Review: Through the Streets of the City: New Orleans Brass Bands

14 07 2015

Downbeat March 2014

cmichaelw Through the Streets of the City: New Orleans Brass Bands

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW 40212

 4 stars

Guided by clarinetist Dr. Michael White’s curatorial hand, Smithsonian’s latest  installment of its African American Legacy Recordings series features new  recordings by the Liberty, Treme and Hot 8 brass bands to offer a  comprehensive survey of today’s New Orleans brass band scene. As White  points out in the disc’s extensive liner notes, the bands represent traditional  (Liberty), updated-traditional (Treme) and modern (Hot 8) takes on a form that  dates back to the 1830s yet in 2015 remains one of the city’s most identifiable – and popular – types of music.

Selections here alternate between marches, 12-bar blues, hymns and pop-styled hits that incorporate elements of funk, jazz and R&B. Together, they open a window on how the music has both changed and stayed the same over the course of its nearly century-long development. The disc leads off with a crisply recorded rendition of the parade staple, “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line” by the Liberty Brass Band. On the same group’s rendition of “Panama,” an opening round of drum rolls combined with the tuba’s slow and steady cadence recalls the music’s military roots. The jazz funeral tradition resonates in the clipped horns and plaintive clarinet wails on “Liberty Funeral March,” as well as in the placement of the Hot 8’s up-tempo “Steamin’ Blues” immediately after the march. “Give Me My Money Back” represents the Treme Brass Band at its best, while the Hot 8’s moving street hit “New Orleans After the City” reverberates with the kind of regional pride that’s been so essential to rebuilding efforts over the past ten years.

The notes, meanwhile, include White’s capsule history of how and why the music changed over time the way it did – and what roles brass band icons like Doc Paulin, Oscar Papa Celestin and others played in that development. A compilation of suggested reading and listening at the notes’ end is a nice touch, giving listeners a chance to further explore the music’s history in order to understand its present landscape.

Through the Streets of the City: New Orleans Brass Bands: Paul Barbarin’s Second Line; The Sheik of Araby; Panama; Liberty Funeral March; Steamin’ Blues; We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City; Keepin’ It Funky; Old Rugged Cross; Grazing in the Grass; New Orleans (After the City); Give Me My Money Back; Lily of the Valley; Shake It and Break It (1:09:37).

Personnel: Liberty Brass Band: Dr. Michael White, clarinet/leader; Gregory Stafford, trumpet; Wendell Brunious, trumpet; Dwayne Burns, trumpet; Lucien Barbarin, trombone; Maynard Chatters, trombone; David Harris, trombone (4); Roger Lewis, alto saxophone; Daniel Farrow, tenor saxophone; Dimitri Smith, sousaphone; Kerry Lewis, baritone (1,4); Paul Barbarin, snare drum; Cayetano Hingle, bass drum; Treme Brass Band: Benny Jones, snare drum/leader; Kenneth Terry, trumpet, vocals, tambourine; Terence Taplin, trombone; Roger Lewis, soprano and baritone


Tour New Orleans Music History with the Jazz Houses App

14 07 2015

This one looks much better on its, so check out the full text and photos over there. I’ll just post the intro below. Very cool that the Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans is working to raise awareness about some of these important historic sites. I’d also encourage you to read my friend and colleague Dave Kunian’s New Orleans Jazz Landmarks Languish in Disrepair. Or go old-school and contact a human — John McCusker — for the most informed and interesting jazz tour you’ll find in New Orleans. Anyway, intro and link to more below:

bolden-1 On a quiet corner in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, a modest, mostly  boarded-up double shotgun painted a muted shade of yellow holds a key to the  birth of what we now call jazz. From 1887 until 1905, the building at 2309 First  St. was the home of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, whose blues-oriented and  improvisation-heavy cornet playing is now widely recognized as the first  example of the genre.

