Before and After with Kermit Ruffins

6 10 2014

Kermit Ruffins JazzTimes, October 2014

 Jazz Times’ take on the blindfold test gives musicians a a chance to respond before  and after they’re told what’s being played for them — this is from the magazine’s  October 2014 brass issue.

For more than 20 years, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ name was synonymous with the  raucous, legendarily late-night Thursday gigs he performed with his BBQ Swingers at  Vaughn’s in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood. Since retiring from that residency  last summer, he’s proudly courted a quieter lifestyle, sticking to early set times and  focusing more on the traditional New Orleans jazz he fell in love with as a teenager.

Last year, he released an album of early jazz classics. Eschewing his usual addition of funk and R&B elements, he played straight-forward versions of tunes like “All of Me” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” with some of the city’s top traditional jazz players. (He also reigned in his proclivity for clowning around – except for the jokey title: “We Partyin’ Traditional Style.”)

Ruffins — who co-founded the Rebirth Brass Band in 1983 before quitting a few years later to play more traditional music — is currently working on plans to record a new album with the Louisiana Philharmonic. We met for this listening session on a storm-soaked summer day at his Treme club, Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. Revitalized and renamed for its new proprietor following the deaths of its original owners, R&B singer, Ernie K. Doe, and his wife, Antoinette, the club’s sound system was pumping out soul grooves for a handful of patrons when I arrived. We conducted the session in a rental apartment above the club, where Ruffins dipped into a bucket’s worth of ice cold Bud Lights and sang or scatted whenever a tune moved him.

1.) Dr. John and the Dirty Dozen, “When You’re Smiling,” from “Ske-Dat-De-Dat …The Spirit Of Satch.” Dr. John, piano, vocals; Gregory Davis, trumpet; Roger Lewis, baritone sax; Kevin Harris, tenor sax; Terence Higgins, drums; Efrem Townes, trumpet; Kirk Joseph, tuba. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: Who is that? “When You’re Smiling” with a Latin groove. There’s a lot of wah-wah. I have that song on my list for my next CD with the symphony. That’s not James Andrews? No it’s not James. Dr. John. Who’s that playing on trumpet? Is that the tribute to Louis CD? I played at BAM with Dr. John and I played on his last record.

AFTER: I should have figured that out. Couldn’t tell. That trumpet solo doesn’t sound like any of the Dirty Dozen. It had to be Efrem [Townes]. I’m doing that song with the symphony on my next record.

2.) Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “Love Song of the Nile,” from “Jazz at Preservation Hall, Vol. 2,” from the “Preservation Hall Jazz Band 50th anniversary box set. De De Pierce, trumpet; Louis Nelson trombone; George Lewis clarinet; Billie Piece, piano, vocal; Papa John Joseph, bass, Abbey Chinee Foster, drums. Recorded in 1962, re-released in 2012. Anniversary Collection.”

BEFORE: That sounds traditional. Beautiful clarinet there. I’ve heard this lady sing 1,000 times on WWOZ. Old-school, that’s that doghouse music. Sounds like Preservation Hall. Nobody plays like that but the Hall. That’s a funky band, too. It sounds old but it sounds modern. A lot of that good stuff always sounds like it was made yesterday. The drummer sounds so fresh as far as the recording.

AFTER: It’s my favorite music, for sure. I’ve been going in that direction because I know I’m getting older. I’ll make 50 this year and I don’t want to record nothing that’s real hot because when I get older I’m not gonna be able to play it. So I’m recording all traditional stuff, stuff that I grew up loving first. I would have never guessed DeDe Pierce. That was way before my time. I never met those guys. I would go see the Olympia Brass Band on Sundays with Tuba Fats. The lady piano player and her husband, he’s a trumpet player. I thought it was another tune. But I can listen to that stuff all day. I wake up to that stuff every morning, listening to WWOZ. That’s my getting stuff done music.

