Thursday, March 18, 2010

Carl LeBlanc

I thought this might a good time to write about New Orleans guitarist/banjoist/singer Carl LeBlanc, since I've been listening to lots of Sun Ra and New Orleans music lately. LeBlanc is neither a genius nor an innovator - just a journeyman musician with a variety of performing experiences. But he intrigues me: what other musician has toured and recorded with both the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?

LeBlanc grew up in New Orleans' Seventh Ward and heard the city's brass bands on parade when he was a kid. But it was the Beatles' famous Ed Sullivan appearance which inspired him to take up the guitar; a few years later his inspirations were James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. During his apprenticeship years of playing with R & B and jazz bands in New Orleans, he got a call to sub on banjo at Preservation Hall. His dreadlocks, attitude, and lack of knowledge of the traditional jazz repertoire did not endear him to his fellow musicians; he was not called back for 20 years.

LeBlanc came to the attention of the larger jazz world when he joined Sun Ra's Arkestra in the mid 1980s. He has called Ra one of the two great teachers he has had; the other was Narvin Kimball - more about that later. Ra apparently took a liking to the young man and taught him many of the standards LeBlanc didn't know. He appears on several Arkestra recordings from this period; he is most prominently featured on Blue Delight, on which he contributes several excellent solos.

At some point LeBlanc moved back to the Crescent City with, among other things, a stack of Sun Ra compositions Sunny had let him copy. He became something of a protege of Narvin Kimball, an outstanding banjoist who had recorded with Oscar Celestin's band back in the 1920s. In more recent years, Kimball had gained widespread recognition as the banjo player with the main Preservation Hall touring band. Kimball eventually gave LeBanc his beautiful gold-trimmed banjo, and Carl took over as the banjoist with the number one Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

As it did with many New Orleans residents, Katrina dealt a serious blow to LeBlanc. He lost his home, instruments, and Sun Ra manuscripts in the flood; he did manage to save one instrument, though - Kimball's banjo. He has spoken of the connections between his very different mentors - in concert he often sings one of Narvin Kimball's signature songs, "You Can Depend on Me," while playing the older man's banjo. Ironically, though, LeBlanc says that it was Sun Ra who taught him the song.

In addition to his fine playing on several Preservation Hall Jazz Band albums, LeBlanc has issued a solo album on Preservation Hall Records, New Orleans' Seventh Ward Griot. It must confuse a lot of people who buy it at the Hall or at concerts, because traditional jazz makes up only a small part of the record. Most of it is genial R & B - either classic or original - with LeBlanc playing all the instruments. Speaking for myself, I don't find most of these songs very memorable, but there is also LeBlanc's version of "You Can Depend on Me," a striking vocalese rendition of Louis Armstong's opening trumpet solo from "West End Blues," and a strange solo guitar/voice performance of "Madman Across the Water." That last one just confused me at first, then I realized it was more of a tribute to Jimi Hendrix than to Elton John.

But the track that, in my opinion, makes the whole album worthwhile is "On Super Sunday," LeBlanc's version of a New Oleans Mardi Gras Indian chant. I won't go into too much detail about the city's Mardi Gras Indian culture or the practice of parading Uptown in full Indian costume on Super Sunday (St. Joseph's Day). But most of the New Orleans Indian songs ("Indian Red," "Corrine Died on the Battlefield," "Iko Iko," etc.) are about how brave and pretty the Indians are, or about having a good time. LeBlanc's "Super Sunday" starts out typically:

On Super Sunday
On Super Sunday
Hunter's Field
Keepin' it real
Just one deal
Do what you feel

But about 45 seconds in, he sounds a more menacing note:

You get what you give
And you die like you live

From there the song turns into an account of the quick, casual violence that can change things so quickly in New Orleans.

Just havin' fun
Then pop when the gun

Tambourine ringin'
But ain't nobody singin'
Pick up the baby
Look for your lady
You gotta move fast
Cause it might be your last

Layin' in the grass
Like year before last
One more dead
Indian Red.

LeBlanc's anger and helplessness in the face of this violence is palatable on this track. Carl LeBlanc has accomplished a lot in his musical career; "On Super Sunday," perhaps the only Mardi Gras Indian song that will bring a lump to your throat, is not the least of those accomplishments.

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