For years, sites like the small, maroon stoop where Bolden helped engineer one  of America’s greatest cultural touchstones went largely unnoticed, falling victim to blight or demolition. But thanks to the newly updated and relaunched Jazz Houses: Where They Lived app from the Preservation Resource Center, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and local tech firm Culture Connect, music lovers can now access interactive maps – along with music clips, photos, and short biographies – detailing the locations where titans of New Orleans music history once lived.

Researched by historian Dr. Jack Stewart, the free mobile app spans neighborhoods from Uptown to Algiers and beyond. Many of the homes featured in the app boast memorial plaques courtesy of the PRC and the New Orleans Jazz Commission, which are working together to commemorate these important landmarks. More than 60 plaques have already been installed, with hundreds more awaiting plaques of their own, according PRC education and outreach director Suzanne Blaum. (Two of the next plaques slated to be unveiled will mark “Uncle” Lionel Batiste’s former residences at 2733 Annette St. in the Seventh Ward and 5543 Press Drive in Pontchartrain Park).

“The reason we should preserve the physical representations of jazz residences in New Orleans,” says Stewart, “is because when you go into the neighborhoods and see what their residences looked like, it provides a context so that you feel much more connected to the past and the people who were there.”

The Jazz Houses sites are searchable by artist or neighborhood, with buildings that remain in need of structural support enumerated in a separate “Jazz Houses in Jeopardy” section.

“It’s important to save the places where our jazz musicians lived and made music because it’s our culture,” says PRC Executive Director Patty Gay. “It’s what makes New Orleans unique.” Read more

Tonya Boyd-Cannon is Fearless

14 07 2015

tonyaboydcannon-392x589Offbeat July 2015

When Adam Levine told Tonya Boyd-Cannon she’d have to perform Elton John’s “Take Me to  the Pilot” on the “Live” segment of NBC’s talent competition The Voice, she cried. It wasn’t a  lack of fortitude—toughness was a prerequisite for her former position as a sheriff’s deputy in  the Orleans Parish Prison. Her struggle wasn’t about technical challenges, either. She just  couldn’t make it work. She tried praying, meditating, doing yoga … still, nothing. “Why would  Adam do this to me?” she thought.

 Finally, in a last-minute rehearsal before the televised performance, she made a suggestion.  “Let me put my own twist on it,” she told the show’s musical director Paul Mirkovich. “Give  me some church music in the beginning and let me usher myself into it.” He did. And as she  began to sing the infamously abstruse lyrics, eyes closed, something clicked.

Before the cameras on April 7, Boyd-Cannon traded the tune’s familiar piano intro for a few bars of restrained vibrato, then wrapped her gospel-rooted contralto around the melody and transformed the chorus into a soul-searching appeal for guidance. By all accounts—including those of celebrity coaches Levine, Pharrell Williams, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton—she nailed it.

“She’s a confidence builder. She’s unafraid,” Levine marveled. “That was crazy.”

Viewers agreed, electing to send her on to the next round as part of the Top 20 finalists. It would be her last—Levine advanced another member of his team on the following episode. But her tenure on the show kick-started a new phase of her career: her fan base has grown, as has her determination to capitalize on her success. She returned to New Orleans after being cut in Los Angeles and immediately hit the studio with her band, which has been working on a new album between gigs, rehearsals and Boyd-Cannon’s work as a voice teacher and choir director.

 This month, she brings her Essence ReVieux—a variety show featuring performers on the Essence Festival bill (plus, she hopes, one or two other Top 20 Voice contestants)—to the Blue Nile on July 3. On the Fourth, she’ll perform in the festival’s Soul of R&B Superlounge.

As for “Take Me to the Pilot—a song even Elton John and Bernie Taupin have said they never understood—the Mississippi-born, New Orleans-bred singer felt a greater sense of achievement in mastering it because doing so required her to speak up and find a way to make it her own. She’d done something similar when, in the beginning of the season, she sang Pharrell’s “Happy,” seemingly unconcerned about the added risk involved in introducing herself to him with his hit. (He buzzed in with his approval almost immediately, spinning his chair around to face her). Still, “Happy” seemed more in sync with her regular, soul-heavy repertoire.