3.) Miles Davis Quintet, “Basin Street Blues” from “7 Steps to Heaven.” Miles Davis, trumpet; Ron Carter, bass; Victor Feldman, piano; Frank Butler, drums; George Coleman, tenor sax. Recorded in 1963.

BEFORE: That’s Miles. I saw Miles twice in Nice. Beautiful. Is that the intro for “Love for Sale?” [Singing] Dab dobo dee. I’d have to hear the bass on that again – if I don’t hear the bass I don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on. I wish I had the patience to play like this. The guy is just so patient. “Come Rain or Come Shine?” No, it keeps fooling the hell out of me.

AFTER: Wow. He’s playing the rrrrreal “Basin Street Blues.” It’s sad we can’t find this late-night anymore, somebody playing like this, midnight til three. It would be great if somebody would reinvent that. Boy, it would be nice if someone would start at midnight and stick to this groove. It’s so hard to get people out nowadays that late that’s true to the music. You get a bunch of knuckleheads, no real jazz players. This is how it would sound – real laid back nightclub, midnight to three. That’s Miles’ style. I know he was living that life, too. All the musicians back in the days would go on at midnight and refuse to stop. They stayed so true to the craft.

I’m hearing it now. Basin Street … is the street … It’s funny, I remember when Wynton Marsalis tried to walk onstage in Nice while Miles was playing, Miles stopped the band and said, “You can’t just walk onstage like that.” I think that was the first time I met Wynton. And then, I think it was at North Sea, I remember Dizzy Gillespie came out of the elevator and just fell down on the floor for about five minutes. Everybody was like, “Dizzy! Oh my god!” Then he jumped up! And he was like, [Kermit throws his hands up above his head and screams] “Aahh!” I’m like,“What is going on this lobby?” I didn’t know those cats were so hilarious.

3.) “Take ‘Em To the Moon, Rebirth Brass Band from “Move Your Body.” Phil Frazier, tuba; Keith Frazier, bass drum; Derrick Tabb, snare drum; Stafford Agee, trombone; Gregory Veals, trombone; Derrick “Kabukie” Shezbie, trumpet; Chadrick Honore, trumpet; Vincent Broussard, sax. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: That sounds like one of the young brass bands. That sounds like some stuff I started. The Rebirth. When we came along we changed the whole style of brass bands. That’s the Rebirth – once I heard Derrick Tabb in there. That’s one of the tunes I never remember hearing though. Old Stafford [Agee] on trombone right here. That’d be Chad [Honore] on trumpet. Sounds like at least two trumpet players trading eights or something. Yeah, I heard that on the jukebox downstairs just the other day, it’s all coming back now.

AFTER: It’s badass. Sounds like Derrick Tabb wrote that one and Kabukie [Derrick Shezbie] made the front part. I think Derrick Tabb invented the ending. I think the trumpets were trading, you take four measures, I take four measures, you just go around the solo then it saves the trumpet players’ lips. Makes the gig a lot easier – that’s what they do a lot on the road a lot when they have a lot of tunes and solos, they’ll start trading just to save lips.

4.) “Magnolia Triangle,” Stanton Moore from “Conversations.” Stanton Moore drums, David Torkanowsky, piano; James Singleton, bass. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: It’s a hot piano player but I can’t figure it out. It wouldn’t be Davell [Crawford] playing that straight-ahead. I love that timing though. Sounds like they’re switching time. It goes from 4/4 for a minute then switches to 6/8 but it might be deceiving though. That Herlin Riley? Shannon Powell? It’s so smoky. I know that’s not Adonis [Rose], Adonis is a lot faster than that. This is so precise. It’s not fallin’ off anywhere. Most drummers will fall off – just for one second except for Herlin.

Herlin’s the only cat I know that don’t fall off, just stays right there. Zero change when it comes out to Herlin he’s like a machine. It’s scary. I can’t tell if the piano or the drummer is the leader. Goddammit.

