The D.C.-metro area has of late become a hotbed of commemorative activity. One weekend The Washington Post is dominated by coverage of the new World War II memorial; the next, of the death of former president Ronald Reagan. Both events enveloped the nation’s capital in mournful remembrance, though both ended up proving all too vague and impersonal. The WWII memorial — which lacks any names of those who were killed in the war — and Reagan’s funeral were saturated by overdramatic symbolism and backhanded patriotism. Fortunately, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Funeral for a Friend can serve as a reminder to the way memorials should be.
Funeral for a Friend is a reconstruction of an authentic New Orleans jazz funeral, in this case to pay tribute to Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, a Dirty Dozen founding member and New Orleans legend. Tuba Fats, who wasn’t one of the four founding members who played on Funeral, died shortly after the album was completed. The songs are traditional gospel offerings reinterpreted by the band, comprising the most authentic and enjoyable recording the band has made in recent years.
What differentiates the Dozen’s memorial with those the nation has recently faced is that theirs is undeniably celebratory, as each trumpet flourish or trombone glissando pointedly reminds the listener. The tradition in the jazz funeral is that the music remains slow and mournful (as in the drippy opening of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”) until the deceased’s family is out of earshot, at which point the skies open up and joyful music pours out (as in the peppy turnaround of the very same song).
The appeal of Funeral for a Friend lies not only in its thematic cohesiveness, but also in its fantastic sound. Though the Dozen does little to alter the tunes from the way they would traditionally be played at a jazz funeral, the arrangements often highlight the bluesy tones of the originals. Brass instruments are of course in the foreground, though swampy slide guitar playing and cameos from the Davell Crawford Singers help to vary the instrumentation. The result is a collection of songs with a strutting flow, fleshed out by the (curiously) eight members of the Dozen, all as spirited as they are skilled.
Funeral for a Friend is a beautiful tribute to a New Orleans legend, not to mention a glorious celebration of tradition. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band initially formed in the late ’70s to revive the tradition of brass bands and social clubs, and is only now, after ten albums, making its quintessential musical statement. Funeral for a Friend amazingly maintains a great amount of relevance today, even when funeral processions consist of chains of cars with blinking emergency lights rather than of parading musicians celebrating a life through music.