“Fans were like, ‘That song wasn’t for you,’” she recalls. “I say out of all the songs I performed on the show, ‘Take Me to the Pilot’ was the best one … it’s one of those songs that I can rebirth.”

 The 35-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist is seated on a bench in City Park on a hot afternoon in June. She has just wrapped a long day of teaching voice to kids in the Little Village Youth Ensemble, one of multiple choral groups she leads. In a few hours, she’ll turn her attention back to her own band at an evening rehearsal.

“What I took away from [the show] is to always be myself, because everybody else is taken,” she says, lapsing as she often does into one of the mantras likely responsible for the fearlessness Levine said he admired. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t that I couldn’t out-sing anyone, because it was never about that. It was just that my time had started and that was my season where it ended.”

That philosophy seems to stem more from Boyd-Cannon’s overall Zen mindset than from any kind of complacency. Having grown up singing in church, where her father was a preacher, she continued on as a vocalist in high school, adding sax to her skill set. Soon after graduation, she toured with Jean Knight (of “Mr. Big Stuff” fame) as a backup singer. When, in the early 2000s, she took on the sheriff’s deputy role at Orleans Parish Prison, she continued to make music central to her work, leading a men’s choir, organizing a women’s choir and initiating the prison’s first co-ed singing group—all of which she works with on a volunteer basis today.

“It’s not about the [money], it’s about what I get every day setting up these choirs and allowing the different voices of people to learn who they are. Because I had men and women who said, ‘I would never sing’ or ‘I always led everything at my church,’” she says.

“I’m like, ‘Well, you not gonna lead everything here, because it’s a community,’” she says, turning on her sheriff’s deputy voice like a switch.

“These guys will tell ya, ‘Miss Cannon, I ain’t no singer, I’m a rapper,’” she continues. “I’d say, ‘Okay I’m gonna play something and you just gonna freestyle. Sing how you feel right now. No rapping.’ And they do and everything’s on pitch. Everyone’s a singer in their own right. [For] a lot of people it takes pulling it out of them.”

Boyd-Cannon released her first album, 2007’s gospel-centric Rise My Child, after losing her home in the floodwaters that followed Katrina. In 2008, she completed her studies in classical voice at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Despite the setbacks she faced around that time—a contracting scam left her unable to rebuild, while a bout of stress-induced, post-K memory loss later left her unable to read music—she continued to work on new material.

“Yes, it’s been hard, but I’m grateful,” she says. “I can complain, but why? If I complain, I can’t progress.”

Now 35, much of Boyd-Cannon’s original music is either deeply personal or firmly rooted in her hometown. “No Approval” details how she stopped looking outside of herself for validation, while “Call It Jazz” invites listeners to dispense with labels and simply appreciate the artistry of icons like Louis Armstrong and Uncle Lionel Batiste.

“In New Orleans,” which she’s performed with the Free Agents Brass Band, rests visual impressions of her downtown world—Washington Square, Frenchmen Street’s clubs, the beignet shop where she treats her students after class—on a mix of breezy melodic lines and unexpected octave jumps.

“I like to paint the picture visually for those who can’t see. And I like to perform with the emotion for those who can’t hear so they could feel,” she says, segueing into the kind of cadence and imagery her father might have used in church.

“Tonya’s extremely creative,” says her musical director and longtime collaborator, bassist Marius Tilton.

“We’ll be in the middle of a song and she’ll say, ‘Remix.’ She’ll start humming the bass line, the guitar riff and the keyboard melody, and we’ll have a new song. Most singers, they learn a song to a T, and if you ask them to go outside the box, you’ve lost them.”

For Boyd-Cannon, however, this often translates into recasting music so it feels more honest. On good days, she can find a new piece of herself in the process.





Kidd Jordan, Wilco and more at the first Friday of Jazz Fest 2015

27 05 2015

The Gambit, April 25, 2015

LagbajaThe first Friday of Jazz Fest opened under cover of dark grey clouds that promised to eventually burst, but the first storm at the Fair Grounds came just after noon in the Jazz Tent in the form of Kidd Jordan and his Improvisational Arts Quintet’s cathartic and brawny excursion into free jazz.