AFTER: Stanton! Oh I should have known that was Tork. I couldn’t figure it out. Tork played on so many gigs with me and so many CDs. But I would have never figured Stanton because I kept thinkin’ about brothers for some reason. Sounds like a brother [laughs]. Tork is always badass. He’s one of those guys that just is always super, it’s never to the point where, like some days I got good days and some days I just can’t play that damn trumpet to save my life. If I have a good day I try to repeat everything I did that day – the way I slept, what I ate, what I drank, the time I started drinking … Tork he’s always hot. Stanton is a badass.

5.) Shannon Powell, “Powell’s Place” from “Powell’s Place.” Shannon Powell, drums and percussion; Jason Marsalis, vibraphone; Roland Guerin, bass. Recorded in 2005.

BEFORE: Oh, that’s gotta be Herlin. Jason [Marsalis]? So melodic. Is this Shannon? Yeah, Jason on vibes. Is that the Ray Charles album? Is that an original tune?

AFTER: Shannon’s badass with the rim shots. He does that shit constantly. I can see his face without even being there. I love Jason too. When Wynton Marsalis played at the Saenger about a year ago, I hired Jason to get Wynton to come over there. But Wynton never made it [laughs]. I thought, “I’ll get his little brother to play at my joint right after the show is over,” but he went to Snug Harbor. That’s where his dad plays every Friday.

6.) “Black, Brown and Beige: West Indian Dance,” the Duke Ellington Orchestra from “Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, the Treasury Shows, Vol. 2.” Recorded in 1945.

Before: Oh, this is my kinda shit right here. Old big bands. Is that Duke? I was so hooked on black and white videos of big bands for a long time. That stuff’s amazing. That’s what I need to be doing now, to recap, come back and play that stuff nice and loud, watching get right back into the groove. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Commodores and Lionel Richie.

AFTER: Duke Ellington – that song sounds like he’s on a train ride. That’s how he traveled. They asked him, ‘Why do you travel on the train?’ He said, ‘The President travels on the train.’ And he was a hell of an arranger. There’s nothing like that today. That tune would be right for a Broadway show or something. And that is one well-rehearsed ass band I tell you. Jeez. Those trumpet players are so precise — and the sax.

7.) “Whistle For Willie,” Jason Marsalis from “In a World of Mallets.” Jason Marsalis, vibes, whistle, glockenspiel, marimba, tubular bells, xylophone; Will Goble, bass; Austin Johnson, piano; Dave Potter, drums. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: Whoa, is that a wooden flute? That’s nobody I know. That is beautiful. I want to Pandora that, see what the hell comes up then. I love his breathing, too. He’s suckin’ in –my whistle is better when I’m suckin’ instead of blowing out. I’m gonna try that one time. He’s humming in the background too, that is crazy. They call that body huffs when you’re playing the trombone, a lot of saxophone players do it too. Same type of playing but going a step or half a step above, where you play the horn at the same time you go ’woo’ with your vocals. It’s an incredible sound. That’s some bad shit, who was that?

AFTER: Jason? No goddamn way. I would have never guessed Jason. That’s what I get for not listening. It reminds me of one of my favorite musicians, Eddie Jefferson. The way he was hitting those riffs and that style of the band. He took the solos of Miles, Coltrane and others and put words to them. He did stuff like, [Ruffins sings] “Come reminisce with me, and think about the Bird. Remember everything he did and all the things you heard. Now don’t it just amaze you, get you down inside. To think of how he had to live and then the way he died. Life was so unkind, ‘cause now could have been his time.”

He’d take that horn solo and put words all the way through. [Singing] “There is a tune that really grooves you. here is a tune that really moves you. Oh yessiree, yessiree, I heard the word” … Crazy. Nothing can beat Eddie. There’s Louis and there’s Eddie. I mean that is just the most incredible stuff ever. The only way I know Miles Davis’ solos all the way through is because of Eddie.

