James Singleton finds beauty in complexity

3 12 2014

Offbeat December 2014

A centrifugal force of the New Orleans music landscape (and by landscape I mean improvised jazz, rock, funk, punk and the occasional trad) for decades, bassist James Singleton has laid low, studio-wise, for the past few years, despite his prolific gigging habits. On Dec. 7, he releases Shiner, an improvisational masterpiece recorded with Mike Dillon, Larry Sieberth and a combination of horn players including Skerik, Mark Southerland and the late, great Tim Green. The album release comes to Snug Harbor Dec. 7. Check out the new Offbeat cover story to hear what this project means for James and how he defines his artistic development at this stage in his career. Alas, I did not ask him enough about his sartorial style. Luckily Offbeat’s art director Elsa Hahn picked up my slack with the photo shoot — a good reason to check the story on their pretty new site.

jamessingleton.rococo.elsahahne-392x778Sporting twin ponytail poufs atop her head, her 6-year-old brow creased with determination, Ruby Singleton lays out the details of a Harry Potter-inspired mission for the sidekick she’s met at a grown-up party. Ruby’s father, bassist James Singleton, has come here with his family from an afternoon spent helping Sarah Quintana build shimmering improvisations made of purrs, low-bowed growls and high-pitched ululations for a blindfolded audience at the Marigny Opera House’s Sunday Music Meditation. Now, he keeps a watchful eye on his daughter as she opens up her imagination and shares it with an adult guest.

Ruby summarizes key points of play (the location of enemy lines, who has which special powers) then she and her new cohort push off through the din of party chatter, embarking on their mission, which transforms repeatedly over the course of 10 minutes, growing more complex at every turn. With each new challenge, Ruby improvises into the story; she shows her mettle as an intrepid New Orleans version of Hermione Granger. Her DNA is pretty easy to read, too.

Over the past six years, bassist, composer and multi-instrumentalist James Singleton has maintained a roster of working bands that would dizzy most performers. In addition to his quartet, he performs regularly with theIlluminasti Trio, DVS, 3Now4, James Singleton & Bluebelly, Astral Project, Stanton Moore’s trio, Brad Walker’s redrawblak, Joe Cabral’s trio, the Helen Gillet/James Singleton duo, the Orleans 6—the list goes on. His main gig, though, has been Ruby.

On December 7, Singleton releases Shiner, his first album as a leader since his daughter’s birth in 2008. As he points out a few days before Ruby’s house party-staged Hermione expedition, she’s dramatically impacted the way he makes music. While Ruby’s playtime skills indicate she inherited her dad’s creative curiosity and affection for exploration, he credits her with inspiring, among other things, a new degree of openness in his work. These days, he muses, he may write the beginning of a tune but has learned it would be “presumptuous” to write the end when he has such strong collaborators at his side.

“Parenthood has been an intense deepening agent for my work,” says Singleton, seated in a mostly empty room upstairs at Fairgrinds, his neighborhood coffee shop, the day after his 59th birthday. He pauses to take a gulp of the large black iced coffee before him.

“It’s added urgency to my process and depth to my performance.” He also picked up the trumpet, his first instrument, for the first time in 35 years after Ruby arrived.

Despite these boons, Singleton admits somewhat sheepishly that it’s taken three years to get the album out. The multi-year span reflects the fact that he had to learn a new approach to making an album—one that wouldn’t involve spending large periods of time focused on the record at the exclusion of other aspects of life.

Figuring that out caused some bumps in his process. He recorded a pair of studio sessions before ditching them for live material, though the studio work may appear on a future recording. Sequencing the album took a year, in part because he enjoys his dual responsibilities of booking agent and artist. “The booking agent in me wants the first song to be two minutes long and unbelievably intense and, ‘Yes, we want your band,’” he explains.

Ultimately, though, the final product underscores a lesson well learned.

Recorded during three Snug Harbor performances with Mike Dillon on vibes, tabla and percussion, Larry Sieberth on piano and a rotation of Skerik, Mark Southerland and Tim Green on sax, Shiner encapsulates the reciprocal energy that thrives between Singleton and each of those artists—then magnifies that by four.

“DVS,” Dillon’s eponymous anthem for his punk-meets-funk improv trio with Singleton and Vidacovich, benefits from an added layer of orchestration courtesy of Sieberth.

“Larry is a one-man orchestra on piano and he can play the entire history of Western music in one song,” marvels Dillon.

