New Orleans Journal 2014

When my wife Meg and I visited New Orleans a year ago, we heard Aurora Nealand in person for the first time, and I wrote about the experience here.  This time around, we heard her four times, twice with pianist Tom McDermott (Buffa’s, 21st Amendment), and one time apiece with the Panorama Jazz Band (The Spotted Cat) and her own outfit, The Royal Roses (Maison). While there’s a traditional underpinning to these ensembles, only the most jaded jazz snobs would dismiss them as such. Nealand is a musical polymath who plays trad and out-jazz, composes for string quartet, fronts the rockabilly band Rory Danger & the Dangers, and has just completed a solo accordion record that’s more about textures than tunes. McDermott channels ragtime, tango, stride, rhumba, the blues, and choro in a keyboard approach that underscores New Orleans’ deep connections to the Caribbean and Latin America. As a duo, they make music laden with melodic beauty and rhythmic surprise.  On May 8 at Buffa’s, they opened with a set played in seamless accompaniment to the Buster Keaton silent film classic, One Week.  Here they play “St. Louis Blues.”

Nealand’s soprano saxophone and clarinet playing combines a full-throated growl and lyrical inventiveness that summons the memory of Sidney Bechet. Over the course of our visit this month, we heard her playing the Bechet originals “Petite Fleur,” “Egyptian Fantasy,” “Tropical Moon Rhumba,” “Shag,” and “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere.”  The latter is enjoying renewed attention after its prominence in the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.  

David Boswell, Aurora Nealand, Matt Bell; photo by Diane Danthony

David Boswell, Aurora Nealand, Matt Bell; photo by Diane Danthony

Nealand leads The Royal Roses on Mondays at Maison.  The band boasts several outstanding players who knock out traditional jazz with a post-modern twist: trumpeter David Boswell, guitarist Matt Bell, sousaphone player Matt Perrine, and drummer Paul Thibodeaux. The group has an excellent new release, The Lookback Transmission, that you can sample here. “Ferry Man” is the album’s opener, and on the Bloody Sunday production below, it’s played on a cruise down the narrow streets of Bywater in a horse-drawn carriage. Nealand first recorded her idiomatic original for the HBO series Treme, where she makes several appearances as herself; in Episode 2 of Season 4, she takes a page from real life in advising the violin-playing character Annie Talarico (Lucia Micarelli) that she manages to make a living by playing in a lot of different settings. As the opening frames here suggest, she might also moonlight as a semi-pro quarterback.

Where Nealand and McDermott conjure the sounds of Storyville, Rio, Havana, and Buenos Aires, the Panorama Jazz Band looks eastward toward Martinique, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Balkans for an ebullient mix of trad, klezmer, gypsy swing, Sephardic, and other exotica. Inspired by New Orleans clarinetist Dr. Michael White, whom he saw play at the Smithsonian in D.C., Ben Schenk founded Panorama 20 years ago, and Nealand, who plays alto saxophone exclusively with the group,  joined more recently. The band’s joyous stomps and shouts are the rhythmic backdrop of the dance culture that comes out in force for its happy hour sets on Saturdays at The Spotted Cat, where the dance floor inside and the sidewalk out front is thronged with rug cutters.

Frenchman Street in Faubourg Marigny throbs with music from late afternoon to the wee small hours seven nights a week. In addition to a dozen-plus clubs, flash mob brass bands appear almost every night at the corner of Frenchman and Chartres. Between brass and funk bands, trad groups, and high school marching bands, the trombone remains the most prevalent instrument in the Crescent City, and Jeffrey Miller is one of the most impressive of its younger players. I heard him last year with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, and this time around he sat in with Ellis Marsalis’s Quartet on its weekly Friday night engagement at Snug Harbor and played “Milestones” and “Unit 7.” As these titles by Miles Davis and Sam Jones suggest, Marsalis pere remains an exponent of modern jazz in a city where it’s otherwise hard to come by. When I spoke with the fine clarinetist-tenor saxophonist Gregory Agid after his gig with Uptown, he expressed frustration over the lack of opportunities to play hard bop around town and an eagerness to connect with the New York scene. Miller is headed there in the fall to study at Juilliard.

