Evan Christopher brings a modern edge to the Creole clarinet

6 08 2014


Photo by Elsa Hahne

Photo by Elsa Hahne

Offbeat August 2014 (cover story)

Thunder rumbles off the bayou and wind-whipped palm fronds rattle outside Evan Christopher’s Mid-City home. It’s a gray afternoon in June and through the sounds of a brewing storm, the bright wail of a clarinet glissando pours out of Christopher’s shotgun double, gliding between thunder cracks like an organic melody for the rhythm of New Orleans’ weather. It’s actually a phrase Christopher created for his Django à la Créole project, a hybrid of music drawn from Django Reinhardt’s catalogue, the New Orleans clarinet tradition, and the rhythms of the Caribbean, Latin America and beyond—a cultural sphere known as le monde Creole. Still, the soaring clarinet line sounds at home amid New Orleans’ moody summer elements, as if Christopher’s playing has been part of the city’s soundscape all along. And in a way, it has.

A meticulous researcher and self-professed music nerd, Christopher’s clarinet voice represents components he identified from throughout the instrument’s broad history in New Orleans. Having carefully catalogued those individual details into a kind of New Orleans clarinet vocabulary, he then incorporated them into his own style, allowing him to create a unique sound that looks to the future from the vantage point of the past. He has a deep understanding of how and why certain stylistic traits evolved in the work of the city’s most influential early clarinetists. Christopher doesn’t just incorporate the “Latin tinge” Jelly Roll Morton spoke of; he’s fluent in the music of the cultures from which that tinge emerged.

His rare, multi-dimensional comprehension of the music’s history—along with his all-star chops and rich, lyrical tone—allow him to position the New Orleans clarinet as its own musical language. It’s a complex approach but it gives him the flexibility to riff on the early jazz tradition one minute and improvise a soul-drenched blues the next without compromising the personality of his own voice.

At Satchmo Fest this month, Christopher turns his attention to Louis Armstrong, focusing on the repertoires of Satchmo’s Hot 5 and the All-Stars, as well as originals inspired by those bands. On Saturday, August 2, he plays a show at the Louisiana Music Factory followed by a festival set co-led with Don Vappie. Dubbed “New Orleans Now IS Then,” the program highlights what Christopher calls “Armstrong’s perpetual modernity.”

In a SummerFest seminar on August 3, he explores the musical relationships between Pops and his key clarinet-playing sidemen: Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard and Edmond Hall. Finally, a few days before the festival, Christopher and Gregory Agid are slated to present a clarinet summit at the International Clarinet Association (ICAC) Conference in Baton Rouge, where they’ll trace the instrument’s New Orleans history from Bechet through Alvin Batiste.

“It’s a whole weekend of finding opportunities to frame New Orleans clarinet as a really distinct thing,” Christopher says.

That hasn’t been as easy as it may sound. A clarinet that’s not seen in a classical context is usually perceived to be playing jazz. But the term “jazz” troubles lots of musicians—including Christopher, who shies away from the word in reference to his original music. For one thing, the term has come to represent a less melody-centric form than what he tends to play. Talking to Christopher, you also get the sense he doesn’t want to be boxed in.

“The ICAC was originally just asking me to do a jazz concert and I explained that actually I don’t think of New Orleans music as a sub-genre of jazz at all,” he says. “I really think of it as an ethnic style of music or clarinet-playing.”

As a bandleader in Django à la Créole and the various lineups comprised under the Clarinet Road moniker, Christopher’s clarinet is generally the only horn. At Satchmo SummerFest, he’ll explore the relationship between clarinet and trumpet in traditional New Orleans jazz.

“The thing that I love most about the groups with Louis was that interplay,” Christopher says. “Even more than the clarinet as a solo instrument, I think I enjoyed the collective improvisation.

“I look for vehicles where the harmony is implied by the melody,” he adds, referencing pop songs from the ’20s and ’30s that made their way into the traditional New Orleans jazz repertoire as examples. “When I created my ‘Waltz for All Souls’ that Stanton [Moore] just recorded, it was really an exercise in trying to create something where harmony is very much implied by the melody.”

A longtime lover of traditional New Orleans music, Christopher first moved to the Crescent City from California in 1994 after performing here on a tour with A.J. Croce. He had been working with a wide variety of groups, from West Coast straight-ahead jazz to skiffle to what he describes as “a band fronted by a guy who wanted to croon like Bing Crosby.” This juggling helped him to learn to adapt quickly and think on his feet. But it wasn’t as exciting as finding an entire community of players his age who were interested in people like Bechet and Dodds.

