Evan Christopher Reflects on his New Orleans Evolution

22 05 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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