Tom McDermott's Memory Piano
Gwen Tompkins produced a nice feature on New Orleans pianist Tom McDermott for WWNO a few weeks ago. I heard McDermott twice last month in the Crescent City, and can attest that Tompkins gets it right in calling the St. Louis native, "the soul of brevity." McDermott eschews long solos, and as an interviewee, he lets his fingers do most of the talking, but he’s got a clear-eyed way of describing what inspires him and a warm wit that keeps the conversation flowing. Discussing the broken left wrist that felled him awhile ago, he says that when playing duets with bassist James Singleton he still managed to bang out a few chords with his cast. When Tompkins recalls a record of Tom Waits “slapping” out a piano tango, McDermott quips, “He’s a ruffian that way.”
McDermott appraises St. Louis as a second-string city, noted mostly for “beer and shoes.” But when he began playing piano as a kid he was attracted to the city’s historical connections with ragtime and the new recordings Joshua Rifkin was making of Scott Joplin’s music. “Maple Leaf Rag” proved to be a starter ingredient in the frothy blend of rags, Sousa marches, blues, and boogie woogie that McDermott’s mixed with Caribbean and Latin styles, including the choro of Brazil. It’s melody, first and foremost, that appeals to the composer in McDermott. “My formula is simple melody but interesting harmony,” he tells Tompkins, and cites such exemplars as Strauss, Chopin, Joplin, Jobim, and the Beatles.
McDermotts 2005 recording Choro de Norte was the result of the many visits he’s made to Rio de Janeiro since 1984, an immersion he calls “my Brazilianfatuation.” His collaborators include a frequent partner, clarinetist Evan Christopher, and members of the Rio-based ensemble Tira Poeira. In keeping with the leading role McDermott plays in a New Orleans music culture driven to finding new and novel ways of enlivening traditional materials, Choro de Norte turns convention on its head by featuring pieces by Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and eight McDermott originals arranged à la Choro. Here indeed is another perspective on what Morton called “the Spanish tinge” in New Orleans music.
(Fats Domino sharing a laugh with proteges Jon Cleary and Tom McDermott)
McDermott has made several cameo appearances in the David Simon production, Treme, which he credits with paying a million dollars a year in royalties, mostly to New Orleanians, whose music has been featured in the series. The HBO series has brought him long overdue attention outside the Big Easy, and he tells Tompkins that Van Dyke Parks is shopping a McDermott anthology around Los Angeles. I wouldn't be surprised to see him honored with a MacArthur award someday.
Listen here to Tompkins' 51-minute report, "Tom McDermott's Memory Piano," and enjoy his renditions of "Maple Leaf Rag," “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” "Blueberry Hill" (in 12/8), “Tennessee Waltz” (in Cuban triple meter), and apropos of his birthplace, “St. Louis Blues.”
Tompkins notes that, "the women like to play with you," in referring to McDermott's weekly duo gigs with saxophonist Aurora Nealand at Buffa's and vocalist Mechiya Lake at Chickie Wah Wah. He and Lake perform Mahalia Jackson's "I'm Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Song," in Gwen's report, and here he is with Nealand at Buffa's playing "Comes Love." By the way, Nealand, whom I wrote about here a few weeks ago, will be at the Walden School in Dublin, NH on July 5, and she's got several other dates around New Hampshire and Vermont. Find details here, and by all means, don't miss Nealand & the Royal Roses.