“There was a Tipitina’s show before they had air conditioning and it was summer and we got here a day or two days early,” he recalls, thinking back to his first visit. “We drove here from Chicago overnight—the driver, I don’t even want to know how fast he must have been driving. We woke up and the bus was on Claiborne trying to turn to St. Charles Avenue. And it was like being in another world. Over those 48 hours I met so many young guys—I’m 44 now, so early 20s—that wanted to hang out and play New Orleans music.”

He packed up and moved a few months later. A gig in Texas lured him away for three years, but he returned, determined to delve further into the history of the city’s early clarinetists. The relocation process ended up teaching him much more.

“Everybody knows of Louis Armstrong, but it wasn’t really until I got here that I pieced together just how significant this milieu was to those musicians and that music,” he says.

Willie Humphrey died shortly before Christopher arrived, but he discovered that the oral histories of musicians at Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archives could serve as what he’d later dub “lessons from ghosts.”

“At the time, Alvin Batiste was still around and still performing but my interest in the New Orleans clarinet sound was kind of specific and it prevented me from appreciating what he was bringing,” he admits. “It was less about sound and more about process and idioms of improvisation, which was too bad for me that I wasn’t interested in both things. Now, I’m finally learning more about Batiste’s contribution.”

David Torkanowsky remembers playing with Christopher when he first moved to town. Asked to name one major change in his style since then, the pianist quips, “He plays less notes than he used to.”

Photo by Elsa Hahne

Photo by Elsa Hahne

Torkanowsky’s not being flippant.

“Evan has the technique to burn down an entire city but he chooses to build the fire slowly,” he explains. “That happens to most musicians. They absorb and understand when it’s important not to play something. It’s part of the maturation process. But Evan came with so much technique that it was more apparent in him.”

Torkanowsky adds that today, “Evan can play the entire history of the Creole clarinet” without it necessarily sounding stuck in time.

“He plays on top of the beat, which gives him a forward lean that other clarinet players don’t or choose not to have,” Torkanowsky says. “It gives a modern edge to his playing. I’ve played on gigs where he can sound like Cornbread Thomas, or with Tony Dagradi, where he can do clarinet version of Tony’s sound and harmonic concept. He can be a chameleon but he has his own voice.”

While gigging around town and recording a series of albums under the Clarinet Road banner in the early 2000s, Christopher began working toward a master’s degree in musicology at Tulane. Though he gave up the program after his home flooded during Katrina, what he’d focused on in school became a focal point for his career: identifying the elements that make up what he calls “the Creole paradigm” for the clarinet.

“As long as some of that vocabulary was there, it didn’t really matter what types of music I was doing,” he says. “I liked it that all of a sudden I was feeling more consistent.”

After the storm, he took that consistency and a desire to build new audiences to France for an artist residency supported by the French-American Cultural Exchange. There, he created two new groups, the Jazz Traditions PROJECT and Django à la Créole.

Seven years and three albums later, on a blustery day in late June, it’s a Django-ized clarinet phrase that sails out of Christopher’s house, mixing with the weather.

Inside, Christopher is seated between a baby grand piano, a dining room laden with music charts, the guitarist Daniele Spadavecchio and Don Vappie, who’s traded his banjo for guitar to rehearse for the Django à la Créole: Live U.S. album-release celebration at the Little Gem Saloon. The usual touring version of the band is made up of France-based players, so there’s some extra work to be done to prepare for what Christopher knows will be a new sound brought by Vappie, Spadavecchio and bassist James Singleton.

As they debate which key Reinhardt used for “Sentimental Reasons” when he recorded it with Stephane Grapelli, Vappie fiddles with a few options. Dismissing one, he tells Christopher, “I know you don’t like minor sevenths.”

Finally, Christopher moves to the piano and plays a few chords from “Ol’ Man River” to give the other musicians another reference point. He switches back to clarinet as the guitarists find their footing and a breathy, plaintive clarinet line pulls out in front, then falls in step with Spadevecchio’s decisive, steady strums to give Vappie some space to stretch out.

“He’s really a musician—intonation, dynamics, tempos, expressiveness, voicings that we use,” Vappie later says.

He also finds that Christopher pushes his peers to go deeper into the music.

“Like, if you play a minor chord, a lot of cats will just play minor 7 or minor 9. Well, there’s a character to chords and he’s into that; he feels that, same as Allen Toussaint,” says Vappie. “You play a chord and put a seven in there and he says, ‘No no no no. A seven doesn’t sound good there, just play it triad, just play it regular major chord.’ Because there’s a character to a chord, there’s a color that works and he hears those things.”

A few days after the rehearsal, it’s show time downstairs at the Little Gem, which is packed—standing room only. Wearing a slight but unmistakable grin, Christopher tells the story that inspired Django à la Créole. In Paris in 1939, Reinhardt met Duke Ellington’s band when they were touring Europe. New Orleans clarinetist Barney Bigard was in the group. Django—a big Louis Armstrong fan—ended up in a studio session with a few of Duke’s players including Bigard, a frequent Armstrong sideman.

