While Rahsaan has lately busied himself doing everything from running a label and producing sessions to heading various bands, Friday night Roland unveiled the latest thing in his arsenal. He stepped out as the leader of an ensemble devoted to New Orleans’ music and sensibility.
Traditional New Orleans jazz probably gets played less outside the Crescent City than any other genre. Many swing, hard bop, mainstream, avant-garde, soul-jazz, even proponents tend to devalue it. They view it like ragtime, maybe not a dead style, but a dated one with little value for 21st century types.
But Roland Barber’s band showed the crowd at the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Jazz Cave that there’s plenty of life left in that idiom so long as there are musicians who understand how to update without subverting the form.
The band not only featured Roland displaying his customary brilliance on trombone, but doing vocals and even occasionally the catchy, unmistakable sound of the conch seashell. Rahsaan also offered some fresh elements, playing clarinet and baritone much of the night. Outstanding pianist Bruce Dudley showed he’s every bit at home with the second line beat and its swaying pace as he is with Monk compositions.
The rhythm section included strong bassist (both acoustic and electric, mostly the latter in the second set) Jon Estes and a double rhythm treat in drummer Marcus Finnie and percussionist Giovanni Rodriguez.
Finnie was disciplined but still played with flash in the Crescent City marching-band style. Rodriquez brought what Jelly Roll Morton once labeled the “Spanish tinge” to the proceedings, adding excellent contributions on a host of instruments. He had several marvelous conga solos and explored plenty of alternate colors and textures.
During their extensive opening set, the menu ranged from an intriguing, personalized version of “When The Saints Go Marching In (with some revised lyrics to fit the occasion) and a wry rendition of Smiley Lewis’ “Mama Don’t Like” to the ambitious original “One For Shorty,” which Roland Barber wrote in tribute to the mercurial contemporary New Orleans master.
The band also neatly reworked a tune more usually associated with KC swing “Alright, OK, You Win,” into the night’s Louisiana groove, thanks to skillful rhythmic frameworks from Dudley, Finnie, Estes and Rodriguez. They built an ideal foundation for the Barber Brothers to instrumentally and vocally work off, Roland’s vocal perfectly establishing the mood, and their complementary solos cementing it.
The second set included more originals, beginning with a stirring piece “Double Take,” then another number Roland called “a fusion thing.” There were also a pair of first-rate ballad pieces. The best was a number dubbed “NOLA Tango,” a mix of blues and Latin featuring yet another fine arrangement and superb playing, with Dudley capably blending acoustic and electric voicings.
Roland and company ended the night with a longtime traditional jazz staple, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” though things didn’t stay somber and reverential very long. After effectively presenting the melody and setting the mood, Roland and Rahsaan shifted gears into a celebratory mode, with their rhythm mates energetically propelling them.
They even did a Jazz Cave version of the second line march, exiting the state and playing their instruments while walking through the audience, then returning on stage. Their robust finale concluded a delightful exposition of traditional jazz and New Orleans’ musical virtues.