I promised a report from New Orleans, but somehow I've managed to find better things to do than blog. But now I'm in my last 15 hours or so in the city, and I think I'm done. It's like when you eat a big meal and know when to stop, even if there's more food on the table. So here's my report:
Arrived in New Orleans around lunch time on Wednesday and checked in, for the first time, at the Le Richelieu in the French Quarter – nice place. After some red beans and rice, I headed to the Louisiana Music Factory and got some cool CDs and 78s, including some unreissued 78s on the American Music label. That night I caught a set by The Tin Men (Alec McMurray, Matt Perrine, and Washboard Chaz) at d.b.a. The band is “New Orleans’ premiere guitar/tuba/washboard trio,” and is very entertaining, though kind of lightweight. They played, among other things, “Palm Court Strut,” “You’re Feet’s Too Big,” and (my favorite of the evening), Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”
Then I headed to Preservation Hall to hear a band that, while not great, produced the best music I’ve heard at the Hall for at least four or five years. Carl LeBlanc* (playing Narvin Kimball’s banjo) led the a five-piece band: clarinet and trombone in the front line, but no trumpet until the German trumpeter Norbert Susemihl sat in for the last set. There was some ensemble confusion (who has the melody?) until Susemihl sat in, after which everyone seemed more comfortable. I like his playing a lot. Like I say, not great music, but for the first time in years, I left the Hall feeling better than when I walked in.
I should say something about Preservation Hall. There are those who view it as a tourist spot, with some justification. It's a place that visitors who don't know anything about jazz go. But I have memories (going back 20 years) of hearing some of the great second-generation jazz pioneers play here: Percy and Willie Humphrey, Narvin Kimball, Chester Zardis, Kid Shiek Colar. And when they were gone, the outstanding younger musicians they taught (Michael White, Wendell Brunious, Leroy Jones, etc.) still played here, and sometimes still do. But the quality of the music has greatly deteriorated greatly over the last ten years, and it sometimes seems pointless to walk in the door. But going to the Hall is part of my New Orleans ritual, even if the music is seldom very good any more. I could no more visit New Orleans without going to Preservation Hall than I could visit without eating gumbo.
Thursday night was devoted to the Evan Christopher/Tom McDermott Quartet at Donna’s, with Matt Perrine on bass and tuba and the King of Treme, Shannon Powell, on drums. Jesus god, what great music! Christopher and McDermott opened with a duet version of “Temptation Rag,” which was composed in 1909. It was as exciting and alive as any music I’ve ever heard. The full quartet apparently always opens with a tune they have never played together as a group; tonight’s choice was “When Dreams Come True.” (Have I even ever heard a live version of this tune?) It was a controlled brushfire. Perrine switched to tuba for “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and played an incredible solo. The whole first set was amazing. A couple of European guys, including Norbert Susemihl again, sat in for the second set, and the music was much more ordinary and less compelling.
The next evening found me at what has to be the center of the universe on Fridays between 6:30 and 9:30: that’s when the Panorama Jazz Band has their weekly gig at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street. I just love this band, as do all the locals, tourists, and barflies that hang out in the Spotted Cat. The PJB plays traditional jazz, klezmer, and Caribbean music, all with fire, imagination, and conviction. I spoke briefly to Ben Schenk, the clarinetist/leader, and admired saxophonist Aurora Nealand from afar.
After a couple of sets I returned to Preservation Hall – I wanted to see and hear what David Torkanowsky and Johnnie Vidacovich would sound like in this setting. Much to my surprise, I saw Evan Christopher and New Orleans’ foremost modern jazz trumpeter, Irvin Mayfield, along with trombonist Freddie Lonzo, taking the stand. I didn’t get the bass player’s name, but he didn’t know a lot of the changes. I heard the entire second set, which consisted of:
When My Dreamboat Comes Home
I Found a New Baby
Darktown Strutters’ Ball
Down By the Riverside
South Rampart Street Parade.
I stayed for part of the last set:
a song about coffee sung (!) by Vidacovich
When I Grow Too Old to Dream
This was, potentially, the best gathering of musicians I’ve seen in the Hall for years. In practice, it didn’t work too well. Torkanowsky’s playing and bandleading seemed kind of “show-offy,” and he worked out arrangements on the fly (and gave the bass player the chords) kind of loudly. I may be reading things into the situation that really weren’t there, but some of the band members seemed kind of annoyed by him. At one point during “Confessin’,” Evan Christopher just stopped playing, turned to Torkanowsky and said, “That’s not how the song goes." At the beginning of the next chorus, he kind of took over the song, slowing it down and playing it in such a way that the melody and chords would be kind of obvious. For the next chorus he just smoked - took everyone to school. Christopher was phenomenal whenever he was given a chance to play; if I had any doubt that he is the best clarinetist in New Orleans, this evening removed it.
Saturday afternoon I went to a concert by the Society Brass Band, led by Barry Martyn on snare drum. The Society is the most traditional brass band in the city, and the only one that still plays dirges and 6/8 marches from music. The concert was very exciting – almost overwhelming; it was the closest I’ll ever get to hearing the long-gone Eureka or Young Tuxedo Brass Bands. The lineup was:
Trumpets: Clive Wilson, Burnell Brunious, Chris Clifton
Trombone: Paul Robertson; Tuba: Bill Yeager; E flat Clarinet: Chris Burke
Alto Sax: Tom Fischer; Tenor Sax; Joeseph Torregano
Snare: Barry Martyn; Bass Drum: Wayne Brunious
Grand Marshall: Andrew LeDeuf
“Sweet Fields,” “Westlawn Dirge,” “Salutation March,” and “Abide With Me” were all played from music. They also played (among other things) "Lord, Lord, Lord," "Panama," "Lady Be Good," and "It Feels So Good," that 1950's R & B song that the Young Tuxedo Brass Band used to play. I never thought I would hear a live performance of “Westlawn,” my favorite brass band dirge – it was played a little fast for my taste, but was still beautiful. Seeing this performance gave me a better idea of how the three trumpets in a traditional brass band were used; they all three played only on the first and last choruses; otherwise either the second and third trumpet or only the first was playing. I’ve always loved Tom Fischer’s beautiful sound on alto, so we talked vintage saxophones afterwards – he plays an early-20’s Beuscher. Again, a phenomenal experience.
So I don't think I'm going out to hear more music tonight. I'm going to get some dinner and take a walk through the Lower Quarter and Marigny. After Evan Christopher, Tom McDermott, the Panorama Jazz Band, and the Society Jazz Band, I'm full.
*Yes, the same Carl LeBlanc who played guitar in Sun Ra's band for years. A few years back he came back to his hometown and started playing music from his roots.