“They recorded five songs that combined Barney Bigard’s fluid clarinet with Django’s very angular rhythmic style,” Christopher tells the crowd, citing the origin of the Creole–meets–Gypsy-swing concept. He adds, “we took it a step further” by tossing in Cuban and Brazilian rhythms—a nod to the larger Creole world.

After the verbal intro, they get back to the music. Singleton opens a blues number with an unusually languid bass solo—a departure from the percussive way he’s handled his upright bass in previous songs. The guitars come in, adding another layer of rhythm. Finally, Christopher picks up where Singleton left off, developing similar motifs before passing the lead back to Singleton for another solo.

On Bechet’s “Blues in the Air,” Christopher delivers an emotion-packed solo hinging on the tune’s narrative and launches the whole piece into new territory.

Vappie later marvels at Christopher’s flexibility. “He’s expanded beyond the typical repertoire and moved into whatever song he hears in that style,” he says.

“And that voice, man. He’s really just got his voice on the horn. He’s not a clarinet player. He’s Evan Christopher.”


‘Keeping Time’ at the Louisiana State Museum’s Jazz Collection

6 08 2014


Photo Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum

Photo Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of the Louisiana State Museum

Offbeat, July 2014

Once a key feature of the Old U.S. Mint’s exhibition space, the Louisiana State Museum’s internationally renowned Jazz Collection sustained damage during Hurricane Katrina. It was the exhibit’s partial destruction, however, that inspired plans for a much more comprehensive presentation of the museum’s music-related holdings.

“We thought, ‘Do we replace it and make it only about jazz, or do we look at the contributions all of Louisiana has made to music?’” recalls Louisiana State Museum photographer Mark Sidler. “It was an opportunity to recast it.”

The first stage of that recasting will be unveiled at the Mint (400 Esplanade Ave.) on Wednesday, July 30, when the museum opens Keeping Time: Extraordinary Images from Louisiana’s Past, a new exhibition made possible by a donation from benefactor John Cleveland.

Comprised of photos dating back to 1899 and instruments previously owned by some of the state’s most influential musicians, the show features what museum historian Karen Leathem calls a “representative sampling” of the museum’s massive collection of some 15,000 music-related photographs, instruments, film clips and other artifacts.

“While we’re working institutionally on this larger, comprehensive exhibit about Louisiana’s music, we proposed [Keeping Time] to raise awareness about the extensive collection,” says the museum’s Director of Collections Greg Lambousy.

As such, the show expands beyond jazz-related pieces. “We tried to represent several genres,” Leathem explains. “Many of the photos show musicians in their working environments, at Jazz Fest, several are from Bourbon Street bars in the ’50s when there was a lot of jazz there—the Paddock and Mardi Gras Lounge.”

Other images offer a glimpse at some less-conventional music settings—like Michael P. Smith’s shot of Boozoo Chavis playing accordion on the back of a fishing boat while his wife, Leona, steers.

“We also have photos by Rick Olivier, and Elemore Morgan, Jr. who was a painter but also a documenter of Cajun and Creole music in Southwest Louisiana. And we have several from periods past, including Charles Bennett and John Coleman,” Leatham says, adding that Sidler, Skip Bolen and John McCusker have pieces in Keeping Time as well.

In a room adjacent to the photography, a display featuring Louis Armstrong’s first cornet, Sidney Bechet’s soprano saxophone and Fats Domino’s pianos will highlight the museum’s unique program for restoring and conserving musical instruments.

“The most noteworthy piece, perhaps, is [Clarence] Gatemouth [Brown]’s fiddle,” Lambousy muses. “It was discovered after Katrina in the case. It was water-logged and the glue in the joints had disintegrated, but reconstructing it is something we would like to do.”

The price tag on fixing such pieces can be high, though. Lambousy estimates the museum spent $35,000 to conserve a white Steinway piano that once sat in Fats Domino’s family room. “There’s a strong need to raise funds for the conservation of these national treasures,” he says.

Keeping Time opens with a reception at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 30, followed at 7 p.m. by a free concert by the trio of Joe Krown, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Russell Batiste, Jr.

More Highlights from Jazz Fest 2014

23 05 2014

Bits and pieces of Fest highs and lows written for the Gambit and dug out of my notebook that I thought were worth saving/remembering …


The combined rhythmic sensibilities at work in the Jazz Tent during Stanton Moore’s trio set with James Singleton and David Torkanowsky yielded more than a few innovations in time and space as the three veterans interpreted James Black, Herbie Hancock and selections from their own compositional arsenals. Moore repeatedly favored lushness over hard edges in his solos, demonstrating the softer side of a complex groove. They imbued Moore’s funk-soaked “Tchefunkta” with pliant, rolling drum figures that added dynamics to the tune’s signature bass motif.