8.) “Buzzin Around with the Bee,” the Lionel Hampton Orchestra from “Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra, The Complete Lionel Hampton 1937 – 1941.” Lionel Hampton, vibes and vocals; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Johnny Hodges, alto sax; Jess Stacy, piano; Allen Reuss, guitar; john Kirby, bass; Cozy Cole, drums. Recorded in 1937.

BEFORE: Lionel Hampton. I love the old timers. I’m stuck on that. I’ve watched Lionel Hampton so much on old videotapes and then I saw him live in Nice. It was a blessing that I was young enough to really get out there and see everybody.

AFTER: Beautiful. I had a gig with the orchestra here in New Orleans and Lionel Hampton was on the date with me. He was real old, you know. It was a tribute to Louis, I think. Anyway, Lionel didn’t know what he was gonna play. And I had like three songs, “Sleepytime Down South,” “What a Wonderful World” and something else, I don’t remember. And Lionel heard me play – “What a Wonderful Wold” I think — and he came out of the dressing room and he said, “I’m gonna do that song.” So I no longer was doing that song [laughs]. It was a privilege to me you know, Lionel Hampton stole my song. That was the good old days. Lionel could get that.

9.) “Basin Street Blues,” Louis Armstrong from “Young Louis Armstrong, 1930 – 1933.” Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocals; Ellis Whitlock, Ziner T. Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Brown, George Oldham, alto sax; Albert “Bud” Johnson, tenor sax; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McHendrick, banjo; John Bill Oldham, tuba, bass; Yank Porter, drums. Recorded in 1933.

BEFORE: Louis. Yeah, Louis. I stole so much stuff from Pops. That’s just so classy. That true American artform. It was just so classy at the beginning you know? You could only pray and wish for that stuff to still be here – played like that and felt like that. That soul, for one, it’s just not here no more.

AFTER: It must have been tough for guys to feel like that, like Louis, in those days, and then play so incredibly well like he does here. It’s almost like how can you make such great music during those times? At the same time, it’s almost like he had to prove a point, like he’s saying, “hey we’re just as good as you,” without even saying a goddamn thing. A lot of those guys were excellent players and excellent human beings. What’s our motivation in today’s world? It’s there but it’s not something you can compare to those guys to be able to produce something so spiritual. To take some European instruments and invent something that’s so spectacular is amazing. My level of words just can’t even describe what my heart and soul feel when I hear that music.

Any jazz musician would love to come up in those times without all the pain that was going on for them back then. Because jazz was the shit. And now, today we have all this other music – there’s a lot of competition. But any jazz musician would kill to come up in the 30s and 40s with the attention and the popularity that jazz had at that time. At the same time, nobody would want to go back to the racism that was happening in those days. That music brought this country together when they were down. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis? That was the beginning of, “Hey man, let’s stop all this bullshit about a superior race.” People like Frank Sinatra started saying,

“We’re not gonna perform here if Sammy can’t come in. We’re not staying at this hotel if Sammy can’t come in.” Music is one of the things in life and history that brings people together and makes people realize that we all are one. It’s important. I just wish that music could do what it did for the United States for the rest of the world right now.

Prospect.3 brings sound-oriented pieces to New Orleans

6 10 2014

Nu_animal_hi Offbeat, October 2014

“Who are we? What are we? Where are we going?”

These are some of the questions curator Franklin Sirmans hopes to tackle through his  selections for Prospect.3: Notes for Now, the third incarnation of New Orleans’  international art biennial. Founded by Dan Cameron in the years after Hurricane  Katrina, this year’s exhibition runs from October 25 through January 25 at venues  across the city and features more than 60 artists.

As Sirmans explained at a press conference this spring, the work comprising P.3 tackles issues of identity and the search for self, themes he sees reflected in a variety of elements of New Orleans culture, from literary classics such as Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer to works by painter Paul Gaugin housed at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

“It’s a conversation that will in some ways be specific to New Orleans, but will also relate to the way that contemporary art is discussed in other environments,” said Sirmans, who serves as the contemporary art curator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Music,” he added, “plays a big part in the exhibition.”

