Scene & Heard

Revolutionary Snake Ensemble digs deeper into tradition

Jean Hangarter

By now, any viewer of HBO’s “Treme” knows about the New Orleans second-line tradition, a reference to street parades in which a “second line” of revelers follows a brass band. When that band is part of a funeral procession, it accompanies mourners with solemn gospel-infused music to the cemetery and then celebratory, thumping dance rhythms on the way back. It’s a ritual in which the emotions of grief and joy are expressed so closely as to become indistinguishable.

The second-line tradition — with its distinctive clave-like rhythm — has also been key to the music of Boston’s Revolutionary Snake Ensemble since they began performing in the early ’90s. On the new “Live Snakes,” the band’s third CD, you can hear both sides of the equation: gospel laments like “Rock of Ages” and “I’ll Fly Away,” along with upbeat fare like the Ellington-band Juan Tizol chestnut “Caravan” and Revolutionary Snake Ensemble leader Ken Field’s “Parade.” The band celebrates the release of the album with a Mardi Gras performance at the Regattabar on Tuesday, with special guest saxophonist Charles Neville, who also appears on the album.


After exploring the second-line tradition for so many years, Field found himself living it an unexpected way during the illness and death from cancer of his wife, the animator and filmmaker Karen Aqua. Aqua’s illness had taken a turn for the worse just as Field and the band were scheduled to record in May 2011.

“At that point, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Field. “It was an emotional time.” The band was scheduled for a Sunday recording session at trombonist Josh Roseman’s 58 Northsix Media Lab studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. By then, Aqua had been hospitalized but her condition had stabilized and she was surrounded by friends and family. Recalls Field: “Karen said, ‘Look, just go. Go and do it.’ ”


At the session, says Field, “Karen was on everybody’s mind.” The band recorded the prayer-like “For Karen,” a spontaneous collective improvisation that begins with murmuring cymbals, bells, and percussion and builds to a brass choir whose layered harmonies settle on one note played in unison. That end note then segues into “I’ll Fly Away,” which was recorded two years later, at the Regattabar, and, coincidentally, began with the same note. Field’s alto tenderly states the theme, with the other horns harmonizing, and then gradually shifts into a raucous parade rhythm. The two tracks form the emotional centerpiece of the album. Aqua died a week after “For Karen” was recorded, on May 30, 2011.

“Time has a way of blurring things,” says Field, “especially emotions. . . . It was a really hard time, but it was a time that I treasure, partly because of the emotions I had then. I’m quite frankly grateful to have had the opportunity to capture it with the love that’s embedded in that material.”

“For Karen” is the most “experimental” of the 12 tracks on “Live Snakes.” But the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble has always been more than a New Orleans brass band. In fact, it began as an ad hoc party band of percussionists and horn players who found themselves soon asked to perform at various events. The gravitation to the New Orleans parade style came naturally because of Aqua and Field’s connection to the city (they annually visited friends there during Mardi Gras) and because of the band’s brass/percussion instrumentation. Musically, Field had always been attracted to New Orleans polyphony as well as its Afro-Latin grooves.


But Field is also an inveterate experimenter (he’s a member of the Boston avant-electric outfit Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and has a number of varied solo CDs as well). “Parade” begins with the familiar second-line rhythm and a funky riff tune, but the horn lines quickly move into freer harmonic territory. “Slots” is a kind of avant-funk number, with a sharp, angular line. “Cassandra 5” combines second-line and Balkan dance rhythms. Meanwhile, “Breakdown Part 1” is a remix of unused live tracks that suggests the space-age dub of Boston band Club d'Elf.

Field calls the band’s mix of “New Orleans street beat/funk/free improvisation” his attempt to “balance pushing the envelope with being accessible.” For his part, Neville — a member of New Orleans royalty the Neville Brothers, who has lived in the Berkshires for the past 16 years — was immediately won over by the band’s approach. Contacted by Field, he joined the band at the 2013 Regattabar gig recorded on “Live Snakes.”

“When I got there and saw that there was a tuba player, I knew there would be a real New Orleans flavor to the music,” says Neville. He was impressed with the band’s ability to “wing it,” in the New Orleans manner. “The main element in New Orleans music that makes it authentic is that when people play it they mean what they’re doing. And that’s the feeling I get from playing with this band — they weren’t faking or trying to create some kind of image. They were doing it for real.”



The Green Room — the new, intimate jewel box performance space in Union Square, Somerville — continues its jazz series with the Bert Seager Quartet Friday and saxophonist Russ Gershon and keyboardist Rusty Scott on Saturday. . . . Pianist Marcus Roberts’s trio plays Scullers Saturday and Sunday. . . . The Spring Quartet — drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Leo Genovese — plays a Celebrity Series concert at Sanders Theatre on March 6. . . . Flutist and composer Jamie Baum’s “In This Life” was one of the best jazz discs of 2013. She plays a duo show with pianist Richie Beirach at the Regattabar on March 6 . . . Guitar wizard Nir Felder celebrates the release of his Okeh Records debut, “Golden Age,” at the Regattabar on March 11. . . . Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire celebrates the release of his Blue Note CD, “The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint,” at the Regattabar on March 12.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.