“You can’t be a drummer in this town if you can’t play this tune,” Moore later announced. He then made a point of giving props to Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell, Johnny Vidacovich and more of his mentors before wrapping things up with a blistering version of James Black’s “Magnolia Triangle.”


In his wrap-up of Jazz Fest’s first weekend, New York Times critic Ben Sisario (rather confusingly) noted that there was no electronic dance music at Jazz Fest; he was wrong.  Canadian producer and DJ trio A Tribe Called Red keeps their beats and samples rooted in what they call “electric pow-wow music,” but the combination of ecstatic, high-ranged Native American vocals and uptempo, dance-inducing pace had a decisively electronic feel at the group’s Jazz and Heritage Stage performance.

Tempos raced through stop-starts and clusters of drum-and-bass-paced beats for most of the set before the trio finally let one sample linger: It was Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The crowd was gleefully filled in the lyrics – until the guys literally turned the beat around, throwing the sing-songy finish through an effect that transformed it into a pummeling series of sharp-edged synthesized lines.


Houston was most assuredly in the house at Samsung on Thursday when Lyle Lovett sailed through a breezy and endearingly oddball set of hits that included his best-know work from ‘80s and ‘90s recordings like “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band,” “Pontiac” and “The Road To Ensenada.”  Well-worn classics like the pensive yet silly “If I Had a Boat” and the big band flavored “Here I Am” encapsulated Lovett’s characteristically restrained drama, while he got the audience bouncing with the energetic “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas”).

The singer also reserved ample space in the set to praise his band – particularly, the fiddle player, Luke Bolla, who performed a tune of his own.


Tuareg guitarist Bombino’s high energy, rock heavy Blues Tent set on Sunday was defined by propulsive cycles of thickly wrought electric desert blues. Though the lyrics embedded in his shimmering vocal melodies were not in English, the band’s front line of guitar, rhythm guitar and bass created driving rhythmic structures conveying a sense of travel across time and space. Meanwhile, Bombino’s trilled and sometimes eerie vocals intimated the sense of longing and struggle that traditional Tuareg music shares with Western blues. That connection was especially evident for any fest-goers who caught the North Mississippi All-Stars at Acura shortly before Bombino.

The Blues Tent crowd roared in appreciation repeatedly as Bombino launched himself into overdrive, jumping up and down and spinning around as if his blistering, pick-free jams needed any more emphasis. Despite that mesmerizing combo, it was tough not to focus on the bassist, who kept the set rooted in deep lines of grit executed on a uniquely shaped bass with neon pink strings. (No wonder the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach only played bass on one of the tracks he produced for Bombino’s album, “Nomad.”)


Surrounded by an army of familial Indians festooned in hot pink feathers, plus a pair of Skull and Bone Gang skeletons, Monk Boudreaux’s Jazz and Heritage Stage appearance on Sunday was visually stunning — even for a venue where sparkling suits abound. The singer delivered a Indian standards like “(Somebody Got) Soul Soul Soul” as well as a few reggae infused melodies with able backing from what sounded like members of Cha Wa. (It was hard to see the musicians through that wall of hot pink.) Two elements of Monk’s performance stole the show, though. One was the lush, stormy and extended incantation that opened his rendition of “Shallow Water, Oh Mama,” a stark contrast to the brilliant sunshine above. The other was the pint-sized drummer-turned dancer who began the set at one end of the stage, drum sticks in hand before throwing down so much fancy footwork that he eventually dropped the instrument and moved center stage to rock out in front of his Big Chief.


Stanton Moore’s virtuosic drum solo-turned-duo with vibes player Mike Dillon (guesting on percussion) galvanized Galactic’s Jazz Fest set again this year. But the sheer muscle of Maggie Koerner’s vocal performance was the real star of a set that featured chestnuts from Galactic’s early days along with more recent tunes like the bounce-centric new single, “Dolla Diva.” Koerner’s belting reached a new echelon of power when, in the final moments of “Gimme Shelter,” she yanked the monitor out of her ear, tossed it on the ground and delivered the line, “I’m gonna fade away” with so much raw dynamism it looked like her jaw might pop off its hinges.


What exactly was Sixto Rodriguez saying to his New Orleans-based fill-in band during those long, awkward pauses between virtually every song in his performance at the Blues Tent on Sunday? That’s a question guitarist Alex McMurray, who seemed to be the focus of Rodriguez’s conversational attention during those breaks, will probably get asked a lot in the coming weeks.

