Terence Blanchard: A New World (Created Inside The Walls Of Imagination)

As Dr. Cornel West’s social commentary from the prior, spoken voice track fades out, Scott’s second line beat and Almazan’s persistent note comes into focus. There are no chord changes in this song, but like a good vegetable soup, the meat isn’t needed if the spices are doing its job well enough. There’s a slippery, horn-led theme that’s inserted into the song twice, but that chord stays.

In between the themes, Blanchard rides the Big Easy rhythm like the old pro that he is---more like the old Orleanian that he is--blowing notes in the freewheeling style of a jazz parade, his languid pace placing him back in the very Crescent City from whence he came. Loueke’s unique wah-wah guitar intonations compete against the trumpeter, providing the friction that keeps the easygoing vibe from getting rote. And then there’s the urgency that comes from Almazan’s persistent note; symbolic, perhaps, of the challenges that must be faced in the new world as described by Dr. West.

August 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Henry Butler: Bourbon Street Blues

The New Orleans piano tradition is so rich that it is hard for the modern generation of keyboardists to live up to its demands, let alone earn a place alongside the legends of yesteryear. But Henry Butler has proven that he is a huge talent whose name is not out of place when mentioned in the same breath as those of the departed masters such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, or even the great Jelly Roll himself. Butler has, if anything, even greater technical command of the instrument than any of these predecessors, and there are few more enjoyable experiences in piano music today than hearing this artist attack the 88 keys. I prefer Butler unaccompanied, as on this tour de force performance of "Bourbon Street Blues." He has a deep idiomatic command of the full range of vernacular American piano styles, and you will hear bits of ragtime, stride, boogie and funk, all played with his characteristic thousand-watt touch. If his notes were any brighter, even the audience would need to wear shades. As this performance develops, Butler's piano concept becomes more noticeably rooted in the New Orleans tradition, less on-the-beat, instead bubbling and churning around the pulse, yet never loosing it. And always with oomph, or usually an oomph-and-a-half for good measure. If you think that great days of New Orleans piano ended before you were born, this is an artist you need to hear.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Al Hirt: When It's Sleepy Time Down South

Every artistic tradition of any scope has its serious practitioners and its popularizers. But with New Orleans jazz it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. A jazz purist will tell you that Louis Armstrong was the real artist, while Al Hirt was the watered-down version for the members of the public who didn't know any better. Yet the truth is somewhat more complicated. This track is truer to the jazz tradition than many recordings that Satchmo made around the same time, and if you know the trumpet you won't need a Toledo scale to figure out that Al Hirt is no lightweight. Here he takes a song associated with Armstrong, and plays it with a big New Orleans tone, confident phrasing and sure technique. Hirt didn't always pick the best material, and a soon after he made this music he would be found recording goofy "Tijuana Brass goes to New Orleans" numbers such as "Sugar Lips" and "Music to Watch Girls By." Yet put him in the right setting with the right material, as on this date, and Hirt was a worthy inheritor of his home town's rich trumpet tradition.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Galactic: Crazyhorse Mongoose

No, New Orleans can't claim to have invented funk, but its contribution to the nations GDF (= Gross Domestic Funkiness) is way out of proportion to the size of its population or square mileage. Must be in the water . . . flowing down the big river, coming in from the Gulf, seeping up out of the ground. Galactic, formed in 1994, has been keeping the local funk tradition alive and updating it for a new generation. The aesthetic here is no-nonsense jam band with a thin veneer of polish to make it suitable for contemporary jazz airplay. There is a lot to enjoy here, but Stanton Moore's drumming really is the key ingredient. A different flavor of New Orleans music, but still with lots of local spice.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Branford Marsalis: Sidney in Da Haus

