As part of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis tends to hold down the funk, carving out the low end on melodies and adding deep texture to bass figures. Though his instrument's rich tone plays a key role in forging the band's overall sound, it doesn't often play the lead. Lewis' side project, Baritone Bliss, however, is all about the baritones.
"I always wondered how five baritones would sound," says Lewis, thinking back to the project's 2011 inception. Since then, the group has performed sporadically, playing a few shows at Snug Harbor and one set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "It's the only group of its kind in the history of Jazz Fest to my knowledge," Lewis adds, echoing a sentiment Tony Dagradi boasted from the stage at Baritone Bliss' rollicking, bass-heavy 2011 performance.
Lewis says it was clear in January when the group played a sold-out show at Snug Harbor that what was imagined as an experiment is turning out to be a big success.
"It's not often you see just a bunch of big horns," he says.
The big horns in question are four baritone saxes played by Lewis, Astral Project's Dagradi, the ubiquitous and versatile Tim Greene and Calvin Johnson, who has handled tenor sax duties for the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth Brass Band and Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, among other groups. Lewis also invited the prolific Dan Oestreicher, currently best known for his extended, booming solos in Trombone Shorty's Orleans Avenue. Oestreicher takes the ensemble's low-end theory one step further by introducing a bass saxophone to the lineup.
Rounded out by Mari Watanabe on piano and Ocie Davis on drums, the ensemble performs a mix of original compositions, including a handful of Dirty Dozen tunes Tony Dagradi arranged for multiple baritones. Among them is "L'Ascenseur," from the Dozen's 1996 album Ears to the Wall, plus a somber ode to Lewis' late son, written after the 22-year-old's death. Watanabe's "After the Surge" is a memorial she wrote to commemorate the 2011 tsunami in Japan. "Mandela" honors the late South African leader. Past Baritone Bliss performances have featured Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," made famous by Harry Carney's gorgeously supple baritone performance, and Dagradi's "The Wheel."
Lewis is quick to point out that even the group's serious-minded material "is music you can dance with," and notes that the baritone is more flexible than some listeners may realize.
"The baritone is a very powerful instrument," he says. "It can sound like a tenor in the alto register. And the way Tony approaches it, well, he can just go into the stratosphere. You can play as high as a trumpet if you alter the fingering."