It was a great New Orleans jazz party Thursday night at the Holland Performing Arts Center. It’s too bad that Soul Rebels and their special guests were greeted by a half-empty hall.
Granted, a Thursday night in mid-November tends to be one day too early for some concertgoers, not to mention three months too early to tap into Mardi Gras fever. But the main title in Omaha Performing Arts’ show publicity — “A Night in Tremé” — probably was too obscure at this latitude to lure Omahans who love New Orleans jazz but didn’t pick up on the show’s subtitle, “The Musical Majesty of New Orleans.”
So they’ll have to take up the evening’s often-repeated invitation by Soul Rebels saxophonist Erion Williams to head south and join them in the actual Tremé, the neighborhood in northern New Orleans where the city’s great brass-band heritage still collides with multiple musical cultures to create a relentless, irresistible vibe.
It’s the vibe that spawned Soul Rebels, which mixes Dixieland, R&B, funk, hip-hop and rap in an overpowering cauldron of sound. The eight-piece combo provided the backbone of the evening’s 90-minute set, performing its own eclectic music for the first half before welcoming guest artists Donald Harrison and James Andrews. A third scheduled soloist, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, had to sit out because of flulike symptoms.
With Williams playing master of ceremonies — not to mention a nasty tenor sax — the six-piece horn section repeatedly laid down energetic choruses and improvisations that left little room for rests (musically speaking, that is). Trumpeters Julian Gosin and Marcus Hubbard rapidly navigated their instruments’ ranges with ease, while trombonists Corey Peyton and Paul Robertson proved that crisp, clear solo passages are indeed possible with the trickiest of the brass instruments.
Soul Rebels gets its pulsating backbeats from the sousaphone of Edward Lee Jr., the anchor of an overpowering rhythm trio. Derrick Moss eagerly pounded a small mounted bass drum alongside a bevy of cymbals, and Lumar Leblanc worked his single snare and cymbal as though it were a full drum kit.
The audience was enthusiastic all night long, but only a few younger concertgoers heeded Williams’ repeated invitations to “stand up and party.” It took the special guests, Harrison and Andrews, to loosen up the crowd to the point that dozens were clapping and waving their arms.
It likely helped that Harrison led off his three-song portion of the set with a familiar jazz standard, “One Night in Tunisia,” and ended it with sweet sax elaborations on “What a Wonderful World.” But in between, he put down his sax and took his place behind a trio of tall African hand drums. Tremé, he explained, was perhaps the one place in pre-Civil War America where African-Americans could preserve their native music and drum-driven chants.
With that, Harrison launched into an impressive rapid-fire patter while ripping off intense drum rhythms with his hands and elbows. The audience needed little else to perceive the deep connective tissue between 21st-century Tremé and the traditional songs and chants that native Africans now can play worldwide.
Andrews, by contrast, evoked Louis Armstrong in his vocals, his trumpet solos and the red vest under his suit jacket. He led four Soul Rebels through the aisles on “When the Saints Go Marching In” (followed by a half-dozen or so audience members), then brought the evening to a frenetic close with “It Ain’t My Fault” and “Down in the Tremé.” By then, everyone in the hall knew what the title meant.