While the breaks gave the set an off-kilter flow and Rodriguez seemed a bit frail, he was at his best performing music with a similarly vulnerable vibe. His guitar work was graceful, his voice, warm on the moody “Sugar Man” (the hit referenced in “Searching for Sugar Man,” an indie documentary that helped reignite his career). The lovely but sad “Streetboy” elicited almost as much love from the crowd, while tunes like “Lucille” seemed to require a confidence Rodriguez might not have had in him.





Evan Christopher Reflects on his New Orleans Evolution

22 05 2014

A shorter version of this Q&A appeared in DownBeat‘s May 2014 issue, with this expanded version appearing online.

ec2 New Orleans may be the only city in the world that boasts a downtown building with a 13-story tall  clarinet painted on its wall—a fact that local clarinetist Evan Christopher is fond of pointing out. For a  onetime saxophonist whose heart never left his first reed instrument, discovering the clarinet’s central  role in early New Orleans jazz was a revelation and a large part of the reason he moved there from  California two decades ago. Today, Christopher ranks among the city’s premier clarinetists. He’s also  making waves in Europe and beyond with his Django à la Créole project, which, along with his  Clarinet Road solo work, helped him top the category Rising Star–Clarinet in the 2012 DownBeat  Critics Poll.

 A by-product of Christopher’s post-Katrina sojourn in Paris, Django à la Créole fuses staples of Django  Reinhardt’s music with elements of early New Orleans jazz, while highlighting the influence Crescent City clarinetists like Barney Bigard had on the guitar virtuoso. The band’s ambitious third release, Django À La Créole: ‘Live’!, also mines influences spanning the Americas, Europe and Africa to explore common denominators of the “Monde Creole,” or Creole world.

Django à la Créole will tour in the United Kingdom and France in May and June, including stops at the Bath Fringe Festival (May 28), London’s Pizza Express (June 3) and the Dixie Days Festival in Le Havre, France (June 6). The group will return to the United Kingdom in July for the Edinburgh Jazz Fest (July 23), among other dates.

Christopher will hit the road with his Clarinet Road project in August, performing dates at France’s Marciac Jazz Festival (Aug. 9), the Idyllwild Jazz Festival in Idyllwild, Calif. (Aug. 15) and at the Chicago Jazz Festival (Sept. 1). Christopher’s complete tour dates are posted at clarinetroad.com.

DownBeat recently caught up with Christopher in New Orleans to discuss how his work has evolved. This is an expanded version of a story that appeared in the May 2014 issue of DownBeat.

DownBeat: Before Katrina, you studied early New Orleans clarinetists in a musicology master’s degree program at Tulane. What was your goal?
Evan Christopher: I was trying to make an argument for a Creole paradigm for the clarinet style, and advocate for treating it almost like an ethnic style of music—a very style-specific vocabulary like klezmer music. Those world musics have a very distinct vocabulary, but nobody had really talked about New Orleans music in that way. I was looking at it as a basis for aesthetic value judgments as well.

DB: When you arrived in New Orleans, people gave you guided access to some of the historical jazz resources in town. Did that shape your musicianship beyond academics?
EC: Yeah, part of it was exactly that. When I moved here in the mid-’90s, there were no living clarinetists with whom to study that style of music. Willie Humphrey was the last and he died a few months before I got here. The Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University had all these oral histories, and sometimes the musicians would play on them. So research evolved out of me taking lessons from dead people, lessons from ghosts. Just to kind of piece together what that tradition looked like. As a performer, it’s also natural for me to tell nice anecdotes about musicians or about the songs, and people seem to respond to that in a good way. And the Django à la Créole story that I tell, for example, is how Django got to meet Barney Bigard when the Duke Ellington band was touring in Europe. It became the basis of the whole project because he went in the studio and recorded a few songs.

DB: What’s your process in terms of taking elements from le Monde Creole and incorporating them into tunes associated with Django?
EC: Sometimes to demonstrate the Creolization of a song, I use “Dinette” by Django Reinhardt. In our arrangement, that’s a specific one where the melody he wrote to the chord changes of “Dinah” reflect his admiration for Louis Armstrong. The rhythm of the melody lends itself to fitting with certain Cuban rhythms. Elements of his guitar solo let us use these almost riff-like little hooks and we can build an arrangement. So that if somebody knows Django Reinhardt’s version, they’ll be tickled. But if someone’s never heard it at all, they’ll be tickled. That’s an example where you look as deep as you can and try to figure out where the common ground might be. When the different treatment is almost ordained by rhythmic or melodic or harmonic elements of the song itself, then it feels [like it’s] going to stand on its own.

