The Soul Brass Band originated as a fictitious brass band for a music video. It quickly turned into a real one.
In 2015, local drummer Derrick Freeman was hired as a consultant on a CeeLo Green video to be shot in the Treme neighborhood. Over dinner at Café Atchafalaya, the director explained his vision of Green marching in an authentic-looking jazz funeral procession with a brass band.
No problem, Freeman said. I can help with that.
So, the director asked, what’s the name of your brass band?
Freeman didn’t have a brass band. But he’d be happy to assemble one.
Because the video was for a CeeLo Green song called “Music To My Soul,” the director suggested the name Soul Brass Band. Freeman thought that aesthetically, the word “soul” would look cool spelled out on traditional brass band hats, drumheads and a grand marshal’s sash.
On set, Freeman and the musicians he’d recruited donned the Soul Brass Band’s new gear. To create the illusion of history, the bass drumhead was emblazoned with “Est. 1975,” even though the band was actually established 40 years later.
After the shoot, the director let Freeman keep the Soul Brass Band props and gave him permission to use them.
Two weeks later, Freeman was asked to supply a brass band for a Nike commercial featuring Pelicans star Anthony Davis. So early on a Sunday morning in the French Quarter, he showed up with his still-not-real Soul Brass Band.
“We’re all standing there in brass band gear, and Anthony Davis is like 7 feet tall. We’re trying to be stealthy, but it didn’t work.”
Onlookers started taking pictures, tagging their Instagram posts with #SoulBrassBand.
Within days, Freeman was fielding booking inquiries for a brass band that still didn’t exist.
He took the hint. The Soul Brass Band’s first official show was opening for Indian funk band Red Baarat at Tipitina’s in October 2015. Tom Thayer, of d.b.a., was an early supporter, giving the nascent brass band a regular gig.
“People were like, ‘Dude, I didn’t know you had a brass band,’ ” Freeman recalled. “I didn’t know either.”
Little more than two years later, the Soul Brass Band has toured the East Coast and Europe, and is a fixture at festivals and private events. That they can configure themselves as a brass band, big band, jazz band or even a hip-hop band makes them especially attractive to promoters.
“Versatility helps,” Freeman said. “We can do a traditional set or a hip-hop set.”
On Saturday, they’ll perform at the Maple Leaf Bar, starting around 10 p.m.; cover charge is $10.
That the Soul Brass Band — not to be confused with the Soul Rebels Brass Band — was able to hit the ground running is testament to the skills and experience of the veteran musicians involved.
Saxophonist and Loyola University graduate James Martin spent years with both Trombone Shorty’s Orleans Avenue and Glen David Andrews’ band; he has released two albums of his own. Trombonist-vocalist Michael Watson and trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown are stalwarts of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; Brown also leads the Onward Brass Band.
Trombonist Terrance Taplin cut his teeth at St. Augustine High School and as a member of Southern University’s Human Jukebox; he’s the musical director of Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra. Trumpeter Kevin Louis is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
Guitarist Danny Abel graduated from the University of New Orleans’ jazz program and is a member of jazz-funk band Gravity A and saxophonist Khris Royal’s Dark Matter; Royal also plays with Soul. Bass drummer Aron Lambert is a longtime member of funk band Juice, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s Golden Eagles, and the Treme Brass Band.
Freeman’s long résumé includes the eclectic All That and Kermit Ruffins’ Barbecue Swingers, his own Smoker’s World and a hip-hop tribute band called the Low End Theory Players.
All that experience is funneled into the Soul Brass Band. Sets usually open with “It’s All Over Now,” the Bobby Womack song that the Rebirth and Dirty Dozen turned into a brass band standard, followed by the Treme Brass Band’s “Gimme My Money Back.”
From there, they may veer into Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In a Bottle.” Or Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Or a medley of the “Family Feud” and “Price is Right” theme songs.
An album to be released later this year features five original compositions plus covers of Tower of Power’s “Soul With a Capital S,” Lou Rawls’ “Groovy People,” “In Bloom” and the game show medley.
The music “is going to go wherever,” Freeman said. “We have the ability to adapt.”
When you start a band by accident, anything is possible.