from a vintage microphone (I think it may have been a Shure Model 55 Unidyne) that both New Orleans’ Jayna Morgan and NYC’s own Tamar Korn utilized to deliver their precise vocals. The great Gordon Webster took plenty of turns on the upright piano, but without amplification, it was a real struggle to hear him, although he is so talented that it was absolutely worth it to try.

The bar was loud, particularly the area near the front door, and when the talking became unbearable, I annoyingly led my end of the bar in some strident shushing that remarkably shut up most of the room…at least for a few seconds. The more I drank, the more bullish I became with the shushing, although the people who wanted to hear the music seemed to appreciate it.

When I hear this type of music, I immediately want to get up and start dancing, but that was impossible in this venue. Not only was there no room at all to dance, but there weren’t any followers, aside from a couple of well-seasoned instructors who were way out of my league…and also way more sober than I. Instead, I took the opportunity to just sit, watch, and listen, and it was remarkable because I don’t think I’ve been able to truly do that during the last three years that I’ve been swing dancing. This was a golden opportunity to appreciate these musicians as master craftsmen who can play with the music in ways that extend far beyond the art of making people dance.

And then Naomi Uyama got up to sing. I’ve taken a Lindy hop class from her, and I know her as a very talented teacher and a phenomenal dancer. While I had been aware that she was also a singer, I had never really heard her voice until now. And all I can say is wow. She was so effortless in her delivery, and her vocals just washed over the crowd like the tide gently rolling in at sunrise. The simplicity and purity of her voice was simply stunning, and after she had finished, I wanted to find out why she isn’t in a band on a full-time basis, but after numerous beers, I believe my question came out like this: “Naomi, you were fantastic. Your singing was beautiful, and I wanna know how we can get you into a regular band because I think that you really have a thbbmffffbbbllddddllluuuuummmsssssssssssszzzzzz…”

I believe she waited for me to finish drooling and then said something about always being out of the city on extended weekends for teaching excursions. She then deftly waited until my head was turned and quickly sidestepped away to a position that was free from the noxious fumes emanating from my rambling mouth. I can’t blame her. I would have run away from me had I had the chance.

The band finally wound down around 4AM, at which point Gordon Webster took control of the piano and went to town solo. Widely regarded as one of the most talented musicians and bandleaders in the global swing scene, this guy would be revered far and wide if he traveled in less dance-centric circles. He just has such tremendous command of the keys and plays with incredible depth and feel. From a dancer’s perspective, when someone plays with the touch and flair of Gordon Webster, he makes you into a better dancer.

At this point, we were past the legal 4AM closing time, but the drinks impressively continued to flow. Thankfully, I knew enough to realize that I needed to quit while I was behind, and when the piano ceased to play a little before 4:30, that was my cue to stumble out the door.

I was on my way home when I suddenly realized that I was oh-so-close to Artichoke Basille’s Pizzeria, an incredibly popular hole-in-the-wall slice joint that serves amazing pizza into the wee wee hours between midnight and day. Typically, there’s a massive line of drunk people outside of Artichoke after midnight, but I figured I would have a minimal wait at a quarter-to-five in the morning on a schoolnight. Sure enough, I was right, and I walked right in to grab a slice of their margherita. Artichoke is well known for its artery-clogging, cream-laden, spinach-artichoke slice, but I believe the real gold is in either the margherita slice or the Sicilian slice, both of which have a similarly salty flavor with a crisp, crunchy crust that gives way to a soft and chewy center. Mangia!

Well, under the beer-soaked circumstances, I knew it was doubtful that I’d escape with only one slice in my stomach, so I also opted for a Sicillian slice. I was pretty excited because I saw them closing up shop and thought that I was going to get the last slice they served that morning (as if there’s some prize for being the idiot who stayed up the latest), but then some dude walked in and crushed my dreams.

I’m not really sure what happened after that. I have vague recollections of riding on a bus, but that could have been something I’d longingly visualized while making the lengthy walk to Union Square. I don’t quite know how I got there, but I do remember boarding an uptown 6 train. Then I recall having an internal argument as to whether or not the E trains would be under construction at this hour (around 5:15ish). I was absolutely befuddled as to which stop I should choose to make my transfer, but the debate was all for naught when I nodded off and awakened on the Upper East Side. I quickly got off the train and then walked to the other side to catch a downtown train. There’s a good chance I may have fallen asleep on that train, too, having to repeat the process again. I just remember having no idea which stop I needed (the practice of thinking was very challenging at that point, but in my defense, the MTA loves refusing to provide vital construction and re-routing information inside the train cars, where such information might actually help people), and then I finally gave up when I chose 59th Street, figuring I’d take an N to Astoria and then just crawl home for 17 blocks. To my amazement, a Queens-bound R-train appeared, and I hopped on that sucker…and promptly fell asleep. I only missed my stop by one or two stations, so that wasn’t too bad, and after quite an odyssey, I arrived at my destination at 6:45 AM. In all, it was a 30 minute ride that took 90 minutes, but on the bright side, I apparently got a lot of rest along the way.

For anyone worried about my safety, i.e. my mother, I can happily tell you that most New York City criminals are smart enough to be in bed by 5AM, so there isn’t much to worry about in the morning. At that early hour, the trains are mostly filled with sad people who are begrudgingly commuting to work, and they want nothing to do with the guy who was out partying all night for fear he might puke on their shoes. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t in that bad of shape—I was just really tired, but the commuters steered cleared of me anyway. Again, I cannot blame them, as I would have done the same.

And so at 6:45AM, I exited the subway station, plugged in my headphones, cranked up Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Watcha Wanna,” and then I followed the instructions of the song, strutting down the sidewalk, passionately twirling my handkerchief high in the air as if the fate of the entire world depended on it. Sure, I got plenty of stares from normal folks, but why the Hell would I care? I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, celebrating life the way I love, ending my day with my own little second line. Yehyourite. Life is good.

Happy Mardi Gras!

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