With his 80th birthday just around the corner, Jordan made a crack early in the set about whether he and his bandmates — William Parker on bass, Joel Futterman and Maynard Chatters on piano and Alvin Fielder on bass — would still be around after the show. From the first few bars of their hour-long improvisation, though, it sounded as if the band could outsmart — and certainly outplay — a little thing like mortality.

Against the backdrop of Futterman’s intense and often pounding forays into the piano’s deepest register, with Fielder alternating between complex kit rhythms and waves of bell-topped hand percussion, Jordan unleashed line after line of rich emotion. Whether he was latching onto melodic figures that synced with the rhythm section or skittering through angular solos that unearthed seemingly uncharted musical territory, he balanced out cerebral innovation with muscle and precision from start to finish. Parker, meanwhile, switched back and forth between fierce pizzicato and bow-work that almost sounded like a second horn had joined the lineup. The group brought the long and evocative piece to a climactic close, with Jordan moving seamlessly from sky-scraping high notes to richly textured lows.

Jordan, who noted that some members of the group were headed to Chicago this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, was smiling at the end, as the crowd got on its feet to cheer. “Y’all are the faithful, standing here today,” he said.

A few hours later at the Congo Square Stage, Nigerian artist Lagbaja demonstrated a completely different approach to sax-fronted, jazz-based music. His set began with a drummer tapping out a beat and dancing circles around the center of the stage before a hushed audience. The rhythm turned into call and response as the rest of the group joined him onstage. Clad in red, orange and white traditional garb, Lagbaja came out last, his face hidden behind a cloth mask. He played a few sunny, bright bars before bringing the intro to a close.

The mask, he said in English, is always the first thing people ask about. “The mask is a symbol that stands for the facelessness of the common man anywhere in the world.”

He explained that the next song, “A Simple Yes or No,” is aimed at the world’s politicians — and their apparent inability to answer the questions of the people they lead. The tune began with a keyboard refrain that set the stage for pop-ready Afrobeat. He and the female vocalist that accompanied him, along with a few of their drummers, launched into a line dance that belied the serious nature of the lyrics.

After giving the stage to the other vocalist for a soulful, gospel-drenched number, Lagbaja returned to helm another beat-centric tune. He paused at one point to give the crowd a little dance training — a move he called “a big backside to the back.”

“Do you have your big backsides ready,” he asked, getting a flurry of claps and cheers in return.

“If you have tiny backsides, don’t say ‘Yes!’”

Big and tiny backsides proceeded to mimic his booty-shaking for what turned out to be an upbeat and entertaining, if somewhat repetitive set.

A sprinkle had started to douse the Fair Grounds by then, but it didn’t seem to bother dancers at the Fais Do Do Stage, who were dancing and cheering wildly for La Santa Cecilia. Hailing from Los Angeles, the Latin jazz, rock, cumbia and salsa hybrid draws heavily on members’ collective Mexican-American heritage for their sound. But as is the case with many of the best acts that tend to land at Fais Do-Do, there were plenty of undercurrents of connection to Acadian folk music, particularly during the group’s accordion solos.

Alternating between Spanish and English, lead singer Marisol Hernandez sang with a sort of triumphant power that hit its apex in her rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”wilco

It made for a nice, if unintentional transition to the Gentilly Stage closer, Wilco, whose songs have often seemed to share a little DNA with the Beatles. If Wilco had plans to play any of the Fab Four tunes they’ve been known to play live on occasion, they were unfortunately cut short by the weather.

Prior to that, Wilco played a strong set, marked by a dizzying number of guitar changes and lots of smiling, good-natured energy on the part of lead singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy. The brief set featured crowd-pleasing, country-tinged renditions of tracks from a mix of albums including Yankee Hotel Fox Trot(“Kamera,” “Heavy Metal Drummer”), Mermaid Avenue (“Secrets of the Sea”) and Being There (“Red-Eyed and Blue”). But by the time they tackled “Hummingbird” from A Ghost Is Born, the rain poured and lightning began.