The Sidney of the title is Sidney Bechet, the Creole clarinet (and soprano sax) master of early New Orleans jazz. Usually Branford's brother is the Marsalis sibling who plays the role of jazz museum curator, but perhaps Wynton's presence as a sideman here inspired this historically-charged performance. You probably already know that Branford Marsalis can construct thematic improvisations like Rollins or unleash modal assaults like 'Trane, but what about his Bechet bag on soprano sax? His breaks on this track are pure New Orleans, delivered with a coy "gosh, look at me" attitude that is quite endearing, and Branford follows with four picture-perfect blues choruses. Then the trumpeter in the family steps to the forefront and offers his own forceful history lesson. Only one track on I Heard You Twice the First Time features this outstanding band. 'Tis pity. I'm sure I'm not the only jazz fan who is disappointed that Wynton and Branford don't record together more often, and this track reminds me of the sparks that fly when the orbits of these two stars coincide. Oh . . . and don't miss out the New-Orleans-counterpoint-on-steroids in the opening and closing sections.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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George Lewis: La Marseillaise

People often talk about the "Spanish tinge" in New Orleans music, but what about the "French tinge"? After all this city—named for Philippe II, Duke of Orléans—was founded by the French and remained under their control far longer than than it was a Spanish territory. George Lewis (1900-1968) rectifies matters with his rendition of "La Marseillaise," a sweet and swinging trio performance from the New Orleans revival of the mid-1940s.

Lewis was a forgotten figure, a dock worker whose musical talents were virtually unknown outside of his home town. But the attention given to his friend Bunk Johnson, the darling of the revival movement, got Lewis a sideman gig and then his own record date. Lewis was unhappy with the results of a session with a larger band, and volunteered to record again—without pay—with this clarinet-banjo-bass trio. The resulting session is one of my most cherished moments from the New Orleans revival, and provides a rare chance to hear traditional clarinet without trumpet and trombone filling up the mix.

Lawrence Marrero and Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau (one of my favorite jazz names, that) are a delight to hear. Lewis, for his part, stays close to the melody here, ornamenting it and adding occasional fills. Eric Dolphy it's not, and no circular breathing is required. But this some of the most joyous music in the pantheon of jazz, rarely heard these days by fans who have little patience with New Orleans oldsters. Their loss. This is one more classic track that proves that, in this city, the least well-known names sometimes delivered the best music.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Huey "Piano" Smith: Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu

That piano lick has been stolen more times than second base at Fenway Park, but it still sounds sweet and funky today. New Orleans native Huey "Piano" Smith parlayed it into a 1957 hit with "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu." The song didn't achieve much crossover success at the time—supposedly because white deejays were reluctant to play it—but it reached the top five of the R&B chart. And the song had an even bigger impact when Johnny Rivers covered it in 1972: everybody heard it the second time around, and it earned a gold record for the singer. But you are advised to travel upstream and check out River's source. Smith's piano work is in the classic N'awlins style, with that trademark sliding and rolling sound, while the drums show no mercy in pounding out the back beat. The result is a virulently infectious rhythm . . . and the last time I looked there is still no vaccination against the boogie woogie flu.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Bamboula, Opus 2 (Danse des nègres)

A letter from 1786, written by a visiting Spanish bishop, denounces the slave dances in New Orleans, lamenting “the wicked custom of the negros, who, at the hour of Vespers, assemble in a green expanse called Place Congo to dance the bamboula and perform hideous gyrations.” But by 1849, a Paris newspaper proclaimed that “everyone in Europe knows Bamboula," thanks to Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the New Orleans pianist-composer, who has “brought a host of curious chants from the Creoles and the Negroes; he has made from them the themes of his most delicious compositions.”

Chalk up a loss for the New Orleans would-be saints . . . and a victory for the sinners in Place Congo.

Few today know the bamboula, but anyone who cares to understand the origins of American music, ought to make its acquaintance. The very first use of the word “tango” to describe a dance comes from an apparent reference to the bamboula in New Orleans—a full century before the word shows up in Argentina. If one could trace the full history of this word, this music, this dance, it would clearly encompass the roots of a wide range of American performance styles and help us understand the complex interweavings of African, Latin and European currents in the New World.