DB: What kinds of challenges did you face in arranging the new album’s version of “Dear Old Southland” to create such a natural passage into the Django feel?
EC: The challenge is the same with all our material: Finding Django songs that ask to be Creolized and New Orleans material that asks to be Django-ized is the essence of the group. I try not to force that, because if I do, we run the risk of pastiche that’s banal instead of delivering something clever and convincing. There’s nothing worse than songs that get re-harmonized or put in an odd meter or in another style for no evident reason.

DB: How has working with Django à la Créole changed your playing or arranging since its formation 2007?
EC: I’d like to think that the best thing the group has done is to encourage me to paint more boldly and broadly with the stylistic pallet of le Monde Creole, whether a song gets a New Orleans flavor, Cuban, Caribbean or Brazilian flavor. Also, I’m finally starting to figure out how to play clarinet like a lead instrument and enjoy the challenge and primacy of melody. There’s the lost art: melody. When I hear clarinetists playing the instrument like “jazz saxophone” [gestures with air quotes], I laugh to myself feeling that I’ve unlocked some secret that they haven’t.

DB: Numerous clarinetists that you reference in your music were students of renowned New Orleans teachers, Lorenzo Tio Sr., Lorenzo Tio Jr. and Louis “Papa” Tio. Is there a lineage from their teaching to your music?
EC: Oh, yeah, the Tios are great. My emphasis on the primacy and the art of melody comes from the fact that the Tios didn’t teach improvisation. They said that would just come naturally of its own accord. They didn’t teach jazz theory and jazz harmony; they taught people how to get good sounds on their instruments, how to play in tune, how to fix their instruments. They taught them how to read. Emphasizing the Tios’ importance is also about refuting the mythology that this music wasn’t created by schooled musicians. The reality is that the most of the significant musicians who brought the music forward once they left New Orleans and started working with groups in Chicago and New York were schooled. And [during] the transition—where music started being played without written scores—the clarinetists figured real prominently there in a very fun way. Knowing just a little bit of history about the Tios makes it easier to start discussions about the origins of jazz.

DB: A few years back, you said in an interview that you were in the process of “cataloging the way brass bands harmonize in the street.” What was that research about and how does it fit into the larger scope of your work today?
EC: I was trying to come up with a way to teach collective improvisation in a way that made musical sense. So I was trying to see in performance practice what was natural to everyone—self-taught musicians or those who may have started from reading partitions and then changed to reading music without scores. I was putting on paper some of these elements of the vocabulary because at the time, I was working on an orchestral composition. I wanted to figure out the way Mozart, as an example, would use rhythmic elements he heard in folk dance to signify folkiness in his music. So I was looking for elements of vocabulary [I could use] to evoke New Orleans-ness or Southern-ness or blackness or churchy-ness or Mardi Gras Indian-ness. What I found is that because this music, in a lot of ways, is a little bit bound by Western harmony, pretty much the same things that work for Bach work when a clarinet player’s trying to play next to a trumpet player.

DB: Besides early New Orleans jazz, what else has served as inspiration for the Django project?
EC: There’s a lot more that comes from the church—whether intuitively or intentionally—than I ever would have realized. [There’s] the evolution of Shannon Powell’s tambourine playing and its effect on the drum tradition here, or the harmony of the way spirituals are played, or the way brass bands play harmonies amongst themselves. It’s all obviously related to the church tradition.

DB: Which track on the new album best represents the direction Django à la Créole seems to be headed in the future?
EC: Our treatment of “The Mooche” is special to me. Inspired by Ellington’s live Fargo recording, his 85-year-old classic became fresh to us in the spirit of Duke’s own continual evolution. Sure, it’s repertory, but it seeks to harness the composer’s spirit and avoids being bound to old recordings.

Corea Heats Up Second Weekend of New Orleans Jazz Fest

11 05 2014

From Downbeat.com

Chick Corea/courtesy Erika Goldring

Chick Corea/courtesy Erika Goldring

 Chick Corea has said that the “vigil” referenced in the title of his latest album is about guarding the  “precious communication line between artist and audience.” At his New Orleans Jazz and Heritage  Festival performance on May 4, he paid homage to that ideal with tenacious exuberance, using every  faculty at his disposal to engage his listeners and pull them into music that was at once brilliant and  straight-up fun.

 The set drew mostly from the epic, often difficult material on The Vigil (Stretch/Concord Jazz), which  was released in August 2013. But from the outset, Corea’s playful energy and buoyant touch imbued even  the most complex passages with a lightheartedness unique to his live performance.

In the hour-long set, Corea alternately grinned, clapped, bounced around the stage and at one point  appeared to applaud Tim Garland’s sax solo, all while ushering the group through a wild yet seamless  miscellany of Latin and Caribbean rhythms, post-bop, classical figures and fusion-y nods to his ’80s-era  Elektric Band. Or, as Corea said onstage, describing the range of material: “a potpourri of stuff.”

