Paul Soniat and George Winston

Piano players for the holidays

George Winston

CRAIG MULCAHY PHOTOGRAPH, left

The deadline for this column has me composing a good month ahead before you get to read it, dear reader. Thus, as December revs the tempo for gift time, holiday socializing and worship, I’m sitting in the past, Halloween afternoon to be exact, in the large motherhouse of Franciscan nuns in chilly Dubuque, Iowa; interviews done, stealing glances at coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s damage to the East Coast. My companion on the drive here was a CD: George Winston Solo Piano: Gulf Blues & Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit.

Winston is a California-based pianist of grand reach, melding rhythms and melodic improvisations in takes on such tunes as Dr. John’s “Creole Moon” and “Pixie” by James Booker. The grace notes of this paean to Hurricane Katrina recovery, released in 2006, lie in Winston’s compositions inspired by Professor Longhair. I packed hurriedly as Sandy gathered force and carried Winston with some vague sense that his music would be a balm to the bad news blowing. On the drive from Cedar Rapids, the listless farm fields spread out like a silent sea as déjà vu from Katrina and Isaac trailed me through the radio reports on the poor New Jersey shore. I kept replaying Winston’s first cut, “New Orleans Shall Rise Again” – a rolling melody with hints of ragtime, boogie colorations and a bell-like percussive tone, dancing warmth and spreading ironic waves of cheer.

This is a song for decorating the Christmas tree; if the sensation it affords falls short of the swoon in which one sinks to the celestial pipes of Aaron Neville on “Silent Night,” the joy streams in Winston’s resurrection song fit the season with snugness just the same. Winston’s cheery echo of Professor Longhair’s Caribbean left hand has a timeless quality that draws us into a realization of the memory that music carries, and the hope inherent in songs that ground us to a place. “New Orleans Shall Rise Again” had me thinking of the losses borne by good people in LaPlace and Placquemines, intercut with all the video from New Jersey.

Winston’s prancing keyboard embellishes an ineffable ragtime sweetness to capture the hope inherent at Christmas, and music-as-rebirth for year’s end.



As a counter-point, Paul Soniat is a singer and keyboard chronicler of life in these latitudes who captured hearts and minds with Below the Waterline, an elegy to the losses wrought by Katrina. The longtime director of City Park’s New Orleans Botanical Garden, Soniat oversaw a mighty reconstruction effort. He is back with a new CD, Suddenly. Soniat has drawn comparisons to Randy Newman for his mordant sense of the human comedy; that’s still there in these new songs, but alongside them sprints a bravura take on the zenith of middle life. For those of you who loathe the security gauntlet of airline travel, Soniat uncorks a satire, “Don’t Touch My Junk.” The larger tenor of these tunes is that of a guy transcending the stress fields for romance. One tune here bulges with political incorrectness as the angel smiles down from atop the tree and it is titled, “A Girl From Kenner.”

“I first saw her from across the room,
Anticipating the night to come,
Anticipating a little fun ...
That’s the night I fell in love
With a girl from – Kenna!”

If the outlying town in Jefferson Parish gets scant publicity in the entertainment world, this is a tune for Kenner’s city fathers and mothers to convene focus groups to reflect upon. Is there way to capitalize on Soniat’s satire? We leave that to the experts. Life, as Jimmy Carter said, is unfair. Paul sings “oh-oh-my sweet little girl from Kenner” and tells us she comes from a place “where the ceilings are only 8 feet high/Jet planes flying by/while the ground sinking beneath your feet … is worth the drive all the way from Uptown.”

Whoa. Urban factionalism, stark and bare. All the clichés of superior life in the precincts of St. Charles Avenue and Audubon Park, festive menus at Camellia Grill and the Creole Spanish delicacies of Café Grenada in that one line “worth the drive from Uptown.” Soniat’s imagination, like the cavalier excesses of Mardi Gras float satire, takes no prisoners. But with Suddenly, he’s exposed – and hopeful.

The persona of Below the Waterline, a voice in the wilderness crying for the land of Boudreaux and Thibodeaux ebbing as wetlands sink to sea rise, has become a rollicking fella in “Got My Lover Coming Over” who’s actually cleaning his house and washing his underwear (women, take note!): The new object of his affections will soon arrive for supper. These aren’t the ordinary songs for holiday cheer, but in a world where the climate is in revolt and elections have become a hogfest of disinformation to fatten the incomes of networks and dirty ad artists, the lyrical soaring of a guy in love with a girl from Kenner, like the rising hope of George Winston for the city in spite of the wetlands, puts us in the mind of Charles Dickens’s Tiny Tim, intoning for the ages: “God bless us everyone.”





“And two by two they’ll walk
Up and down the golden street,
Feasting on the milk and honey
Singing new songs of Zion,
Chattering with the angels
All around the Great White Throne”

– James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
 

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