At the center of this sublime turbulence in the aural atmosphere sits New Orleans. The city’s most famous classical composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk tapped into these currents at age 18, when he composed “Bamboula, Opus 2 (Danse des nègres).” The concept of ethnomusicology didn’t exist back in 1848, nor did the discipline itself in any real sense. The fusion of different ethnic music cultures happened rarely and only in the most cautious manner. Yet here was Gottschalk, a prodigy who was partly of Haitian descent, comprehending the importance of this “wicked custom” of his native city and somehow capable of translating it into the language of concert music. More than 150 years later, this process is still underway, and—dare I say it?—still in its infancy.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World

Major label executives, producers and (quite possibly) Washington insiders envisioned a new direction for Louis Armstrong once producer Bob Thiele brought him into the studio for this session. Sounding like a hardened lobbyist with greater political aspirations, this "contemporary" version of "What a Wonderful World" swings uncharacteristically amidst Armstrong's strange reflections upon society.

Intoning as if he is sitting back in a rocking chair as an old grandpa smoking a pipe filled with tobacco, he says, "Some of you young folks been saying to me, "hey, Pops, what you mean what a wonderful world," continuing, "How 'bout all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful?" A quick change in tone finds him pleading with listeners, stumping for public support for a message which is the exact same as John Lennon's ("Give Peace a Chance").

My first reaction is one of disappointment, for I was unaware that this was not the original version until I heard it. As a result, my second (and final) reaction is to wonder who the "young folks" that turned to Louis Armstrong for political leadership in the late 1960s were and if they knew what brand of youthful folly they were dabbling with by doing so.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: This Black Cat Has 9 Lives

Talk about sloganeering. On one of the weirdest straightforward jazz recordings of all time, Louis "Pops" Armstrong interprets a cachet of lyrics that, on the surface, refer to the perceived unluckiness of black cats. According to the song, they continue to survive amidst a myriad of challenges and obstacles.

However, upon deeper inspection, a simile arises between the befallen animal and that of black Americans during the Civil RIghts era. That this somewhat dispirited recording was cut in 1970 is telling, but forced, idiosyncratic lyrics such as "falls down time and again/gets hung up and never wins/that's his history, my friend" will lead you to believe that this whole misconceived junket was not his idea.

The "hip" production style, which fuses Armstrong's growl with cheerful and frothy big-band backing, ultimately exposes how flat and ill sounding Armstrong's voice was at the time of this session, and further verification that Pops was obviously out for the pay comes to light when considering his background. Who knew that Armstrong, a poor black man born in total impoverishment in the New Orleans of 1901, even cared or knew this much about politics and race relations anyway?

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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James Booker: Junco Partner #2

They call them the "lost Paramount tapes." The 16 track master tapes disappeared a long time ago, and they are still hiding out somewhere. But in 1992, almost a decade after Booker's death from kidney failure—tragically left waiting for treatment at New Orleans Charity Hospital's emergency room—Daniel Moore found tapes of the mix he made made on the night of the last session. This allowed the CD release of this posthumous masterpiece.

Dr. John reportedly plays a cassette of this music for musicians in his band so they can hear how New Orleans music is supposed to be played. But, honestly, there can't be many bands in the Big Easy, or anywhere else, that operate consistently at this level. The rhythm section is hot, but Booker is clearly in command from the opening vamp. I once heard a bandleader lament about piano players who have learned all the Bill Evans chords and McCoy Tyner patterns, but don't really know how to create a groove at the keyboard. For that kind of lesson, you couldn't find a better teacher than James Booker or a sweeter pedagogy than these tapes.

August 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: The Crave

"If you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes," Jelly Roll Morton famously asserted, "you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz." Here Jelly Roll demonstrates what he means at the keyboard with his sultry and simmering habanera classic "The Crave." Latin jazz was still in its infancy, but on the basis of this performance alone you could have predicted a promising future for this mode of trans-genre cross-dressing.

