Restarting a Brand New Life

by Ryan Snyder


Since forming in 2009 out of jam sessions at the home of a developmentally challenged mutual friend, Greensboro Afro-jazz unit the Brand New Life have prospered despite enduring a near constant state of transition. Their presence as one of the city’s most danceable and consistently exciting live bands has belied the fact that key cogs in their seven- to ninepiece arrangement have quietly slipped out into other frontiers.

Founding saxophonist Casey Cranford eased out of the lineup as he eventually joined flourishing jam crew the Big Something full time. Auxiliary percussionist and de facto frontman Mamadou Mbengue abruptly bolted for Chicago’s larger Senegalese community in early 2013, while founding guitarist Ben Rayle also landed in Chicago in 2012. Life in transition continues for the Brand New Life, however, and the next step involves relocating the group entirely to New York City, site of an Afrobeat scene that’s recently spawned the standout Afropunk Fest and given a home to the Red Hot Fela tribute compilation. But unlike moves by some of the band’s individual components before, this step isn’t happening so quietly.

When the Brand New Life play their final show as a Greensboro-based band this Friday night at New York Pizza, their parting gift will be an EP that encompasses the best of a group that will likely be remembered as consistent component the city’s summer festival circuit and its limited, but enthusiastic indie jazz and funk scene. Just as easily as they were the only logical accompaniment to touring acts like Cali soul juggernaut Orgone and Brooklyn’s Antibalas offshoot Emefe, they were also mainstays at downtown Greensboro’s annual international music and food wellspring the Mosaic Festival, and drummer Daniel Yount’s own yearly neighborhood beacon WalkerFEST, which he organizes alongside his girlfriend Georgia Frierson.

“We’ve talked about moving for a long time. When we started to tour more, we went to places like Atlanta and the plans just kind of came into shape,” said Yount. “We thought that if we’re going to move this whole band to New York City, which is going to be hard as it is, we might as well do it the right way.”

The writing was on the wall as founding saxophonist Walter Fancourt and trumpet player Sean Smith began touring more intensively as supporting musicians in bands like Athens freak-pop outfit Reptar, with whom they recently performed at this summer’s Bonnaroo Music Festival, and upstart Brooklyn indie-dance group Rubblebucket. Fancourt and Smith will continue those associations — they’re actually official touring players for Reptar — as well as continue working with Greensboro ex-pat Lee Gunselman’s electronic pop outfit Casual Curious, which is currently shopping its next record.

As the band developed new associations within Northern scenes, the decision to relocate the band to greener pastures became more obvious. Not everyone is making the move, however. Career obligations are keeping guitarist Will Darity at his home in Durham, while percussionist Evan Frierson is in Uruguay to prepare for a performance in the country’s Carnevale. That leaves Yount, Fancourt, Smith and bassist Seth Barden — the rhythm and horns, otherwise the pulse of Afrobeat — to start anew.

“The tricky part about being an Afrobeat band in the Southeast is that there are hardly any,” Fancourt said. “We always keep in contact with others up North, so it just makes sense. It’s the only place where music like ours keeps going up and up.”

Yount and Fancourt in particular are leaving their homes behind, but they’re also leaving a self-titled EP, the band’s second eponymous release, that presents the Brand New Life at its playful and mischievous best. Its four tracks utilize tricky time signatures meant to fly past all but the most astute listeners, mixed in with conventional four-on-the-floor beats that sound anything but on the surface. That it was nearly two years in the making — a polar opposite to the breakneck two days of live tracking spent on their their sevensong 2010 debut — nods to the volatility of the band’s state, however well-carved their niche is.

“This EP definitely reflects, in a lot of ways, the old, original band, but we didn’t have much time to focus on mixing and doing the whole package for about a year,” said Fancourt. “We were definitely not doing anything close to strictly Afrobeat, just throwing in weird, dance-y, noisy rock and free jazz using traditional aspects of Senegalese music or Nigerian music or Ghana or Guinea.”

But that’s an additional challenge for the band, as well as their greatest asset, according to Barden: their uniqueness. In a city that loves jambands and metalcore, maybe a little too much, putting together creative bills has presented problems as time goes by.

“I’ve been told enough by music lovers and musicians that our sound is unique and relevant enough to believe it,” he said. “But because of that, we have had the challenge of putting creative bills together given that there are only a handful of bands in our market.”

The band released “Gigs- $$$” as a single last winter, anticipating a spring drop for the EP before the mixing process dragged on. The product, however, is quintessential Brand New Life funk, heavy on chords and sax harmony, but also their first look at overdubs, often the kind of noisy solos by Fancourt that earned him the honorary title “Baby Skerik,” after the infamous Seattle punk-jazz player, from New Orleans trombone guru “Big” Sam Williams at the beginning of the band’s life.

Longtime live show staple “Al Quacka”, an improvised piece conceived on Walker Avenue benches, has a bass groove so deep it sounds pulled straight off of heavyweight Jimmy Castor wax, even if its dizzying tempos recall Medeski, Martin & Wood’s “Bubblehouse” played on a turntable with an iffy belt motor.

Of all of Mbengue’s contributions toward authenticating their sound, “Bara Mbaye” might be the most important. It’s a traditional Senegalese wedding number taught to the band by their griot frontman and rearranged into a dubbed-out call-and-response tune. Oddly enough, the most traditionalsounding piece on the release, “Evil Dad,” falls the farthest outside of their normal repertoire. It’s lush and contemplative with a rare acoustic guitar appearance, and though it only makes occasional appearances in their live catalog, it hints at possibilities within the band’s sound on future releases with a recomposed arrangement.

Though Yount suggests the band will be back in town to perform on occasion, the vacuum their departure leaves might not be fully felt until next summer when WalkerFEST, already supplanted this year by Yount’s hand in Tate Street Fest, doesn’t return. They’ve not only been a showcase for local artists, but other touring bands the Brand New Life has met on the road. Given their outlook though, it’s possible that the claim in Neil Sedaka’s signature hit is actually the contrary: Breaking up really isn’t all that hard to do.

The Brand New Life will perform at New York Pizza on Friday with support from the Bronzed Chorus.