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Revolutionary Snake Ensemble

"{Revolutionary Snake Ensemble] touches all the right cornerstones of jazz, but also funks my socks off!" - WKDU, Philadelphia
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The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble is a costumed funk/street beat improvisational brass band performing a unique blend of original and traditional music. Leader Ken Field is a longtime member of the modern music ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.

Labeled “explosive” by the Boston Globe, two-time New England Music Award nominees Revolutionary Snake Ensemble’s most recent cd I Want That Sound!has received extensive critical acclaim, and entered the CMJ jazz radio top ten chart just two weeks after its release.

NYC Jazz Record writes that “Revolutionary Snake Ensemble has been putting its unique and somewhat twisted twist on the New Orleans brass band tradition for more than 25 years…hard-partying avant-funk, with boisterous soloing…I Want That Sound! is a strong example of how Ken Field and the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble continue to push the brass band tradition forward in an entirely original way, all the while making music that’s a heck of a lot of fun.”

KBCS Seattle Public Radio says that RSE “continues to mine the vein of New Orleans – with post-bop, and touches of Avant – this band cooks; edgy, raucous, fun, and first rate!”

And the Boston Herald adds that “People tend to think of second line bands – brass bands steeped in New Orleans traditions – as instant party starters. It’s a great compliment, maybe the best compliment ever, but it limits the sonic and emotional range of these bands. Revolutionary Snake Ensemble can absolutely get a party started. But on the local horn collective’s fourth album, I Want That Sound!, the players also explore the wild outerlands of jazz.

Their 3rd release, Live Snakes (Accurate 2014), was recorded in 2011 & 2013 in Boston, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, and documents four distinct incarnations of the ensemble, with two remixes by Field, and with guest musicians including Charles Neville, Josh Roseman, Kenny Wollesen, and Matt Darriau. With sold out CD release performances at Boston’s Regattabar, at Barbes in NYC, and at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the CD broke into the top 10 on the CMJ jazz chart in its 2nd week out, and was an Editor’s Pick in Downbeat Magazine.

The group’s 2nd CD, Forked Tongue (2008), spent 2 months on the CMJ North American jazz top 20 chart, peaking at #11, and appeared on best-of-2008 lists in the Village Voice & in Estonia, plus in Georgia, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, and NY. The disc features unique treatments of music by Field, Ornette Coleman, Billy Idol, and others.

Notable Revolutionary Snake Ensemble performances have included the Krewe of Muses Mardi Gras Parade (New Orleans); Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Festival of Redentore (Venice, Italy); UFO Festival (Roswell, NM); Tonic (NYC); the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston); the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the Puffin Cultural Forum; Tipitina’s (New Orleans); Berklee Performance Center; the Somerville Theater; First Nights Boston, Providence, Fall River; the Cambridge River Festival; ArtBeat; the Central Square World’s Fair; and other venues.

From 2005-2009 the Snake Ensemble traveled by train five times from Boston to New Orleans, playing on board the Amtrak Crescent, to march with the Krewe of Muses in their annual Mardi Gras parade. The Ensemble can be heard on Parade of Numbers, an animated counting piece regularly aired on the television program Sesame Street.

RSE’s debut release, Year of the Snake (2003), included music by Field, Sun Ra, John Scofield, James Brown, and others, and was listed as one of the top discs of the year on New York NPR affiliate WNYC, in the New Orleans Gambit Weekly, and on Radio Popolare in Milan, Italy.

History: "Live Snakes" (Accurate Records, 2014)

Saxophonist/composer Ken Field‘s Revolutionary Snake Ensemble is on the march, spreading the gospel of groove far and near. Using the raucous rhythms of the New Orleans brass tradition as a launching pad, the Boston band has forged a volatile and unbridled sound that’s captured in all of its expressive glory on its third album, Live Snakes (Accurate Records).

Recorded in 2011 and 2013 in Boston, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, the album documents four distinct incarnations of the highly mutable ensemble, with two sonically inventive remixes by Field thrown in for good measure. Adding to the deep pool of Boston talent that has sustained the RSE for more than two decades, Live Snakes features an extended family of players, including New Orleans tenor saxophone great Charles Neville and New York masters Josh Roseman (trombone), Kenny Wollesen (drums and percussion), and Matt Darriau (tenor sax and flute).

Decked out in feathered and metallic finery that evokes Sun Ra’s Arkestra as much as the Mardi Gras Indians, the RSE has always honored the essential role of New Orleans brass bands in providing succor and uplift to mourners accompanying loved ones for burial (while also fulfilling the celebratory imperative for the promenade back from the cemetery). A good deal of Live Snakes’ emotional punch stems from the fact that Field’s wife, the renowned filmmaker and animator Karen Aqua who often collaborated with the RSE, lost her battle against cancer just two weeks after the album’s earliest session in 2011.

The whole New Orleans concept of a jazz funeral, where it’s very somber and moving at the beginning and then you break into celebratory uptempo grooves afterwards, really helped shape this album,” Field says. “After playing in churches and at Karen’s memorial it really brought home again that that’s the script for how music should be. You’re mourning and you’re celebrating. The music encompasses these really conflicting emotions, joy and sadness at the same time.

The heart of Live Snakes is the aching dirge “For Karen,” a stunning group improvisation from the 2011 session at Brooklyn’s 58 Northsix Media Labs in which Field’s bandmates join his raw but self-possessed cri de coeur. The lamentation segues seamlessly into a lugubrious rendition of the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” recorded by a full eight-piece band two years later at Cambridge’s Regattabar, a performance that ends uptempo as a high-stepping celebration. The entire album’s sequencing follows this kind of emotional rather than temporal logic, imbuing Live Snakes with the feel of a cathartic and epiphany-filled odyssey.

