In a venue with soft seats and stiff drinks, success means seriously selling the music. At its regular Monday-night gig at the Martini Kitchen and Bubble Bar, Yo Momma's Brass Band pitches with a passion.
The eight horns are swaying in unison, building a tight, multilayered line, while dreadlocked leader Gordon Jones shouts encouragement. Drummer Kelli Strawbridge, the only band member not on his feet, slams out a shifting set of funk patterns on the drums, and Sam Savage steps forward and starts ripping out a trombone solo that tumbles over and through the harmonies with head-over-heels logic.
The violent impact of massed brass in a confined space is faded in old recordings or muted for middle-aged tastes in nostalgic big band re-creations. Yo Momma's sonic edge is akin to the aggressive assault of heavy-metal guitars and the dangerous throb of rap; it's the edgy, fearless sound of youth.
Later, around the bar, behind pitchers of beer and plates of fried calamari, members of the band talk about their music.
"Its not just energy," Strawbridge insists. "We are very rehearsed. Everybody has the job of backing everybody else, and it all has to come together." The result, he says, is the marching band you always dreamed of, "but here you can drink, smoke and not have to chase them down the street."
Their models, Gordon says, are New Orleans brass bands like The Dirty Dozen, Rebirth and the Nightcrawlers, whose arrangements they first copied and then moved beyond. The band formed in late 2001, drawing members from the horn sections of established bands, such as Bio Ritmo and the Oregon Hill Jazz Funk All-Stars.
Yo Momma's Brass Band started playing shows in 2002, with a yearlong Thursday gig at Europa Mediterranean Café and Tapas Bar. That tenure ended in a series of ice-storm-related cancellations. The band played frequently if irregularly afterward, until landing the residence at the Bubble Bar.
Aside from founding members Jones and Strawbridge, the lineup has evolved. "We've got an Art Blakey vibe going," Strawbridge says. (Blakey's Jazz Messengers launched dozens of careers, including those of Wynton and Branford Marsalis.) "Younger players workshop with us, learn how to play a piece, how to work with the dynamics of a band, then get good gigs afterward."
Every change makes a difference. "Everybody has a personal sound, and each is integral to the whole," Gordon says. "It's a great and rare thing to find a group of players like the ones we have now. We have some of the best players in the city, who can play and improvise in any style, run off on a tangent or move as one. We've grown together."
The predominance of wind instruments two saxes, four trombones, two trumpets and the tubalike E-flat contrabass sousaphone gives the music the natural tension and release of breathing. Even the most technically impressive workouts unfold on a human scale.
The live dynamics have been difficult to translate to CD. "Recording is a different mindset," trumpeter Marcus Tenney says. "You add things you wouldn't usually play and subtract things you would."
Strawbridge agrees: "It's hard to capture our vibe in a studio. It's weird with everybody in separate rooms. We're best with everybody working as a team one spot, one sound."
Strawbridge, a student of classic soul who has been rehearsing his James Brown tribute band for a year, lays out a provocative comparison for their live shows. "We're just like Earth, Wind & Fire," he says. "Only we can dance."
The conversation dissolves into good-natured argument about the choreographic skills of the classic soul band that reached its peak before Yo Momma's players wore diapers.
When the next set gets going, even the hostess behind her little podium in the front is dancing. S
The Members of Yo Momma's Brass Band are:Kelli Strawbridge Drums
Gordon Jones Tenor Sax
Sam Savage Trombone
Reginald Pace Trombone
Marcus Tenney Trumpet
Reggie Chapman Bass Trombone
Jason Arce Alto Sax, Soprano Sax
Stefan Demetriadis Contrabass
Rob Quallich Trumpet
Jeff X Percussion (on hiatus)
The band performs every Monday night at The Martini Kitchen and Bubble Bar, 1911 W. Main St. Admission is free. The Big Payback, Kelli Strawbridge's James Brown tribute band, debuts at the Canal Club Oct. 20. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance at www.thecanalclub.com or $10 at the door.