A New Orleans Music Lover’s Christmas List
The gift-selection guide we provide in December draws on polling data that confirm that our readers are happy to spend money, now that the House has reopened government, once more scaling the fiscal cliff and in a necessary mix of metaphor, giving the debt ceiling its eternal boost. (We shall, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, avoid names of Louisiana statesmen with dirty hands.) The products here endorsed will sweeten your mood and keep life humming through January when the D.C. heavies whip up financial paranoia that it takes Mardi Gras to subdue.
Let us turn then with a smile to ghosts of jazz times past. Al Rose, the late and fondly remembered author of Storyville, loathed jazz stylizations made after 1940. He considered them a betrayal of New Orleans-style purity. He had a striking disdain for the saxophone’s role in the evolving music. We had some courtly disagreements on that, as my affection for the saxophone stemmed from the proms and dances of yesteryear, and the recording magic of Lee Allen, who put the swing into rock in 1950s rhythm and blues. And so with bebop music, a thrilling ride that curled far out from the R&B highway. The cutting-edge bebop discs of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk never outsold Fats Domino or R&B precursor Louis Jordan. But the seminal boppers generated long waves of influence with accelerated tempos and the impact of Parker’s racing reed lines, fashioning a style that seems ever fresh today.
Stanley Crouch’s new book, Kansas City Lightning:
The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (Harper) does a grand job of explaining how it happened by treating his subject like the protagonist in a novel.
New Orleans jazz was into its second generation when Charlie Parker came of age in Kansas City during the Depression.
“The primacy of the saxophone, paired with the local players’ feeling for the blues, was central to the sound and character of Kansas City jazz,” writes Crouch. “This penchant for saxophones would not only give rise to powerful reed sections that swung, shouted and crooned the blues, but would also prepare the way for local giants of the instrument, men destined to either blow themselves into the pantheon or to arrive in Kansas City on the whirlwind of legend.”
Crouch’s portrait of Parker, absorbing the blues-driven Midwestern style, setting out for New York and securing his status there, is a tale of artistic achievement writ upon the map of mid-century America. Crouch’s riffs on the Pendegrast machine in Kansas City, bootleggers and gangsters are fine cul-de-sacs that curl back to the music story as smoothly as fingers slip into a glove. This one is worth a place in your honey’s holiday stocking even if s/he knows little about bop or swing. It is never too late, or to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, you can always go home again.
The swing influence that powered the big bands of Parker’s era echoes in the album by New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Book One, a showcase of bandleader Irvin Mayfield’s compositions. These nine songs roam across a terrain of musical ideas grounded in the idea of place. “Seventh Ward Blues” is a rolling medium-tempo melody laid out by Victor “Red” Atkins on piano with warm repetitions in the chorus of horns, opening into a series of solos that float along like light shafts pouring down to illuminate a forest road thick with trees.
On this album Mayfield makes abundant use of saxophones – four of them: Aaron Fletcher on alto; Norbert Stachel on baritone (and flute); Ed “Sweetbread” Peterson anchoring the tenor; and Derek Douget on tenor and soprano.
“Creole Thang” features Evan Christopher’s ethereal clarinet in a sinuous, swirling melody with the orchestral horns in a chorus pushing along, the blend of soloist and full section forming a gorgeous invitation to dancers on a ballroom floor.
Irvin Mayfield has made the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra into a cultural institution, a record built on equal parts artistry and long-range budgeting. You can’t field a band of this size without money and that means full-bore fundraising. NOJO’s success is a continuing gift to the city and a credit to Mayfield’s talent as an artist and a businessman.
And on this month’s turntable, a special shout-out to Leroy Jones’ Wonderful Christmas: A Brass Salute to the King of Kings. Jones is one of the town’s best jazz trumpeters as demonstrated in a string of recordings and a mainstay slot at Preservation Hall and Palm Court. His rubato horn gives special polish to the Christmas standards. His latest album, New Orleans Helsinki Connection: Parades on Earth by Jones and his trombone- swinging better half, Katja Toivola, features her lyrics on the title cut:
“Oh New Orleans, oh what a town
How good it feels to be Crescent bound
To see your friends and taste the food
It’s paradise on earth for me.”
The band includes: vocalists Tricia Boutté and Yolanda Windsay; Gerald French and Jerry Anderson alternating on drums; Todd Duke on guitar; Paul Lonstretch piano; and Nobu Ozaki and Mitchell Player on bass.
With songs such as “High Society,” “Stardust,” and “Didn’t He Ramble,” Paradise on Earth extends the terrain of the New Orleans style Jones grew up with. In Katja Toivola he found good common ground.
Allen Toussaint’s Songbook, a live album recorded at Joe’s Pub in New York, is another sign of the composer and studio producer’s post-Katrina resurgence as a performer. The River in Reverse collaboration with Elvis Costello and Toussaint’s subsequent Bright Mississippi join Songbook as the gleaming triad of an artist in the autumn of a storied career.
The selections on this album have deep home pull. “It’s Raining” is a staple of Irma Thomas’s repertoire, one of the many compositions Toussaint threw off in a prolific stream in his 20s and 30s. The careful lilts in his phrasing – “about to blow my top” so different from Irma’s stair-step vocals on the same line – thread through the dozen selections on which he sings. Toussaint delivers delightful surprises to words from songs many readers well know, all in the phrasing.