The composition is a gem, one of Morton's finest efforts, and I wonder why it isn't played more often. You could serve it up as a stylish encore at a classical piano recital or let it rip at a juke joint—it works either way. The hook comes with the hesitation in the breaks. Let's turn again to Morton's own words: "Without breaks and without clean break and without beautiful ideas in breaks, you don't even need to think about doing anything else; you haven't got a jazz band and you can't play jazz." Again he lives up to his own standards. And exacting standards they were. Let me remind you that Morton was the bandleader who pulled out a pistol at a session when trombonist Zue Robertson didn't play the boss's tune the way he wanted. (Let it be noted, for the record, that the next time, Zue delivered it perfectly, note-for-note.)

At a time when swing bands dominated the charts and war was looming on the horizon, many jazz fans dismissed Morton as a pathetic blowhard, a stale leftover from a bygone musical era. The parade has passed you by, old man. But make no mistake about it: these final recordings from the New Orleans master, and this track in particular, reveal one of America's greatest musicians at peak form—showing the way with his clean breaks, beautiful ideas . . . and that Spanish tinge.

August 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Meters: Fire on the Bayou

If the Motown label had moved to New Orleans at the end of the Vietnam era, this is the kind of music they might have launched on to the charts and spread to the jukeboxes of America. Dream on! . . . most people probably can't handle this much Cajun spice in their musical fare. "Fire on the Bayou" is a simple tune - almost maddeningly banal - and the words will never be featured in a poetry anthology. But this is one of hottest rhythm sections you will hear on record, and the funk comes at you gumbo thick. The rhythm guitar alone is worth the price of admission and the way it locks in with the percussion is guaranteed to get fingers snappin', toes tappin' - and if you sampled it nowadays it would certainly get rappers rappin'. This band, which sometimes backed up artists such as Dr. John, Robert Palmer and Lee Dorsey, never attracted a large mass market audience, but musicians were paying attention, and the group deserves inclusion on any list of hot New Orleans ensembles.

August 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Irma Thomas: Time is on My Side

Give the Rolling Stones some credit. No one saw this song as a potential hit until the British rockers put it on the charts in the Fall of 1964. A few months earlier, Irma Thomas's record label had buried her rendition of "Time is on My Side" on the B-side of the single "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is." The song had been recorded previously by Kai Winding (check out the strangeness here), but the Stones relied instead on Thomas's version with its expanded lyrics.

The New Orleans R&B diva got no satisfaction from seeing the young rockers' success - and was so upset that, for a time, she only performed it in response to determined requests from the audience. Her intense 1964 version is no less stirring for its flip-side status, and one could easily imagine it becoming a hit on its own. But even if time wasn't on her side in this instance, Thomas proved resilient: at the close of 1964 she released another single - "Times Have Changed," a song which sounded somewhat similar to the hit record of her British rivals.

August 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dr. John: Iko Iko

Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters recorded this song in the early 1950s, with Professor Longhair holding down the piano chair. But Dr. John staked his own claim to ownership of "Iko Iko" at the Van Nuys session for his 1972 release Dr. John's Gumbo, where he delivered a modern-day classic of New Orleans music. The good doctor brings out all of the contradictions submerged in this style of performance. "Iko Iko" is loose and tight at the same time, on the beat and off, hot and cool - and, most important of all, has "Party" written all over it with a capital P. But before you get out on the dance floor, check out the ingredients here - in particular the drum part, which demonstrates how an old-school march beat can morph into a tasty funk groove.

You don't really need to know what "Iko Iko" means to enjoy it, but a grad student could spend a month deciphering the Creole patois and the song's various significations. The tune was originally recorded under the name "Jock-A-Mo" - which means jester. A "spy dog" is a lookout. Marraine is a godmother, etc. But even the composer claims he was just imitating phrases he had picked up from Mardi Gras Indians, and didn't really know what they meant. He thought it was some sort of victory chant. Works for me. Next time you come up on the winning side - in the office football pool, with pocket aces in a hand of Texas hold 'em, with a lottery ticket from the convenience store - try it out: Jockomo feena nay.

August 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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