Years ago, when Sean Murphy and some college friends first tried to grow a Memphis-based brass band, the local scene wasn't ready—and, says Murphy, neither were the musicians. But today, after a couple of decades of woodshedding in a wide array of formal and improvisatory settings, tuba player and composer Sean Murphy and a group of crack-shot co-conspirators are brewing a strong, soulful pot under the moniker Mighty Souls Brass Band, comprising some of the city's most sought-after musicians, and putting a uniquely Memphis spin on a tradition that's as global in its scope as it is root-deep in American popular music.
Mighty Souls Brass Band, a rotating collective of composer-players versed in a multitude of musical traditions, isn't a soul band, nor is it a funk band, a marching band, or a swing band. And yet you'll hear all of those influences, as well as more from around the globe, in the group's music. Eastern European klezmer, Mexican ranchero, German polkas, Sousa-style marches, and a host of other forms provide some of the key ingredients in the MSBB's heady stew—and that's by artist makeup as well as design. “We're not interested in just being a bunch of Memphis musicians playing New Orleans-style brass band music,” says Murphy. “We love that music, and we want to honor it. But we love Memphis music too, and world music, and we want to pay tribute to that history. And it's a deep one.”
True enough. Check MSBB's roster, for one thing—an evolving list of knockout players whose chops around Memphis are long-established. The group began to coalesce in 2012, when Murphy and sax wizard Jim Spake came together to play a New Orleans-style funeral, accompanied by horn player/vocalist Jeremy Shrader and percussionist Earl Lowe. Murphy, who'd spent 13 years honing his chops in an improv dance and music group, found a kindred spirit in the wildly versatile Spake, whose sax playing has graced three decades' worth of albums by Alex Chilton, Mojo Nixon, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Solomon Burke, Rod Stewart, Natalie Merchant, and dozens more. When Murphy outlined his project—a brass ensemble whose repertoire drew from American soul and funk as well as global traditions—Spake jumped at the chance, as did a host of other players from Memphis' powerhouse session-musician community. On any given night the talent represented onstage at a MSBB show can run from five to 14 members deep, showcasing some of the best and most esteemed players in the city's rich performance pool.
Or catch MSBB at one of its many diverse gigs, which might take them from a middle school performance for local kids, to an Oktoberfest celebration's polka renditions to an opening N.O.-inflected set for Dr. John—as the band's lively booking schedule recently did, over the course of a single day in October of this year. To hear Murphy talk about the heady blend of styles the MSBB works in is to hear how the band's music drinks deep from a multitude of sources. The tight, polished work of MoTown's session horns; the gritty, dirty inflections of New Orleans' funky Meters; the slippery R&B of Memphis' own Booker T. and the MGs—it all finds a place in the thumping heartbeat of Mighty Souls Brass Band.
And for proof, check the band's debut album—Lift Up!, on Archer Records—largely recorded live, to catch the infectious synergy of the group. You'll hear all of these influences, but you'll also hear the writing and arrangement talents of the MSBB's members, who themselves composed ten of the album's dozen tracks. This vigorously creative impulse, this desire to weave something new from the threads of various traditions, is what makes Mighty Souls Brass Band a unique act even among brass ensembles. Rooted by bandleader Murphy's sousaphone (“I like to say I play the 'brass bass,'” he notes cheekily), MSBB has talent to burn, and that talent burns bright and fierce on Lift Up! From the swaggering opener “STS” to the stomping blues-holler “Lift Up Your Mighty Soul” to the stately southern swing of the traditional “I'll Fly Away,” this is a band that knows where its roots lie, but also where its branches are reaching, far out into the world, a world that, as Murphy notes, seems invariably to express its deepest spiritual desires and celebrations through music.
Mighty Souls Brass Band is a group attuned to that desire, that celebratory spirit. It's a music that swings, that soars, that swoons—all of which is suggested by that profound, that humble, that most human of words: “Soul.”
How mighty, indeed.