The Dixie Power Trio
by James M. Manheim
The music of New Orleans is unlike that of any other place. Last winter, as I walked through Louis Armstrong Park, the site of the old Congo Square where pure African music reigned, a young African American woman shouted "Hello!" I looked over my shoulder to see who was being hailed, and she said, "Yeah, you!" It turned out that she and her friend were going to perform at the Heritage Festival a few weeks later, and they hoped I could come. What was their music like, I asked. "It's mostly mantras," she answered. "But we do them with a reggae beat." "Yup," I thought to myself. "This place has still got it."
The Dixie Power Trio has got what makes New Orleans music special, too even if these musicians do come from Fredericksburg, Virginia. The tradition all hangs together, and it absorbs everything new that comes along. There are Dixieland revival bands all over, but maybe you haven't heard one like the Dixie Power Trio it's about living tradition, not nostalgia. On its latest album, The Virgil Sessions, the group offers early jazz classics, a tango, straight blues, zydeco from out in the swamps, Cajun music, ruminative Jelly Roll Morton-type vocals, an Allen Toussaint-style funk ode to the titular auto mechanic ("Virgil under the Hood") who repaired their van after they broke down on the way to a gig one time, newer layers of jazz, and still more. It all seems to flow straight from a single source, and it's terrific fun.
When they started out in the mid-1990s, the members of DPT (as they call themselves) also performed things like "Stairway to Heaven" on Louisiana instruments, but since then they've pared away the gimmicks. The only one left is that they're not actually a trio but a quartet. Lead vocalist Zack Smith also plays cornet, accordion, and frottoir (rub board), and the group is rounded out by guitarist Wayne Wilkinson, tubaist Andy
Kochenour, and drummer Byron McWilliams. The mix, which also includes other horns and a fiddle at times, is flexible enough to evoke quite a range of music but small enough to be personal; DPT isn't chasing some musical ideal or trying to make a point, but aiming to please.
Two more things are worthy of note. First, Zack Smith's originals aren't period pieces or party anthems; they have a nice, dissatisfied, contemporary edge to them. Second, if you like the sound of a tuba, you'll hear plenty of it here. The Dixie Power Trio comes to the Ark on Thursday, March 6.
[Originally published in March, 2003.]