“In some ways, this is my ultimate band,” Singleton muses, his eyes twinkling behind the frames of his glasses. “Everybody’s a great composer and everybody’s a great melodist and everybody’s strong rhythmically, texturally. And at any point I can fade out or lay out knowing that something amazing is going to happen. And they provide space for me to do the same.”

In this ensemble’s hands, “Lento,” which appeared on Singleton’s 2008 string quartet album Gold Bug Crawl, morphs into something more wistful but also more angry, as the unsteady skittering of a bow and the foreboding growl of percussion meet a high-register piano assault that sets upon Skerik’s horn lines like an agitated swarm of bees. Green’s contribution comes in the form of a 19-minute suite comprised of five tunes that play as one. Casting the piece as an “essential … odyssey,” Singleton says it’s “a great example of the depth of our connection.”

It’s also a prime example of how, like Ruby’s approach to game-building, Singleton’s music follows a path that prioritizes evolution and challenge above resolution.

“Most of the pieces on my project start one place and end up someplace completely different, and to me that’s a huge victory and something I’ve been waiting for,” he says. “I’ve been involved with various forms of traditional improvising for 40 years and typically the music starts in one place and there’s some solos and it comes back to that place. My music reflects the complexity of my experience more if it starts in one place and goes somewhere else and never comes back.”

Despite being as expressive verbally as he is musically, the bassist does not elaborate on Green’s unexpected death earlier this year, implying, if unintentionally, that in this case, the music can communicate more.

He’s less reserved when it comes to analyzing his own work.

“I want my music and my career and my personality to drive the musical discourse towards adult complexity,” Singleton says in a measured cadence. “And you don’t have to be an adult or even smart to appreciate it, because I want my work to reflect the complexities that get me excited about life.”

That philosophy lends itself well to a career that’s spanned as wide a range of genres and forms as Singleton’s has. Before he began pioneering new concepts about rhythm with Astral Project, before he recorded albums with Johnny Adams and Alvin “Red” Tyler, before he started working regularly with the likes of James Booker, James Black, Nat Adderly and Bobby McFerrin, Singleton paid his dues at clubs all over New Orleans.

Having bailed on college after three semesters each at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and North Texas State University, he moved to the Crescent City in 1976 on a tip that guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown needed a bass player. The audition, detailed in David Lasocki’s history-stuffed 2010 biography,James Singleton: Rhythm Crusader, taught Singleton he had some learning yet to do.

Piecing together oral histories, reviews and news stories from throughout Singleton’s life, Lasocki draws a rare and valuable map of the club scene in New Orleans from the late ’70s through the ’80s in the process of telling his subject’s life story. (Lasocki, Singleton notes, “was the tenured music librarian at the University of Indiana” who specialized in Renaissance woodwinds but started writing about the members of Astral Project after developing a jazz obsession. “He’s a Brit and he’s a New Age healer,” Singleton says. “He’s just a total weirdo. My kinda guy.”)

Rhythm Crusader illuminates less commonly known aspects of Singleton’s life like his decades-long love affair with traditional New Orleans jazz and his experiments with transcendental meditation—as well as other, less legal forms of consciousness shifting. It also paints a picture of the bassist as being perpetually hungry for new musical inspiration and information, a picture that rings as true in 2014 as it did in 1976.

Recalling his New Year’s Eve arrival in New Orleans that year, Singleton says the first music that made an impression was a pair of duo performances.

“One was Johnny Vidacovich and Angel Trosclair and I was thinking, ‘How can they think of playing without a bass?’ And then it sounded so good I realized well maybe I should just shut up and listen. And then I heard James Booker with Cyril Neville on drums and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he’s playing all the bass with his left hand. I don’t know what I would add to that.’ And then finally hearing the Meters and thinking, ‘Wow, I had no idea what funk was. I’m starting from scratch. School’s in session.’”

From that point on, he began to see that the New Orleans music community itself is an education system for those willing to take advantage of the opportunities it holds. (By the same token, he refers to his post-Katrina years in Los Angeles as his “mid-life sabbatical” from the grind of constant gigging.)

It’s not a far leap from there to his notion that music should be something an audience can connect to regardless of their maturity, experience or even intelligence. That philosophy also comes in handy in a town where boisterous and booze-centric club environments are more common than the kind of focused listening that rooms like Snug Harbor are able to foster.

