D-Town Brass makes its own kind of crazy music

CorrespondentMay 16, 2013 

D-Town Brass with Dom Casual will play The Pinhook on Saturday.

COURTESY OF ALEXANDREA THOMSEN

  • More information

    What: D-Town Brass with Dom Casual

    Where: The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., Durham

    When: 9 p.m. Saturday

    Cost: $8

    Details: thepinhook.com

D-Town Brass bandleader Andy Magowan’s pre-rehearsal routine should come with its own movie soundtrack number, perhaps one from his Durham group’s songbook.

It’s easy to imagine the band’s “Mystery Town” playing over the scene as he pulls his Volvo out of Geer Street Garden, the popular downtown restaurant and hangout where he is owner and chef.

Written by the band’s co-leader and chief sax player “Crowmeat” Bob Pence, it’s the opening number of the band’s newly self-released EP (which comes out concurrently with the full-length release “Golden Belt”). With its throbbing post-punk-ish, opening bass line and the sinister but somehow comic swell of the horns, the listener can tell there’s a wild ride ahead.

A passenger in Magowan’s car could be forgiven for having that same feeling. On this particular Tuesday evening, Magowan has corralled 12 members for a rehearsal at tenor sax player Matt Busch’s home in the Forest Hills section of Durham.

The 15-member D-Town Brass, a self-described “friendly psychedelic jungle-jazz dance band” is playing a show at The Pinhook Saturday to celebrate the two releases, and before they get down to practicing for that, Magowan has some quick errands to run. And there’s not very much time to run them, so cue the crazy music.

Magowan makes a quick stop to buy three six-packs of band beer at Trinity Food Mart.

Then he goes to pick up the Brass’s newest member, percussionist Ken Moshesh, who met the rest of the guys in July 2012 as they were loading into their practice space near his video studio at the old Golden Belt mill, repurposed as a mixed-use development for retail, restaurants and art studios.

“He told me, ‘I was in “Space is the Place,’ ” says Magowan, referring to the 1974 science fiction film, written by and starring jazz legend Sun Ra. “I was like, are you [expletive] kidding me?”

Moshesh appeared in that movie as a member of Ra’s Arkestra, and played conga on the soundtrack album.

“That’s the last time I played in a large band I really wanted to play in,” Moshesh says later. After spending some time listening to D-Town Brass, he’d discovered another one.D-Town Brass has existed since 2008, when McGowan was still chef/owner at the Foster Street restaurant Piedmont. (He sold it to Eno Hospitality Group in 2010.)

Magowan, once a member of the popular Durham band Malt Swagger, had been out of music for a while, partly because he was so busy with chef duties.

“I was kind of at loose ends,” he recalls, “and I had a song that seemed to suggest horns. So I contacted some people I knew, to play horns. They contacted people that they knew to play horns.”

They got together to practice at Piedmont when it wasn’t open. Three weeks later, they had recorded the music they’d been rehearsing – and they did that at Piedmont, too, just by turning on a tape machine and playing.

“It was so easy, and so fun,” Magowan says.

It was so much fun, they kept doing it. After about a year and a half, they had about 10 songs – enough to play a show.

Since then, the band that includes members of many favorite local musical groups and organizations (The Wusses, The Wigg Report, Le Weekend, Savage Knights, and Durham Symphony, to name a few) has a routine of doing two or three practices, and then either recording some new tunes or playing a show.

Over the years, the downtown club shows have made D-Town Brass a beloved Durham institution, and it’s gratifying that crowd favorites such as Magowan’s “The Hectic Metric” (with its hand claps and shouts of “ho!”) are finally documented as recordings.

The EP, recorded at Piedmont during off hours, represents the first two years of the group. “Golden Belt” was recorded in July 2012 with the current lineup.

Watching the group practice, one can’t help but be impressed at how easy Magowan and Pence make it look, when it comes to controlling potential chaos. The horn players, lined up one side of the converted garage, read off charts.

The rhythm section’s parts, however, are worked out mostly by those players to complement the horns. In this rehearsal, bassist Bob Wall sits between the brass and percussionists, right across the room from McGowan (who gets up from behind his keyboards to hand out beers every so often).

To Wall’s right, Robert Biggers plays the anchor beats on a drum kit, while Matt Vooris (xylophone, wood block, conga) and Ken Moshesh (talking drum, conga) provide spacy colorations and funky syncopations.

They get through 11 songs with barely a hitch. At one point, Pence even expresses satisfaction with a mistake made by one horn player: “Somebody was late, but it echoed everybody else, so it was cool.”

After practice, some members of the band re-converge at Geer Street Garden for more beer, some wings, fries and conversation. When asked to describe the band’s music, Pence says he thinks of “movie soundtrack jazz, prime jazz, like from the ’40s through the ’70s. And Duke Ellington and Sun Ra.”

There’s some disagreement between band members on whether D-Town Brass plays actual jazz (Moshesh thinks so), but saxophonist Steve Cowles has a pretty good resolution to that question.

“We don’t necessarily fit into the jazz paradigm, but I feel that there is something elementally correct about the sound of the band,” he says.

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