Stanley Crouch presents Gregory Agid with the ASCAP Louis Armstrong Scholarship

Stanley Crouch presents Gregory Agid with the ASCAP Louis Armstrong Scholarship Award

Uptown, which is led by the trombone-playing Delfeayo Marsalis, shakes the rafters of Snug Harbor on Wednesday nights.  Their May 7 set featured Galactica drummer Stanton Moore occupying the chair that’s usually filled by Herlin Riley. Herlin’s been a favorite since I first heard him with Wynton Marsalis 20 years ago, but watching Moore master a book he wasn’t familiar with made for fascinating viewing and compensated for Riley’s absence. The 16-piece Uptown big band snaked their way down from the second floor of Snug playing Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” followed by “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing);” a second-line style arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man;” and Benny Carter’s “Symphony in Riffs,” a thrilling, Swing Era gem I’d heard only once before when Carter appeared with the American Jazz Orchestra in 1987. Delfeayo introduced his sunny memorial for Nelson Mandela, “Dream on Robin Island,” as a work that was completed in two days on commission from a New Orleans church.  Like Uptown itself, this is a work that should be recorded. The set closed with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Blues,” an Ellington-style blues complete with growling, plunger-mute brass and a booting tenor solo. It opened with Marsalis’s verbal screed against music schools that fail to inculcate a sense of the “entertainment obligation” among aspiring musicians.

Second Line for Larry Bannock

Second Line for Larry Bannock

We got word of the second line for the Golden Star Hunters Indian chief Larry Bannock while listening to Tom McDermott and clarinetist Tim Laughlin playing a Saturday brunch at Buffa’s.  Their first set included “Isle of Capri,” “Panama,” “Mama Inez,” and Laughlin’s haunting original, “Isle of Orleans.”  Then it was off to the ramshackle neighborhood around Pine and Lowerline Streets to catch up with the second line, which drew about 200 people and three small brass bands that played “Lil’ Liza Jane,” “Bye and Bye,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Here’s some colorful footage of Larry Bannock expressing his dedication to “masking” and the obligation he feels as a Mardi Gras chief.

The morning after Bannock’s funeral, we attended Mass at St. Peter Claver on St. Philip Street in Treme. The parish is home to the largest black Roman Catholic congregation in Louisiana, and its gospel choir, which greeted us with a welcoming hymn, is renowned for its annual performance at the Jazz & Heritage Festival, not to mention its first order of business, Sunday morning Mass. The poverty and violence that continues to beset New Orleans was addressed in that morning’s homily, and while the families of dozens of children in attendance were lauded for good parenting, all were urged to work toward ending the kind of violence that had claimed the life of a 14-year-old only three days earlier.

Clarinet, piano, and drum trios once enjoyed prominence in jazz. Jelly Roll Morton recorded with clarinetists Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon, and Barney Bigard around 1930; Pee Wee Russell led trios featuring James P. Johnson and Joe Sullivan in the late 30’s; and Benny Goodman led the most famous of them all with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa in 1935.  I heard Laughlin’s clarinet trio on Sunday night playing a CD release concert at Snug Harbor. This time around his show included “Avalon,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Talk of the Town,” “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” Laughlin’s original “Esplanade,” and a dozen other standards which paralleled the material on The Trio Collection, Volume 1.  Laughlin’s colleagues include Hal Smith, a master drummer of subtle trad dynamics, and David Boeddinghaus, who channeled Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Jess Stacy in impressive fashion.  

Tim Laughlin

Tim Laughlin

In addition to a visit I wrote about here to the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane, we took in an exhibit devoted to the Boswell Sisters at the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street. Connie, Vet, and Martha Boswell grew up at 3937 Camp Street in New Orleans, and heard Mamie Smith and other blues singers at the Lyric Theater, which held a series of whites-only shows called the Midnight Frolics. Like black New Orleans musicians who made their way north and west of the Crescent City a decade earlier, the Boswells moved to Chicago in 1928, then on to New York in 1931, where they became star attractions on records, radio, and the movies. They toured with Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby, and appeared on the bill with Duke Ellington at the Palladium in London in 1933. Connie was often named by Ella Fitzgerald as an influence, and after the trio came to an abrupt end in 1936, she pursued a solo career. The exhibit, Shout, Sister, Shout, is on view through October 26. Here the Boswells sing the Louis Armstrong scat vocal classic, “Heebie Jeebies.”

Lee Friedlander captured the jazz world of New Orleans a half century ago in photographs that are on view through September 7 at Yale University. Nathaniel Rich writes about the exhibit and reflects on differences between NOLA jazz then and now in the current on-line edition of The New York Review of Books.  Read it here.

Young Tuxedo Brass Band by Lee Friedlander

Young Tuxedo Brass Band in 1959; photo by Lee Friedlander





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