One Saturday night in October, Singleton and Vidacovich joined Dillon upstairs at the Blue Nile’s Balcony Room for a double-header gig of DVS and Mike Dillon band repertoire. The room filled quickly with a mixed crowd that encompassed a range of types, from the weekend-on-Frenchmen-Street characters to faces familiar at Jeff Albert’s often-experimental Tuesday night Open Ears music series. Twenty minutes into the first set, Singleton plunged into a bass solo, alternating deep, rhythmic plucks with percussive rapping on the body of the bass. He locked eyes with Dillon, who turned to his tablas and improvised a motif so melodic it sounded like he’d added a tabla tarang to his rig.

Singleton grinned. He swayed. He looped verbal warbles. He scrunched up his face in gritty, enthusiastic wonder.

“His wild streak to me is that he has the enthusiasm of a 4-year-old, or of his daughter, Ruby,” Dillon later said. “James has been able to maintain a childlike thing with his playing. He’ll just be so enthusiastic. A lot of the guys who are his age or my age, they’ve seen it all and they’re just bored and cynical.”

Dillon and Singleton began sharing the stage after Katrina, often with Skerik. One of the first times they played together, Dillon felt compelled to interact with Singleton’s energy and his willingness to break the rules in service to innovation.

They were playing a blues, the vibraphonist recalls. “Most guys will sort of stay on the blues and stay very true to the form. And it may seem minor to those of us that hear it all the time but all of a sudden, he cranked up his distortion and he just started hitting his bass as hard as he could. I remember thinking, ‘This is awesome,’ and I just started playing a punk-rock beat with him. And now we do that all the time. But when it first happened I was like, ‘This guy’s got the spirit.’”

Sieberth, who’s been improvising with Singleton since the late ’70s when they both worked in Gatemouth’s band, echoes that sentiment, pointing out that the most challenging aspect of improvising is “letting go of what you know.”

“There are sometimes forms in Jim’s music, but even those forms are subject to transformation or [to] letting go of what is expected,” Sieberth says. “Part of the joy of playing with Jim is that you have to be on your toes at all times. Part of it is to expect the unexpected.”

With Shiner’s release date just around the corner, Singleton settles down once more in a quiet room at Fairgrinds. In one hand, he holds a small black notebook full of thoughts on music; in the other, a large black iced coffee.

“Ugly beauty, that’s Monk’s title,” he says, pondering one of the themes he’s jotted down in his journal. He connects the idea to street art that’s simultaneously beautiful and hideous, and references an art exhibit called “Pain” he once saw in Berlin.

His thoughts shift back to music—specifically, to pianist Thelonious Monk’s waltz, “Ugly Beauty,” which he performed, sans harmony, with Dillon and Vidacovich at the Blue Nile’s Balcony Room.

“Did you think the record was dark?” he wants to know.

Layered with color and texture, prone to bouts of punk rock-inspired fury and shot through with unexpected riffs on joy, yes. Dark? Not exactly.

“During the post-production I thought this was the darkest record I’ve ever made,” he counters. “I thought this just reflects the ruin of my [previous] marriage and my life and then recently I started saying, ‘No, man, this is very beautiful and uplifting.’”

The truth is probably closer to an assertion Dillon made: That music can be all of those things simultaneously.

“Sometimes looking deep into the soul, you’re gonna find some darkness, but that’s where you find the beauty to keep going,” Dillon says. “In this culture, we need more darkness to see the real beauty. James is one of those artists who’s not afraid to go anywhere. That’s what I like about playing with him. You start at one place and he’s so wide open to the music and letting it go where the music wants to go, not where he wants it to go.”

Singleton sits back in one of the hard, wooden chairs that circle the room at Fairgrinds. They’re arranged in such a way that they seem ready for either a second grade glass or an AA meeting.

Shifting his weight, he returns to the ideas he’s listed in his notebook.

“Forgiveness,” he says. “And I don’t know how or if that comes through my music.” He sits quietly before noting that improvisation requires forgiving oneself in the moment so that you can move forward, musically.

“It might be the next step.”





A brief history of modern New Orleans brass band arranging

3 12 2014

stooges_hi-res1Will Smith, Walter “Whoadie” Ramsey and Lumar Leblanc explained the basics of arranging for New Orleans brass bands to me so I could share ‘em with you, via Jazz Times’ 2014 education guide … and this PDF, since they did a much nicer job with the layout than I could hope to cut and paste into a wordpress site. Click here to check it out: Make a joyful noise: A brief history of modern New Orleans brass band arranging





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.








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