By now, New Orleans' famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band has become so versed in Crescent City jazz sass and second-line funk that it can afford to fly in the face of tradition every now and then.
Take Tomorrow, the leadoff track to the ensemble's ultra-fun new album Twenty Dozen. After being called to attention with an alert drum roll and a jittery guitar groove, the horns gather over a sunny, soulful strut that hints more at ska and calypso than at the street music conventions of the band's home turf. But as it cruises to a finish, the percussion starts in on a double-time riff and the party takes on a gospel feel. The saints, it seems, can't keep from marching in on the Dirty Dozen's fun.
No one can accuse the Dirty Dozen of being great mathematicians this time out. The title suggests a milestone, but Twenty Dozen refers neither to the band's longevity, which now exceeds 35 years, nor to the number of albums it has made — this is just its 12th. If you want to get down to specifics, the official band roster these days lists just seven players. But there is a very different strength of numbers at work in Twenty Dozen.
For starters, there is no running theme to the record, as was the case with Jelly (a Jelly Roll Morton tribute), Funeral for a Friend (a splendid collection of spirituals) and What's Going On (a reimagining of Marvin Gaye's classic 1971 album as a post-Hurricane Katrina prayer). The guest list is also refreshingly limited this time to lesser-known but supremely soulful players like Nigel Hall, who provides the effervescent Hammond organ voice on Tomorrow, the Booker T. Jones-flavored soul meditation Git Up and the Tower of Power-esque We Gon' Roll.
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In short, Twenty Dozen is the most unencumbered Dirty Dozen album in ages. The innovations are still plentiful, though. Trippin' Inside a Bubble transforms the group's soul-savvy sound into a quasi-rumba; Jook lets the brass move within a spicier Caribbean melody; Best of All playfully embraces Afro-pop; and the 2007 Rhianna hit Don't Stop the Music, the album's biggest surprise, is reinvented with a bounty of street parade smarts.
But Paul Babarin's Second Line, E-Flat Blues and perhaps the inevitable When the Saints Go Marching In place the band right back in the soulful center of Congo Square.
The album concludes with Dirty Old Man, an amusing vehicle for baritone sax man Roger Lewis that, despite serving as a Dirty Dozen concert staple for ages, has never appeared on an album until now. It's fitting coda for Twenty Dozen's summery jubilance and self-contained splendor.