While music is obviously a cornerstone of New Orleans culture, sound in general plays an important role in how we as humans define ourselves and relate to others. Some of P.3’s most compelling sound-oriented pieces combine those two aspects, identifying local points of departure from which to explore more global and far-reaching constructs about identity, like the relationship between who we are and where we call home.

A current of that idea runs through Subterranean Homesick Cumbia, the P.3 contribution from Los Angeles-based audio/visual artists, Los Jaichackers (Julio Morales and Eamon Ore-Giron). Their two-channel video installation focuses on the accordion’s historical migration down the Amazon and the Mississippi rivers, using footage of the instrument floating down the Amazon in Peru and entering New Orleans through the Industrial Canal.

Together, the images are meant to reflect what Morales called a kind of “cultural flow” in which the same instrument traversed the Western Hemisphere’s largest rivers and, from there, played central roles in two distinct forms of regional folk music: cumbia, in Latin America, and zydeco in North America.

Morales likened the piece to “a fever dream” in which the accordion “ends up taking on an animal form when it’s floating in the river.” And that visual representation of something alive, traveling along its two versions of home, makes a deeper statement about connections between the Americas.

Peruvian videographer, photographer and sculptor David Zink-Yi’s video installation, Horror Vacui,looks at the folk music of Latin American cultures from a different perspective. By combining footage of a Latin band rehearsal with that of various Afro-Cuban musical rituals, Zink-Yi’s piece explores connections between musical self-expression and moments of religious uplift with a specific focus on how negative space or breaks in music create individual sounds and collective polyrhythms.

Among Prospect.3’s most global riffs on music culture is a piece by Christopher Myers and artist collective the Propeller Group.

“We’re working to create a second line of sorts that draws from the jazz-inflected funerals of Saigon as well as the long traditions in New Orleans. To that end, we are designing and filming a procession that starts in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and ends in New Orleans,” Myers wrote in an email. (The installation had yet to be named at press time.)

“The exciting thing about New Orleans, and this incarnation of Prospect, is that it’s international, but in a local way,” Myers added. “The world has traveled through New Orleans, and leaves bits of itself behind, making the whole place—the culture, the people—a document of world history and culture.”

It’s also true that New Orleans is uniquely, well, New Orleans. In some ways, our very insularity is part of what makes us exciting and different. There’s a place for that aspect of the city, too, inProspect 3. A satellite program dubbed P.3+ shines a light on the work of local artists while cultivating a relationship with the New Orleans art community.

Slated to go on view at the former St. Maurice Church in the Lower Ninth Ward, Space Ritescombines visual art and music with a community-oriented vibe that extends beyond the local art scene. It’s the brainchild of New Orleans Airlift, the folks who created the Music Box, a village of musical houses in the Bywater in 2011. Like that project, Space Rites is designed to encourage sound-oriented community interaction—in this case, via artist Taylor Lee Shepherd’s “altar” of oscilloscopes.

An oscilloscope is an instrument that visually displays non-electrical signals like sound in electric waveform. Shepherd’s oscilloscopes are made from reclaimed television sets that have been wired to broadcast voices or instruments in the form of light, creating a visual accompaniment to the sound being made by the performers or visitors. “I think of it as painting,” says Shepherd. “You can use big, gestural strokes and washes of color and light with sound. It’s responsive, real-time.”

In addition to inviting local musicians such as Rob Cambre to perform through the oscilloscopes, Airlift has arranged to have Rev. Charles W. Duplessis of Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church, whose congregation was displaced by Katrina, deliver his sermons through the installation on Sundays.

“Having made a bunch of friends in the community,” says Airlift Artistic Director Delaney Martin, “it’s a good time for us to shine together.”

Rebirth Brass Band: Keep it goin’ like a heartbeat

6 10 2014

rebirthdbWith a tight new album out, “Move Your Body,” Downbeat gives one of the most  influential brass bands in the  history of New Orleans brass band music its due with a  major feature. Check out the story here.


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

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.


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