Wearing a mischievous grin, Tweedy launched into a moving and heartfelt version of “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” also from 1996’s Being There, that ended with a three-part guitar climax. Pat Sansone wound up his arm, windmill style, and as he struck the final cord, one of the day’s largest and closest bolts of lightning appeared overhead.

The band barely got through another song before the festival was shut down early due to weather.

“On our guitar picks,” Tweedy had explained earlier in the set, “it says, ‘It could be worse.’” An apropos sentiment for a day in which thunder replaced breezy, nostalgic guitar riffs.

Jazz Fest Focus: Angelique Kidjo

27 05 2015

Offbeat Jazz Fest issue 2015

c9392832_origBuilding physical bridges requires labor, some creative engineering and a determination to connect two worlds that may not seem connectable. When it comes to cultural bridges—like the ones Angelique Kidjo has dedicated her career to building—the same basic requirements apply.

That fact was evident when the singer trekked through Kenya and her native Benin with a six-track recorder, working with eight women’s choirs to incorporate their sounds into the music she’d written for her Grammy-winning 2014 album, Eve. Though she dedicated the project to “the beauty and resilience” of “the women of Africa,” many of the vocalists she recorded didn’t have experience working with the kinds of jazz and pop-based song structures she used. Yet together, they found ways to bridge the divide.

Kidjo faced a new challenge with her latest project, Sings: How to make songs from her catalogue—a hybrid of international influences buoyed by strong and often innovative rhythms—work in the classical context of the 110-piece Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Even musical worlds that seem so far apart are able to find a common ground,” she said in a recent email, explaining her willingness to proceed with the potentially difficult collaboration.

Unlike previous projects that hinged on honoring particular groups or exploring cultural concepts, she said Sings was pure “musical adventure.”

Kidjo had long dreamed of singing with an orchestra, and when she had the chance to perform with Luxembourg’s philharmonic in 2011, she leapt at it—and was rewarded with a swell of love from the audience.

“I was called back to the stage five times,” she recalled.

When it came to recording with the orchestra, Kidjo had to rethink her compositions from the inside out.

“Everything changes. On most of the songs, there are no percussion, so for once, the groove is not leading the music,” she said. “I don’t feel like the orchestra is ‘backing me up.’ I am just one voice among many beautiful melodic lines that the strings and the winds are creating. Sonically, it is a totally different experience. You are surrounded by the sound. It carries you. You feel like a bird flying on a musical wave.”

The waves were choppy at times. The track “Ominira,” for example, is based on a Brazilian rhythm in which percussion plays a key role. Arranged for the orchestra without percussion, the tempo suddenly didn’t work—so the group got creative, devoting more time and determination until they discovered Kidjo could create what she called “syncopations and rhythmical tensions” with her voice.

In the end, “Ominira” became one of Kidjo’s favorite tracks on the album. In a larger sense, it serves as a reminder that even disparate ideas can often be connected.

“This is what excites me in doing music and breaking new ground.” she said

Jazz Fest Focus: Monty Alexander

27 05 2015

Offbeat, Jazz Fest issue 2015

MontyAlexander-392x588In the late ’50s, in Kingston, Jamaica, the steady diet of music feeding the young pianist Monty Alexander’s growing creative appetite came primarily from the radio. There was just one station for music in Kingston back then, transmitting a diverse juxtaposition of sounds: classical music alongside American pop, jazz and R&B.

Alexander was particularly fascinated by the music of Louis Armstrong and the rhythm and blues coming out of New Orleans courtesy of artists like Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. But the lack of separation between genres on the radio offered exposure to a much wider range of ideas.

Things changed after “music business people” as he puts it “separated the idioms.”

“When I heard music as a kid, it was just one wonderful world of song and rhythm,” he recalls. “So, maybe that’s how I navigate between the places.”

