Nick Bollinger discusses the joyful noise and violent background of The Hot 8.
There’s a scene at the start of Live and Let Die, the 1973 James Bond movie, shot in the picturesque French Quarter of New Orleans. We’re shown a murder and see the victim’s body swiftly lifted into a conveniently placed coffin just as a funeral procession rounds the corner, led by an elegant, elderly band of African Americans playing the dirge ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’.
Looking back, I realise this was my first encounter with a New Orleans brass band. Even as a teenager, I could tell this wasn’t your typical Salvation Army street band. This was something soulful, deep and funky. But it was a few years before I learned about this New Orleans tradition that began in the 19th century and continues to this day.
The Hot 8 are the latest iteration, and I’m sure they could make a fair fist of ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’, if required. They come close with their rendering of the funereal favourite ‘St James Infirmary’.
More typical, though, is the upbeat brassy funk in their arrangement of the Stevie Wonder classic ‘That Girl’, or their own ‘Bottom of the Bucket’.
The Hot 8 are part of an unbroken line. Their line-up of saxes, side drums and horns – all instruments that can be played while parading – is not that different from that of the bands that walked the New Orleans streets a century ago. But around the early 80s – in fact, about the time I first visited New Orleans myself – the tradition got an overhaul. One of the city’s younger bands, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, began to update the traditional repertoire with some newer tunes; some bebop, some funk, and even the theme from The Flintstones. As a consequence, other young bands began cropping up with similarly irreverent repertoires, blowing new life into a genre that, for all its historic importance, was in danger of becoming a museum piece. The Hot 8 are one of the many younger groups that have come along in the wake of the Dirty Dozen, and they have taken the funk even further.
It’s a joyful noise, that’s for sure. And yet The Hot 8 have played their share of jazz funerals, that’s for sure, and some of them far too close to home. In the 20 years since they formed they have lost no less than three members to handgun violence. One member – trombone player Joseph Williams – was shot dead by police. Somehow, in spite – or perhaps because – of this, every note they make sounds like a celebration of life. I’m looking forward to seeing them at Womad this year. But if you can’t be there, this album has got to be the next best thing.
Songs featured: That Girl, St. James Infirmary, Bottom of the Bucket, 8 Kickin’ It Live.
On The Spot is available on Tru Thoughts Records.
The Hot 8 play at WOMAD in Taranaki, March 17-19.