The show began with an acoustic piano-based rendition of Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit” (“Tempus Fugue-It”) that maintained the relaxed Latin flavor of the tune’s introduction well into its intense tempo climaxes. The piece also introduced percussionist Luisito Quintero and drummer Marcus Gilmore’s interplay with the first of what would be multiple scorching solos the pair performed almost in tandem.

Given Corea’s stage setup included acoustic piano and two electric keyboards, he could have taken the opener into more experimental territory (à la rock group Yes’ 1980 version). But Corea kept things relatively light and bop-centric at the start, which made for an inviting welcome instead.

As the set progressed, Corea explored his more mischievous side, toying with electronic sustains and samples, as guitarist Charles Altura provided swirls of color over a deeply woven blanket of bass funk. The pianist left his station when the rhythm heated up, grabbing a cowbell while Garland drove the melody forward. Later, Corea got back behind the keys, ushering the ensemble’s kinetic improvisations to a chord-punctuated close.

One of the more evocative moments came during “Planet Chia,” which Corea dedicated to the late guitarist Paco de Lucía (1947–2014), whom he called “one of the most beautiful musicians of all time.” Moving back to his acoustic piano, Corea paired a series of nimble right-hand flourishes with an elongated figure of steady warmth from the bottom register before Altura took over with the tune’s groove-rooted flamenco lines. As bassist Carlitos Del Puerto offered up soft, graceful accents that transformed into a gorgeous solo, Corea found his way out from behind his keyboards again, this time clapping softly alongside Del Puerto, bouncing his knees to the beat and beaming at the crowd.

“We’re gonna do one more tune,” Corea announced, then added the endearing understatement: “Our tunes are kinda long.” (The tracks on The Vigil range from about eight to 18 minutes each.)

He called “Galaxy 32, Star 4,” coyly introducing the whimsical cosmic kook-out that opens the new album. “It’s a particular location. See, this is a solar system. You got a lot of them. After a while, there’s a bunch of planets in there, too.”

A handful of effects-driven space beeps and buzzes followed as an impish Corea toyed with his instrument, flashing the occasional “stay with me” look at the sea of grinning faces before him. Once the roar of Gilmore’s kit kicked in, Corea took off, zigzagging through the drum part’s open spaces then breaking things down with a series of controlled chordal bursts. As the tune moved into a melodic groove, Corea returned to feeding his drum-and-percussion duo angular, electronic riffs. Things soon turned much darker, with Garland, Altura and Corea coming together to issue unison waves of rock in a frenzy of prog that compelled virtually every audience member to rise and cheer.

It was no surprise later when the group exchanged call-and-response vocals with the music; at that point the “line between artist and audience” had been completely redefined.

Porter, Marsalis & Keb’ Mo’ Soar at Jazz Fest in New Orleans

1 05 2014

Branford_Marsalis_2370 From  DownBeat.com, April 30 2014

 On April 25 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Gregory Porter stood behind the Jazz Tent, alone.  The first  notes of “Painted On Canvas” wafted back from the stage as Porter calmly spun one arm in circles to the slow beat of the  music, his mouth set in a half-smile, his eyes cocked up at the blue sky.

 The meditative warm-up ended within moments, but the serenity he evoked seemed to stay with him throughout his set,  which spanned selections from his three albums—2010’s Water and 2012’s Be Good(both Motéma) and his Blue Note  debut, 2013’sLiquid Spirit. The performance also featured a strong fill-in from local pianist Jesse McBride.

Porter went on to engage the crowd with a groove-drenched “On My Way To Harlem.” The lilting and poetic “No Love  Dying” followed, Porter’s warm baritone cushioning the ends of phrases through lyrics full of both ominous images and a refusal to accept the end of love. It’s not one of Porter’s overtly gospel-influenced songs, but the audience was soon backing him up, choir-style, on the refrain—a perfect segue into “Liquid Spirit,” which brought the crowd to its feet.

“My mother was from Shreveport and she taught me how to make hot-water cornbread and how to sing in church,” Porter said as an introduction to the song. Praising her for teaching him how to tap into spiritual energy, he added: “She taught me how to think about music.” It wasn’t long before the tent rang out with the sound of hundreds of handclaps and hollers, giving the nearby Gospel Tent a run for its money.

If Porter brought spiritual serenity to the Jazz Tent, the next day’s closer, Branford Marsalis, brought muscle. Alternating between tenor and soprano sax, he led his quartet through a fiery collection of tunes that featured pianist Joey Calderazzo and drummer Justin Faulkner at their most visceral.

A thunderous version of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo” followed a pair of originals by Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis. Later, Marsalis opened his notoriously knotty “In the Crease” with hummingbird-like flutter breaths—a light touch belied the labyrinthine rhythms that lay ahead.

