[JPL] Five albums by jazz artists influenced by their New Orleans
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Sat Sep 13 17:32:09 EDT 2008
A Mark That Can't Be Washed Away
Five albums by jazz artists influenced by their New Orleans years
By LARRY BLUMENFELD
September 13, 2008; Page W14
Whether born and raised in New Orleans or lured there by cultural riches,
jazz musicians discover new takes on the city's traditions while finding
Dr. Michael White
Basin Street Records/$16.98
Basin Street Records
Long before the floods that devastated his city, clarinetist Michael White
wrestled with the challenge of preserving New Orleans traditional jazz
without embalming it. He sought to write tunes built on time-honored local
forms that spoke to the here-and-now. But Dr. White struggled to compose
anything at all during the past three years -- until late 2007, when
original music began pouring forth. To record these new tunes, he assembled
longtime members of his Original Liberty Jazz Band, standard-bearers
including trumpeter Greg Stafford and trombonist Lucien Barbarin. And he
invited New Orleans natives such as trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who plays
sparkling lines on this CD.
Familiar Crescent City elements anchor each composition: the parade beat
beneath "King of the Second Line"; the propulsive ragtime feel of "London
Canal Breakdown"; the Spanish and French Caribbean dance passages within
"Ooh La La (Danse Créole)." "Katrina," the album's only explicit evocation
of tragedy and its most arresting track, arrives as a dirge, scored for jazz
ensemble rather than the more customary brass band. It reflects a renewed
relevance of the dirge in Dr. White's hometown, not to mention the promise
of transcendence through collective improvisation.
At a club called d.b.a., along a boisterous strip of Frenchmen Street,
singer John Boutté regularly silences the Saturday-night tourist
conversations. For the locals who press up close to the stage, these weekly
gigs are cathartic ritual. In performance, Mr. Boutté moves like a flyweight
boxer: hanging back, shifting his weight, thrusting forward without warning.
Even on CD, he conveys that sense -- bouncing silkily along until he
delivers a stinging high note or devastating flurry of melismata.
Born into a large and musical Creole family, Mr. Boutté has roots in gospel
and traditional jazz. He frequently taps out syncopated beats on a
tambourine. But he fits no convention. On "Good Neighbor," the sweetness and
grit of his tenor voice is supported by an enviable list of New Orleans
musicians. Trumpeter Leroy Jones, a frequent collaborator and local hero,
adds subtle, pungent counterpoint to several tracks. "Foot of Canal Street"
owes its revival-tent energy in part to the growls and purrs of brothers
James and Troy Andrews on, respectively, trumpet and trombone. And when Mr.
Boutté laments a loss of innocence on "Wake Up," the drama is unforced.
Beneath his formidable musical talents lies a gift for elegantly telling the
Tom McDermott and Connie Jones
Pianist Tom McDermott, who moved from his native St. Louis to New Orleans
nearly 25 years ago, is as comfortable and expert playing a Brazilian choro
as he is digging into a Jelly Roll Morton rag. And he can explain the
connections between the two. His deep and broad knowledge provides firm
footing when he sprinkles Cuban rhythms into part of a Chopin Nocturne, or
composes lovely originals like "Ambivalence," in French vals-musette style.
Mr. McDermott is an essential flame-keeper when it comes to the too-rarely
heard music of 19th-century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk: His
condensation of "Danza" highlights both its formal rigor and swinging charm.
He's a keen collaborator, too. Here, he finds communion with cornetist
Connie Jones, who has a big, but not brash, sound and an easygoing style.
Mr. McDermott plays to Mr. Jones's strengths, often by way of challenge: The
12-beat rhythm and modal harmony he applies to "Tishomingo Blues" force Mr.
Jones to extend his phrases. And "Satchmo Speaks," which Mr. McDermott
constructed from a brief Louis Armstrong signature coda, nudges Mr. Jones
into edgier territory, where he shines all the more.
Django à la Créole
Clarinetist Evan Christopher, a California native, moved to New Orleans in
1994. In his frequent duets with Tom McDermott, and as a standout member of
trumpeter Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, his erudite and
personalized approach to traditional jazz commands attention. After Katrina,
Mr. Christopher relocated to Paris for two years. There, he formed two new
bands: Django à la Créole, featured on this CD, revisits the storied Hot
Club band co-founded by guitarist Django Reinhardt, distilling and
emphasizing that music's New Orleans elements. Mr. Christopher draws
particular inspiration from Mr. Reinhardt's work with clarinetists,
including Ellington sideman and New Orleans native Barney Bigard.
Beginning with the habanera beat dancing beneath "Douce Ambience," the bass
and rhythm guitar of Mr. Christopher's drummerless quartet announce a strong
rhythmic emphasis. But it's Mr. Christopher's finely calibrated control --
his fluid lines, piercing high notes, and exquisite quiver of vibrato -- and
his rapport with the equally expressive guitarist Dave Blenkhorn that steal
the show. This is repertory music of the best kind: informed by sincere
study, yet never derivative; playful, more so than reverent; aimed at
extending, not rehashing, a legacy.
In New Orleans, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison displays authority in three
ways: as an accomplished jazz bandleader; as mentor to young players; and as
Big Chief of the Congo Nation, perpetuating the city's least understood and
perhaps most essential tradition -- Mardi Gras Indian culture. All three
endeavors figure into this CD. The other members of Mr. Harrison's fine
quartet -- pianist Victor Gould, bassist Max Moran and drummer Joe Dyson Jr.
-- have a cumulative age of 57. (Then again, Mr. Harrison was 21 when he
joined Art Blakey's band.) They complement Mr. Harrison's beautifully
rounded sound and match his precise phrasing as smoothly on the up-tempo
classic "Mr. PC" as on the ruminative ballad "If I Were a Bell." And Mr.
Harrison draws a line of rhythmic continuity between these styles and his
hometown's indigenous forms with the CD's last two, and best, tracks. "Drum
Line" draws on the parade beats of his days as a teenage brass-band player;
"I'm the Big Chief of Congo Square," on the African rhythms of Mardi Gras
Indian tradition. The point comes across convincingly, owing to the breadth
of African-American musical history and the depth of Mr. Harrison's skills.
Mr. Blumenfeld writes on jazz for the Journal. His essay "Band on the Run in
New Orleans" appears in "Best Music Writing 2008," out later this month from
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