"I'll Fly Away" - New Birth Brass Band
In my previous transcription of Craig Klein’s version of “I’ll Fly Away,” I remarked on the unusual pairing of solo trombone and acoustic guitar in his front-porch blues rendition, paring the tune down to essentially rhythm and melody similar to the drum and fife tradition of New Orleans music. Of course, it’s Klein accompanying the guitar by playing the tune in the more guitar-friendly key of A, but it’s an example of why the simplicity of “I’ll Fly Away” made it an American standard.
Add to it the spiritual lyrics of Albert E. Brumley, invoking the struggle of daily life in hope of freedom in the life beyond, “I’ll Fly Away” is a celebration of the promise land. This New Birth Brass Band version presents the gospel hymn in a more traditional setting, second-lining behind the parading casket, providing an uplifting send-off through these broken chains. And yet, when everyone in this world will someday leave this world, how is any one of those exits more remarkable than another?
Because “I’ll Fly Away” has been performed thousands of times, if not millions, and that the tune requires minimal effort (reason for its musical brilliance), the standard performance has been established with little room to improve upon it. It’s simply unnecessary to, for a lack of better words, go above and beyond.
Without any liner notes for my digital copy of this album, I assume that this was recorded as an encore at the end of a show due to the minimal effort put on display: single-chorus solos and a rather unremarkable trombone solo, perhaps the result of creative exhaustion. I was unable to identify any signature phrasing or tone that would indicate which New Birth trombonist is playing; it could be Glen David Andrews, Reginald Steward, Corey Henry or anyone, really. And when the solo doesn’t stray much outside of the Bb blues scale, the performance doesn’t set itself apart from the rest of the crowd. But then again, that is the standard.
Here is a YouTube video of New Birth Brass Band playing “I’ll Fly Away” with the Treme Sidewalk Steppers.
Recommended reading: Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans by Matt Sakakeeny. Published by Duke University Press.