In my experience, any given week in New Orleans is second only to New York in terms of the crush of music events one must strategize over fitting in, but with enough preparation the canny music lover can program a veritable Jazz & Heritage Festival of one’s own 52 weeks a year. On our visit two weeks ago, Meg and I took it fairly easy and did most of our darting to and fro on Frenchman Street where we caught our first glimpses, but surely not our last, of Delfeayo Marsalis & the Uptown Jazz Orchestra and Aurora Nealand.
For a couple of years, friends have been singing the praises of Uptown, which plays Snug Harbor every Wednesday night, so that was an anchor in our itinerary. As luck would have it, though, I’d caught a case of food poisoning the day before at an oyster bar in Gulfport, MS, where we’d stopped en route to the Ocean Springs art museum that’s devoted to the late Walter Anderson. Born in New Orleans in 1903, Anderson was largely unknown as an artist in his lifetime, so most of his Gulf Coast inspired landscapes and drawings from nature constitute a trove of “found treasures” discovered after his death in 1965. The museum was well worth the day trip, but not the raw mollusks which caused me to miss Dr. Michael White’s tribute to Sidney Bechet on Tuesday night. The following night when we arrived at Snug for Uptown, I was still weak and figured I’d be good for just a couple of tunes, but they proved to be just right for what ailed me.
Snug is a fitting description for the dimensions of New Orleans’ premier jazz club, so our front row balcony seats offered as intimate a view as any in the house. Uptown’s set began with the band’s eleven horns snaking their way from the balcony to the bandstand below. Roger Lewis, the baritone saxophonist who’s been a longtime member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, announced the opening of “Second Line” with a funky lick that was soon taken up by the players in a call-and-response pattern. As the horns made their way downstairs, a rim shot emanated from the bandstand, and I turned to see that it was Herlin Riley at the drums. Riley has long been my model of the ideal drummer, a player who combines modern jazz chops with the relaxed grooves of a New Orleans parade music. Once I recognized Herlin, a goose bump shot through me that suddenly broke my fever and infused me with energy. I’ve been profoundly moved by music all my life, but this kind of healing was unprecedented. Thank you, Herlin!
Uptown’s personnel ranges between 14 and 19 members and is led by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, whose impressive technique and sardonic wit seems to run in the family. The orchestra’s May 15 set included a selection from Duke Ellington’s New Orleans Suite, “Second Line,” Count Basie’s “Told Ya’ So,” Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues,” (arranged by Carlos Henriquez, bassist with Wynton Marsalis), as well as “Blue Monk,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” and “Cherokee,” the latter a showcase for the clarinet playing of Gregory Agid, a protégé of the late Alvin Batiste. As I marveled over Agid’s fluid command, I came up empty trying to recall other clarinetists I’ve heard playing the Ray Noble standard. (Since then I’ve found a Benny Goodman version from 1955.) Here’s Uptown playing Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras.”
As for Nealand, George Thomas, the former jazz host at Vermont Public Radio, pulled my coat to her a year ago when he wrote in reply to my Sidney Bechet blog, “Trust me, you’ll love her…So musical, not an imitation.” George was right. Aurora evokes Bechet with a full-throated vibrato, particularly on soprano saxophone, and an ease of phrasing that I’ve rarely heard in traditional jazz circles. And while a good deal of her repertoire with the Royal Roses, Panorama Jazz Band, and Ben Police & the Grinders draws on the legacy of Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and the Classic Blues, Nealand’s post-modern insouciance keeps the music fresh and free from any hint of moldy nostalgia. Aurora’s background includes study at L’Ecole Internationale du Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and her singing and stage presence impressed me with a notion of Jean Harlow meets Bessie Smith meets Lily Tomlin.
Aurora is part of the expanding, post-Katrina music and dance scene that’s increasingly centered in Faubourg Maringy; pianist Tom McDermott calls her “The Belle of Frenchman Street.” Like San Diego-born clarinetist Evan Christopher, Colorado-born trumpeter Dave Boswell, and St. Louis native McDermott, Nealand is an out-of-towner (Half Moon Bay, CA; Oberlin) with far-ranging sensibilities that encompass jazz, rock, electronics, and avant-classical. Aurora exudes music. She’ll don a jumpsuit and gas mask and busk as a one-woman band playing accordian, bass drum, and hi-hat; play banjo while singing Scots-Irish ballads at Snug Harbor; blow alto with her rockabilly band, Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers; and join the Free Jazz jams around town. But she’s best known as a central figure in the youthful, pop-up culture that’s fostering a new take on early jazz and Swing, one akin to the Gypsy jazz and New Grass scenes elsewhere. Not surprisingly, this one’s happening in New Orleans, the city that gave birth to a unique, improvised reworking of standard materials a century ago, and continues to inspire musicians who love to play around with tradition and do so with an appreciation for the music’s social appeal and danceability.
Our first view of Aurora was with Ben Polcer at the Spotted Cat, where we peered in from the street and saw a packed house dancing to the familiar strains of “Wild Man Blues.” Sidewalk jitterbuggers who looked in the know confirmed that it was Nealand whose soprano soared above the ensemble. The following night we saw her at Maison with her band, The Royal Roses, a group she recorded this Bechet tribute with at Preservation Hall two years ago. Here again, a busy dance floor inspired the playing of Nealand, Boswell, and the amazing sousaphone master Matt Perrine. Suitably impressed and thoroughly intrigued, we picked up the Nealand trail three nights later and heard her with McDermott at Buffa’s, where they appear every Thursday. That night found them playing “Winin’ Boy Blues,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Indian Summer,” “Me, Myself and I,” and a dozen other gems that kept us enthralled for two-and-a-half sets and now have us plotting a return visit to the Big Easy before the year is through. (Here Aurora and McDermott play “Comes Love.”)
In addition to Uptown and Aurora, we heard McDermott with vocalist Mechiya Lake at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal, and great sets by soul singer Eudora Evans (seen here singing the Treme theme song by John Boutte) at the Balcony Lounge and bluesman Ed Wills (seen here at the Balcony) at Bootlegger’s Grille . Most nights at Frenchman and Dauphine, we caught flash mob brass bands, the first of which featured three trombonists locking horns in animated exchanges that drew a large crowd, beaucoup tips, and dancing in the street.
Upon our arrival, we got a distant view of Irma Thomas at her annual Mother’s Day concert at the Audubon Zoo. Fortunately, Irma was completely audible from the front seat of our rental, but the sheer impossibility of finding a parking space anywhere near the zoo kept us from joining in the fun nearer the bandstand. Still, there’s nothing quite as welcoming as landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport and driving directly to a Sunday afternoon concert by the Soul Queen of New Orleans.
I plan to arrive early on June 23 for Irma’s appearance in Worcester, where she’s headlining the 6th Annual Paulie’s New Orleans Jazz N’ Blues Festival. The weekend long celebration of New Orleans music and food will also feature Lil’ Buck Senegal, longtime guitarist with Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, George Porter, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, and Mem Shannon. The complete fesitval lineup is here.
(Here’s Diane Danthony’s photo of Irma paying tribute to Mahalia Jackson in the Gospel Tent at Jazz Fest on April 28.)