Opening with an ecstatic blast, Field welcomes listeners with “Parade,” an infectiously kinetic piece of lapidary Crescent City funk that makes it clear why the RSE has long been an honored presence at Mardi Gras. It’s a minimalist quintet version of the band powered by Wollesen and drummer Phil Neighbors’s brilliant rhythm section interplay, a polyrhythmic swirl that also inspires Field and Darriau’s tag-team horn work on “Slots” and the inventively grooving “I Got It.”

Marked by wicked irony, bawdy humor, seat-of-the-pants arrangements, and a love of unabashedly beautiful melodies, the band is equally effective interpreting hymns, like Thomas Hastings’s “Rock of Ages,” and jazz standards, such as Juan Tizol’s Ellingtonian classic “Caravan,” which gets a torrid treatment. In a performance that brings to mind Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, the RSE digs into the 1950s pop hit “Que Sera Sera” with style and aplomb. Field closes the album with an atmospheric remix of “Cassandra 4,” a tune originally commissioned by Bridgeman/Packer Dance, and a newly constructed piece “Breakdown Part One” that can best be described as Miles Runs the Voodoo Down to Basin Street. In a typically Fieldian move, he turns a live album into an opportunity for further investigation into form and texture.

“I’m a firm believer in experimentation: I don’t like doing the same thing twice or repeating what other people have done,” Field says. “But at the same time I like the idea of maintaining some continuity with what listeners expect, so when we’re rhythmically complex sometimes we’ll be harmonically simpler. I play a melodic instrument, so we’re always going to be focusing on melodically based music.”

Field founded the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble in 1990 when he assembled an improvisational horn and percussion group with trumpeter and cartoonist Scott Getchell for a pagan women’s ritual celebration. The response was so positive that he decided to continue the project as a vehicle for the region’s skilled free improv set. But as Getchell moved on to other projects, Field gradually developed a book featuring his originals and rarely played tunes by John Scofield, Sun Ra, and Ornette Coleman set to funky New Orleans marching grooves.

Part workshop and part improvisers’ clinic, the band attracted a revolving cast of players. “The material was very improvisational and the arrangements tended to be spontaneous,” Field says. “I’d direct on the spot, which started as a very stressful role. Over time I learned a lot about how to do that, and it’s still the way the band works.”

Over the years, the RSE has featured a host of stellar musicians, including Dana Colley (Morphine), Jesse Williams (Al Kooper/Duke Robillard), Russ Gershon (Either/Orchestra), Eric Paull (DJ Logic, Clem Snide), Ken Winokur (Alloy Orchestra), Charlie Kohlhase (John Tchicai/Leroy Jenkins/Anthony Braxton), Jim Prescott (G Love & Special Sauce), Kimon Kirk (Aimee Mann, Session Americana), Scott Getchell (Lars Vegas, Skull Session), Dave Harris (Naftule’s Dream, Les Miserables Brass Band), and Bob Pilkington (Chandler Travis Philharmonic).

The band’s acclaimed debut album, 2003’s Year of the Snake (Innova Recordings), brought national attention. The following year the RSE began playing regularly at Mardi Gras, a sojourn made possible by a singular arrangement with Amtrak’s Crescent train in which the band performed their music en route to New Orleans. On arrival, the Snake Ensemble has regularly marched with the all-women Krewe of Muses, an experience that “legitimized the band to me,” Field says.

We would get down there, play a little party, and people assumed we were from New Orleans, and that meant a lot to us. At the same time, we were doing something different. It gave us the experience of meeting and playing with some New Orleans musicians, and they always encouraged us to keep doing our own thing.

With its second album, 2008’s Forked Tongue (Cuneiform), the RSE continued to expand its already far-flung repertoire, ranging from hymns and spirituals to traditional New Orleans parade anthems and tunes by everyone from Billy Idol to Ornette Coleman. With Live Snakes, the revolution continues to advance, revealing that this is one insurrection best experienced in the flesh.

Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, Field grew up next door to a club frequented by Bruce Springsteen in his early days with Earth (he didn’t find out about his hometown’s most famous native son, William “Count” Basie, until much later). Starting on clarinet at 10, Field made quick progress, playing in marching band and orchestra, and put in some extracurricular time on tenor sax in a high school rock band.

An accident his freshman year at Brown University knocked out one of his front teeth, which brought his clarinet playing to an immediate end. Turning his attention to the flute, Field started to teach himself to improvise while managing the Providence folk and blues venue Big Mother Coffee House. While studying applied mathematics, he fell in with some local musicians who introduced him to innovators like Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Weather Report, and Frank Zappa.

“I started jamming with them on flute, and it was a whole educational thing for me, being exposed to all this music I really didn’t know,” Field says.

Working as a computer scientist, he turned his attention to the alto sax, and started commuting to Boston to study with noted teacher Joe Viola. Eventually he took time off from his day job to attend Berklee from 1977 to 1979, which led to his move to Boston. He spent several years playing with the psychedelic funk band Skin, and ended up replacing saxophonist Steve Adams (who was moving to the Bay Area to join Rova Saxophone Quartet) in Birdsongs of Mesozoic, a new music/chamber rock ensemble that spun off from the storied band Mission of Burma.

That was a transformative experience,” Field says. “Birdsongs is an avant rock band that’s compositionally based. I learned a lot from those guys, pushing all kinds of musical limits.

Field continues to perform and record with Birdsongs, while also maintaining a busy solo career as a player and composer with five solo releases, including Subterranea (O.O.Discs), Pictures of Motion (sFz), Tokyo in F (Sublingual), Under the Skin (Innova), and Sensorium: Music For Dance & Film (Innova). Field has written scores for animation, film, modern dance, and television, including music for Sesame Street.