Things escalated quickly, with Calderazzo and Faulkner taking turns upping the power until Marsalis briefly cooled the tune off with a series of crescendoing lines. Soon, Calderazzo was on his feet behind the piano’s left side, siphoning new sounds out of his instrument as Faulkner forged his way through the odd meter with both brawn and grace. The performance earned the band its first standing ovation of the set.

Its final standing O came after Marsalis invited his brother Jason and father, Ellis, to join him onstage. A stately drumroll and powerful bass solo announced the group’s closing number, “St. James Infirmary.” Eschewing the campy factor that often plays into the New Orleans standard, Ellis delivered a sultry, blues-soaked piano solo that swung to its core. Branford, back on soprano, picked up the melody with dramatic doses of restraint and release, then wailed into an exuberant finish.

Earlier that day across the Fair Grounds, another venerated member of New Orleans’ jazz elite made a surprise appearance with one of the festival’s so-called “guest” touring acts.

“Michael’s never played this song, but he can play anything,” quipped singer-songwriter-guitarist Keb’ Mo’ while introducing clarinetist Dr. Michael White, who sat in on the traditional jazz-inspired “Old Me Better.”

“He can play way harder stuff than this,” he said. “We don’t play hard stuff, just fun stuff.”

The guitarist was half joking, but much of his set’s beauty came from its stripped-down nature. On a weekend that also featured the grinding blues-rock of the North Mississippi Allstars and the driving Delta-meets-desert blues of Tuareg guitarist Bombino, Keb’ Mo’ presented a welcome reminder of the more comforting side of the blues.

Joined by Tom Shinness on electric bass and cello, and Casey Wasner on drums, Keb’ Mo’ focused on material from his new album, BLUESAmericana (Kind Of Blue), which, as the name suggests, draws on a range of American roots traditions beyond blues—spiced by episodes of lyrical irony.

The playfully rendered dark side of tunes like the groove-filled opener, “The Worst Is Yet To Come,” gave the set an edge, while Keb’ Mo’s addictively warm vocal range and his band’s instrumental interplay kept the vibe upbeat.

Shinness lent a rootsiness to the performance, switching from bowed cello (“Government Cheese”) to electric bass (“Life Is Beautiful”) to slinging his cello like a guitar on the divorce-themed “The Itch.”

Many hours after his festival performance on Fais Do Do Stage, Keb’ Mo’ got a taste of the local roots-music scene when he sat in with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the hall’s “Midnight Preserves” series.

Jazz Fest continues May 1–4 with performances from Trombone Shorty, pianist Chick Corea, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Jon Batiste, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and more.


Fest Focus 2014: Gregory Porter

26 04 2014

GregoryPorter From OffBeat’s 2014 Fest preview coverage … 

 No male jazz singer has elicited more attention recently than Gregory Porter, who, since his 2010  debut, Water, has consistently been hailed as the best new voice in the genre.

 In February—after earning multiple jazz and R&B Grammy nominations over the course of three releases—  he snagged the award for best jazz vocal album with Liquid Spirit, his first recording on Blue Note. And  while there’s no doubt that Porter’s velvety baritone and evocative songwriting contributed to his meteoric  rise, something deeper sets him apart, too. His music is a focused expression of emotion that’s both honest  and unfailingly self-aware.

 A college-football star turned musical-theater performer, Porter came to jazz relatively late, bringing with  him a kind of openness that must have suited his dramatic work. (His best-known theater piece is an  autobiographical play about how Nat King Cole’s music filled in some of the emotional blanks left by his absentee dad.) When Porter switched gears to jazz singing, he stuck with the complex personal narratives and deftly pinpointed the themes he wanted to tackle. In the case of Liquid Spirit, those ranged, in Porter’s words, from “mutual respect” to “male vulnerability” to the importance of uplifting others.

“My mother and a number of other people in my family are ministers, so when [the title track to]Liquid Spirit started to develop in my head, it sounded like what I sang when I was five years old,” says the California-raised, Brooklyn-based singer, now 42. “It was straight from my childhood—the feeling, the energy. I think people yearn for that uplifting and wider-thinking song that came in the ’70s,” Porter explains, referencing Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield. “It’s about brotherhood, political facts, a conversation of wider, upward thinking.”

It’s also frequently about love for Porter, though not necessarily the kind that revolves around flowers and kisses. With complex lyrical themes, Porter draws on not just jazz but what he calls “a family reunion” of genre influences, from blues to gospel and beyond.

“Moments of vulnerability, strength, questioning, wonder—they all are something people want to hear in music, and jazz is a genre that can sometimes separate the brain and the heart,” Porter muses. “I’m trying to put the brain and the heart together.”



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