The places in question are Kingston and Harlem, the namesakes of the project he’ll feature at Jazz Fest, and the origin of the music the band blends on 2011s Harlem-Kingston Express and 2014’s Harlem-Kingston Express, Vol. 2: The River Rolls On.

Speaking from his home in New York, Alexander explains that New Orleans represents not only a physical “center point” between his two musical home bases, but also a figurative one. The Crescent City gave birth to the jazz in which Alexander has been steeped professionally for five decades, while early New Orleans R&B contributed to the development of ska and reggae in Jamaica.

“I was already very young when I began listening to that kind of jazz—the swinging kind of jazz, the kind that makes you want to tap your foot to,” he says. “My heroes of jazz music were about that. It was about a release and revelation and celebration.”

A devotee of Armstrong and Nat King Cole who also recorded with Jamaican music luminaries like Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Alexander’s elegant approach to melody and deep rhythmic mastery attracted players ranging from Frank Sinatra to Dizzy Gillespie to Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson. But it’s Alexander’s work as a leader that shines the brightest.

On his second Harlem Kingston Express recording, the pianist pairs lush yet open jazz arrangements of material by Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye with originals that combine billowing harmonics with the energetic drive of swing-based motifs with plenty of groove.

“I like to say that kind of music makes the lower part of your body wanna move,” says Alexander, whose “express” travels frequently into Latin rhythms as well.

Considering how he navigates the elements at work, seamlessly marrying different concepts without sacrificing their unique cultural flavor, he pauses.

“Harlem is a destination. But my roots are total Jamaican,” he concludes. “I play my life.”

Jazz Fest Focus: Cecil McLorin Salvant

27 05 2015

Offbeat, Jazz Fest issue 2015

courtesy John Abbot

Cecile McLorin Salvant, courtesy John Abbot

By the time Carmen McRae comes to the final lyric of “Trouble Is a Man” during a performance on the ’60s show “Jazz Casual,” she’s relayed the gamut of emotions experienced by the song’s protagonist—a woman whose love interest has failed to keep his promises. “Trouble is a man I love,” she finally sings, lengthening the word “I” in a way that implies regret, pain, anger, frustration and eventually, the tenderness she can’t let go of.

“She just brings everything, all the meaning out into that song,” says Cecile McLorin Salvant, the 25-year-old singer who, since winning the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, has been hailed repeatedly by critics as a bright new light in vocal jazz. “I sing that song by myself at home—I’ve never performed it live—but it’s really informed and touched and moved me just as a person.”

Born in Miami to parents of French and Haitian descent, Salvant transitioned from classical voice and piano to jazz while living in Paris. And if her Grammy-nominated U.S. debutWomanChild is any indication, it was the right move. Salvant’s impressive technical chops are matched by an uncommon devotion to great storytelling. She inhabits the characters about which she sings, conveying their emotions and narratives as much by careful phrasing and use of her expansive range as by language.

“Anytime I sing, I try to really get to the sense of the lyrics,” she says. “That is something that’s really important to me, and it comes from extensive Carmen McRae listening, but also Billie Holliday and Abby Lincoln and all these singers who were able to make you feel beyond the music what the story is.”

This year, Salvant is channeling that energy into telling her own stories. She’s currently working with a new batch of original compositions, most of which center around love—and not the warm and fuzzy kind.

“They’re about yearning for love and lost love and love that is not mutual,” she says, adding that her trio—pianist Aaron Diehl, drummer Lawrence Leathers and bassist Paul Sikivie—helped her feel comfortable getting more personal.

Still, the stakes are probably high for a singer with Salvant’s propensity for exhuming the core meaning out of a song and expressing it through her voice, as if by osmosis. Now, with each new song about some painful aspect of love, the real-world experience is buried within her own heart.

“It’s not a story, it’s me speaking in my voice—and that’s hard to share,” she admits. “You’re afraid of what the reactions can be.”

Salvant’s new work, along with a handful of jazz standards, are due out on a sophomore Mack Avenue Records release in August.


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