Just after the halfway point on Rebirth of New Orleans, the most recent album from the Rebirth Brass Band, there's a moment that encapsulates the outfit's indomitable spirit. Across six suave minutes, "What Goes Around Comes Around" moves from slinky sax and trumpet solos to raucous horn salvos set to lively Latin rhythms. At the apex of the group's most exuberant outburst, the hullabaloo fades, and the players begin chanting the song's title before a booming belly laugh interrupts them. "This is the rebirth of New Orleans!" the voice declares. "What goes around comes around!"
This August, New Orleans will find itself eight years removed from Hurricane Katrina, the catastrophic storm that flooded and fractured the Crescent City. But the town's culture — and its music scene — would not be defeated. The Rebirth Brass Band, which this year celebrates three decades in action, has been a key flag bearer for that cause. They performed at the reopening of the Superdome in 2006 and again a year later at the homecoming for the New Orleans Hornets, who spent a year playing ball in Oklahoma City while their arena was refurbished. Rebirth Brass Band will stop in the Queen City on June 20, performing at the Chop Shop. Rebirth is a symbol of New Orleans' resilience, an honor that founding member Philip Frazier accepts with pride.
"New Orleans is always in a rebirth process," the tuba player says. "Our band is called Rebirth. The CD is all about the rebirth of New Orleans, so the name fits perfectly. Being a part of that culture is a great feeling. We're all part of the culture of New Orleans. We are New Orleans. We've seen the good. We've seen the bad. We've seen the worse. We did revitalize. The city is back along with our music, which is even better for the band."
Rebirth was founded in 1983 by Frazier, his bass-drumming brother, Keith, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who left in 1993 to concentrate on the more restrained Barbecue Swingers. Like many Bayou bands of their generation, Rebirth took cues from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Among the first to breed bebop and funk with traditional New Orleans jazz, that outfit helped solidify one of the city's most iconic sounds.
Rebirth broadens the palette, incorporating more aggressive funk rhythms and tinging melodies with elements of soul and R&B. Before 2011's Rebirth of New Orleans, which cleaves closely to the group's local roots, the outfit had experimented heavily with hip-hop rhythms and textures. In every instance, these explorations are accomplished with joyous confidence, imbuing even the most egregious missteps with winning charm.
"What we're doing right now, I didn't expect it at all," Frazier says. "It's all a blessing." He speaks quickly, with a deep Southern drawl. His answers are peppered with words like "blessed" and "lucky." He knows better than most how hard it is to keep playing for so many years.
In 2008, Frazier endured a stroke. The episode left him unable to play his beloved instrument; part of his phone number spells out T-U-B-A. He threw his passion into recovery, returning to the stage shortly after being released from rehab in early 2009. It wasn't long before he was again bolstering Rebirth's robust rhythms.
The group's longevity hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2012, Rebirth of New Orleans was awarded a Grammy for "Best Regional Roots Music Album." The ensemble has shared stages with internationally known acts such as The Grateful Dead and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rebirth's recorded collaborations have been equally impressive. Most recently, the outfit joined John Fogerty for a lively recreation of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary." The track also features Jennifer Hudson and Allen Toussaint.
"It's all about getting the word out," Frazier explains. "We play all kinds of music. We're a funky brass band. Grateful Dead are funky. Red Hot Chili Peppers are funky. We're a brass band strictly by the instruments, but our raw energy and their raw energy, it works perfect together. If anybody can make it work, we can."
As for the future, Frazier's dreams are pretty big. Later this year, Rebirth plans to record a new album, which he hopes will secure the group's second Grammy. He'd like to win at least five before he's done, and he won't be quitting anytime soon.
"Till we can't play no more," he says, when asked how long Rebirth will be around. "I play every day like it's my last day on Earth."