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Ken Field & The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble: The Musical Road Less Taken

Tod Smith By

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Being in the city where this music that has had such an influence on the band and on me is awe inspiring.
Ken FieldsSaxophonist/composer Ken Field describes the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble as a "funk and street beat brass band playing New Orleans and other modern improvised celebratory styles." Playing original compositions and those of artists as diverse as Billy Idol and Ornette Coleman, the RSE was formed in 1990 to entertain a at a pagan women's ritual celebration. The project continued and today RSE is a fixture on the Boston, New York and New Orleans musical scenes. RSE's two discs—Year of the Snake (Innova, 2003) and Forked Tongue (Cuneiform, 2008)—have each received great reviews.

When the poet Robert Frost penned "The Road Not Taken" he obviously didn't know about Ken Field and the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. However, somehow the concept of taking the road less traveled accurately describes the musical path blazed by this horn and percussion group hailing from Massachusetts. It defies logic that a band with its home base in Cambridge, Massachusetts can somehow have its musical roots firmly planted in the deep, dark, delta soil of the New Orleans brass band tradition, but Field and the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble have managed to do just that.

Since it's founding in 1990, the RSE has charmed audiences with a musical tapestry as colorful and diverse as any other out there. With covers ranging from Sun Ra to Billy Idol and original compositions covering almost every genre in between, it's a challenge to identify a single influence. In fact, it's next to impossible. When asked: "how do you explain how a group from Cambridge got into the New Orleans brass band tradition," the answer shows just how far RSE has traveled musically.

"You know we started out with a slightly different musical thrust," Field recalled recently. "We were doing percussion and horns in more of a tribal kind of thing. Some of us had played in an African, Senegalese group; of course, same question could apply. None of us are African as it were, but you know, that's how we started; kind of doing just grooves and jams and flutes and it was very well received. It was just kind of a party thing or a jam thing, very informal and people liked it. So we got hired to do gigs."

The music produced by New Orleans brass bands is special for a number of reasons. It is music of celebration and it is music that that the band brings to the party, rather than the party coming to the band. Further, the instrumentation is different. Without a piano or guitar, chords are constructed from the horn melodies played and the resulting ability to spontaneously build chords and improvise is at the core of brass band music. Add to this Field's travels to the Crescent City and it's easy to see why RSE found it's musical soul in the street sounds of New Orleans' brass bands.

Says Field, "I think the instrumentation in a way led us to the New Orleans, brass band sound. The fact that what we had in common in some ways was the mobile nature of the was almost obvious that this group should be doing this kind of material. Another thing is I personally just have an affinity for some of the rhythms that are prominent in some of that brass band music—you know the straight eighth-note kind of rhythm in Cuban and Haitian music...It just clicked."

With its ever-changing instrumentation (usually averaging seven-to-eight members—two drummers, one or two bassists, and four horns—the ensemble's lineup and size shifts over time and for specific events), the diversity of musical experience within RSE supports creativity and experimentation within the tradition. At various times, RSE members have performed with artists as diverse as DJ Logic, Anthony Braxton and G-Love & Special Sauce.

That diversity also manifests itself in the music performed by RSE. The group's first CD, Year of the Snake included music by Field, Sun Ra, John Scofield and James Brown. The second, and more widely distributed release, Forked Tongue, contained a cover of Billy Idol's "White Wedding," (first performed for a wedding involving a bride named White), as well as the traditional New Orleans dirge" Just a Closer Walk." That breadth of musical range creates a fresh, enjoyable sound that has appeal across genres. In fact, Field describes the band as "three points of a triangle"—New Orleans brass band music, funk and free jazz —and the ensemble manages to find the common thread in these very dissimilar musical styles. Spontaneity is also an important part of their music.


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