For a city that care allegedly forgot, New Orleans has a funny way of achieving the impossible when it comes to music. Case in point: the Midnite Disturbers, a super-group comprised of brass players and bandleaders whose combined musical responsibilities during Jazz Fest should make it logistically unfeasible for them to share a stage.
Yet for the past nine years, drummers Stanton Moore and Kevin O’Day and Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman have corralled a swarm of the city’s top horn players onto the Jazz & Heritage Stage for 75 minutes of funk-soaked parade melodies, outlandish vamps and second line rhythms from drummers who seem to innately understand one another’s sense of groove.
The band started as a “what if” scenario, dreamed up while O’Day was staying with Moore after the storm. They envisioned an expanded brass band dream team of sorts. And in spite of their ambitious desire to pull talent from most of the busiest acts in town—including the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, Galactic, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and Bonerama—they managed to enlist a serious New Orleans horn juggernaut. Regular performers in the band include Roger Lewis and Skerik on saxophones, Big Sam Williams, Mark Mullins and Corey Henry on trombones, James Andrews and Shamarr Allen on trumpets and Kirk Joseph, Phil Frazier and Matt Perrine on tubas, plus Ellman, with O’Day, Moore and Mike Dillon handling drums and percussion.
The Disturbers tend to perform New Orleans standards from the brass repertoire (it’s easy to play a Rebirth or Lil’ Rascals song when original members of those bands are onstage, Ellman points out), plus a handful of tunes by Moore and his other cohorts.
“It’s just nice to get what you want,” says O’Day, a veteran of the local funk and jazz scenes whose collaborations with Iris May Tango, Royal Fingerbowl and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars helped lay the groundwork for his own ensembles, such as the funk-meets-avant-garde jazz blend, Live Animals.
“We wanted to have a band that was really special that would happen just once a year.”
Despite the lineup’s marquee names, the Midnite Disturbers have managed to maintain the kind of raw, stripped-down sound and feel that gives parading brass bands so much of their power in the streets.
Unlike other all-star lineups that pop up around Jazz Fest time, the Disturbers usually hit the stage without elements like pomp-fueled intros that might detract from the music. Their big, brash sound consistently inspires listeners to throng the mucky patch of ground before the stage, keeping them rapt and dancing—even in the driving rain that threatened to end the Disturbers’ set a few years back.
O’Day and Moore initially approached the drum format as a typical New Orleans brass band would, with O’Day handling the bass drum and Moore on snare.
“It’s been more fun lately to have a drum setup and then a whole percussion setup so we can switch back and forth,” O’Day says.
As they trade on and off between kit and percussion, the drummers feed off of one another’s fire, matching licks and sparking elaborate improvisations within the rhythm. To Ellman’s ear, O’Day’s hip-hop feel shines through, contrasting with Moore’s street-ready marching band sensibility. Dillon, meanwhile, adds to the often borderline–frenetic energy, reined in by the trio’s impeccable control.
It also helps that the players feel trust is built into the collaboration.
“I always feel like I’m just along for the ride and I’m just enjoying it, like, ‘Wow, I cannot believe this trombone section of Big Sam, Mark Mullins, Corey Henry, are all up here trading,” says Ellman. “And once we pick the songs, it always just kind of takes off and works. With those kinds of musicians onstage you just don’t have to worry about it.”
While some aspects of the Disturbers’ sound revolve around an organic parade-band feel, there’s also a certain energy that comes from putting that many virtuosos onstage together.
“It’s always hard to be the next soloist because it’s a whole band of amazing soloists,” says Ellman, joking (maybe) that he takes the first solo on most tunes because “there’s nobody I want to follow.”
On the other hand, Ellman, who cut his teeth playing second lines with Corey Henry’s Lil’ Rascals brass band starting in 1989, doesn’t mind making room for the occasional skilled, if less experienced player in the horn section.
He remembers subbing in a pair of visiting relatives who happened to be horn players one year when Skerik couldn’t make the gig. One of them ended up moving to New Orleans, enrolling in Loyola and helping to start the band Naughty Professor. But he was green at the time.
“For my cousins it was like throwing them in the fire,” Ellman says, laughing. “Welcome to New Orleans! Now stand next to Roger Lewis and take a solo.”