High and Mighty Brass Band! Cooks Up Funk In Chinatown
Jefrey A. Mavraganis October 19, 2014
Doyers is a worm-like street that connects Pell to The Bowery and sits unnoticed as it exists to house a post office and a tea parlor whose hours will have you dry and insulted. It’s no longer the city of the 70s. No coke powdered tables in risqué midtown burlesque clubs. No appearances by Warhol at The Odeon. Andy’s not home and neither am I. Instead I walk through the remanufactured city- a New York who’s kept a thirst quenching roster of spots filled with talent to satisfy your nightly excursions. While searching for Peking Duck I find I’m exposed to the sound of tightened embouchures. But as it ushers freshmen to their tuition funded taxis, it drew amateurs closer wanting more. Curious, I nudge swiftly down the block to learn the rowdy sound is wedged between cheap dim sum and brightly lit Newports. At first it’s difficult to catch a view of the two century year old door hinged to repel sobriety, but with other senses in tact I hear maracas and wonder what in the world could be cooking up this much excitement on a Tuesday.
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Of course the noise is coming from Apotheke, a bar known for it’s crafty alcoholic concoctions. I walk in and order something smart off the menu, but am immediately in awe of the fling between the bar back and the band, between the spit valves and the patrons. It’s rare to see a crowd of musically interested, sauced-up individuals crammed together in a venue of that size and not be totally focused on themselves. This audience fed off the musicians in a way that so infrequently exposes itself. I see initials inscribed on the outer bell of the tuba posing riddles to those without a good line of sight, but I happen to see further. A banner hung on the aging brick wall behind him and read Hīgh & Mīghty Brass Band! The song ended and the performers reciprocated by giving us what we all came for and perhaps a little more. What they’re really giving us is an intimate performance. The zest of New Orleans.
I placed my hunger aside to dizzy down a few more drinks while HMBB! continued their well measured set with what became an instant favorite. Opening with rim shots on the snare, Lil’ Mary invited the crowd close and enticed with the bass and gentle high-hat strokes. This track was slowly building, layering and giving us something to feel sexy about. It began pretty chill but quickly progressed, eventuating in a natural crescendo leading to classic guitars. Our bodies take shape as we move and the whole room was waiting- spilling their cocktails and not giving a damn. They knew it, and then it came. Three minutes into the song everybody was singing back at them. I was singing back at them and I didn’t even know the words. The performance left me not only wanting to buy a tee shirt, but it left me reminded of the gems that hide in the quieter corners of Manhattan.
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Last week I had the opportunity to interview Evan Howard, who plays percussion for HMBB! about life in the city as a musician and what it means to evolve musically in this often under appreciated sub-genre of funk and hip-hop.
I’d like to discuss a few questions with you about life in the city as a musician. Firstly, where are you from originally and if not New York, what is it about this town that attracted you?
I’m originally from St. Louis, Missouri and moved to New Orleans when I was 18. I lived in Nola until 2005 and moved to New York just six months before Katrina. I sort of always knew that I would live in New York or at least had plans to since I really got into jazz during high school. It’s sort of the mecca for all things in the arts world and it’s where most of the stuff I was into was going down.
Besides the impossible rents what are some of the challenges that artists are continuously dealing with compared to other large cities?
I’d say the biggest challenge besides keeping the band the afloat financially is coordinating everybody’s busy schedules! Everyone in the group is a full time working musician and has a constantly changing schedule. If it was a trio it’d be a lot easier, but there’s 9 of us!
You guys call your affluent roster “revolving.” Is HMBB! known for inviting other musicians to join them on stage? If so, how do you remain tightly knit performers having to train yourselves to constantly feed off of new people?
It’s in the brass band tradition to have subs in the group. Most likely just out of necessity I’d say… Brass bands get hired for all sorts of events and if your regular guys are busy you have to call a sub in order to make the gig happen. At this point we have a pretty strong group of core players. There’s still subs every once in a while, but most of them have played with us several times. Playing with the same group of people is really what it’s all about. Its the only way to develop a real band sound.
Another way one might perceive the term “revolving” is that you guys are multi-instrumentalists which is something we’re seeing a lot of. Do you play any other instruments? Also, how long have you played drums and how did you initially become involved in it?
Yes, a lot of the guys in the band can play multiple instruments. I also play a little bit of piano and use it to write music. The piano is my favorite tool for composition because it’s all laid right out there right in front of you . I have been playing drums since I was a kid. My first experience with percussion was actually when my mother and I took hand drum lessons at a local drum shop. I would always wander into the drum set room and eventually started taking private lessons on the kit.
What do you look forward to when you get on stage and how has your live performance evolved throughout your career? Have you found any cultural differences between playing in Nola as compared to NYC?
There’s a lot of things that go into making a live performance really successful, but when it’s good it’s amazing! I’m always thinking of ways to improve and adapt the band’s live performance to make it as good as possible. I review our past shows and get ideas from watching other acts. The crowds are definitely different in Nola and NYC… I guess the first thing that comes to mind is people are more likely to dance down south and maybe more likely to sit and listen intently up north. So if you’re making people dance in NYC, you’re doing something right.
I remember hearing Lil’ Mary when I caught you folks at Apotheke. That song for me was all about the horns. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired the song?
I got the idea for “Lil Mary” from the old New Orleans tune “Little Liza Jane”. If you listen to the melodies of each song you can hear the similarities. I wanted something that was a little darker and had a hip-hop feel, but still didn’t loose it’s connection to the original influence.
Round 1, the debut LP was released in 2010. Are we going to see a sophomore record? If so, tell me a little bit about what we can expect and what you think works best when capturing your truest sound?
Yes! There’s several new tunes and we plan to put out a new recording real soon. I really liked how we recorded the first album and plan to do the next one in a very similar fashion. We did it all live straight to tape! I feel it’s the best way to capture this type of music. The next album will feature not only all new music, but essentially an entirely new band!
You can hear HMBB! Tuesday nights at Apotheke, 9 Doyers Street and online athttp://highandmightybrassband.com