Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, December 23, 2004


My work trip last week took me to New Orleans. Party, right? Sure, yeah, but. On past work trips, my spouse had been able to take the now almost-2-year to visit her sister’s family, but a trip so close to the holiday was impossible for her. Aggravating the irritation was that my trip was a training on something I’ve been doing for 2 years -- five days to get officially certified on something I already know. But -- it was to New Orleans, and that means music.

Since Sunday is a child care day for me as my spouse works, I decided to fly red-eye Sunday night and taxi straight to the Monday morning meeting. Which was fine, but it meant I was trashed both Monday and Tuesday and didn’t get out to hear anything until Wednesday night. And Wednesday when I picked up a weekly entertainment guide I was chagrined to learn that I missed a favorite New Orleans group, the wonderful Rebirth Brass Band. I was tired Tuesday night, but had I known, I’d’ve been there.

Wednesday night I went to Preservation Hall. My spouse and I had been there 5 years before, in the week or so before Christmas of 1999. A wonderful venue for music. Tiny room, no drinks, no smoking, no food, no rest rooms, barely any chairs, just some uncomfortable benches and room to stand. And best of all, no P. A. Just the sounds of the instruments, the glorious sounds of the instruments.

The band I saw in 1999 played a swing-New Orleans hybrid style popularized in the 1950s by Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars. The hybrid style features 1920s New Orleans-style polyphony in the ensemble playing and smooth 4/4 late ‘30s swing-style drumming and bass playing. The rhythm section I saw in ‘99 was top notch -- the whole band was. The players I most remember from that night were trumpeter-singer-leader Wendell Brunious and banjoist-singer Narvin Kimball -- I probably remember them because they were the singers. Brunious sang with such sweetness and wryness and light swing, and so quietly -- and with no P.A., the band just had to play quietly when he sang. Mr. Kimball was 90 the night I saw him, and he boomed his songs in a huge belting voice with a wide vibrato. Both great singers. Clarinetist David Griller played a gorgeous rendition of the haunting tango-esque Petite Fleur that night too -- a traditional New Orleans clarinet feature. (I remember his name only because I bought a CD that night that he and Brunious and Mr. Kimball were on.) Brunious was a gracious bandleader, acknowledging his bandmates’ solos with genuine warmth, and always referring to the 90 year old Mr. Kimball as “Mr. Kimball.”

When Preservation Hall started in 1961, it was a venue for traditional New Orleans players who had played the New Orleans style when it was in the mainstream of jazz. Narvin Kimball was the last of the line -- he’s still alive at 95 but has suffered a debilitating stroke and no longer plays. The institution’s first recording, Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band from 1964, is a raucous affair, wild, loud, propulsive 2-beat style drumming, with liberal use of cowbell and woodblock -- just stomping, like some of the early, less famous rockabilly guys from the ‘50s. Full tilt music. The 1999 band was smooth and demure by comparison, but still terrific.

The band I saw a week ago Wednesday was completely different. Younger players, and wilder than the ‘99 band, and no banjo. And hot, hot, hot. Drummer Shannon Powell is one of the best drummers I’ve seen in my life -- energetic, witty, imaginative, lively, supremely musical and melodic. And, he plays in a post-bop, post-free-jazz version of the original 2-beat New Orleans style, including some use of the woodblock. Trombonist Lucien Barbarin is apparently from the same school as Powell -- post-bop in influence, and still smack in the heart of the traditional style. Plus, the greatest master of the trombone’s tone colors that I’ve ever seen live -- growling, sputtering, soaring smoothly -- whatever is fitting the musical conception of the moment, Barbarin is right there.

Trumpeter-singer William Smith led the band with the same warmth and collegiality that Wendell Brunious had led his band and sang with great verve and passion. Clarinetist Michael Powell showed some post-bop influence in his playing; bassist Dewey Sampson and pianist Marie Watanabi played their roles with energy and fineness.

Powell and Barbarin backed Smith up in the singing, with harmonies and response vocals and vocal riffs and jokes. They walked a razor-fine line on the edge of comedy and horror as they commiserated exaggeratedly with Smith’s narrator who’s lost his woman to the morgue in “St. James Infirmary.” Hair-raising stuff -- funny and tragic, goosebumps and duende, an utterly transfixing lack of decorum in the musical, comedic, dramatic brilliance. Same with the Fats Waller classic, “Black and Blue”; originally a lament of a dark-skinned black man who’s been spurned by a light-skinned black woman, Louis Armstrong made it the lament of a black man who doesn’t get an even break in the white world. Smith, who’s dark-skinned, brilliantly modified the line “I’m white inside” to “I’m bright inside.” Powell and Barbarin, who are light-skinned, again sang the razor-edge line of comedy and drama, either commiserating with Smith (they’re all black) or mocking him (his skin’s darker) or both. I can’t imagine ever hearing better versions of either song -- both great American classics.

I wanted to hear “Petite Fleur” but unfortunately I didn’t remember the name and requested “Clarinet Marmalade” by mistake, a classic by the maligned but excellent Original Dixieland Jass Band. ODJB gets bad press because, as a white band, they beat the black New Orleans bands into the studio by 4 or 5 years and grabbed an unfair share of the glory and loot. Black New Orleans musicians seem to have let bygones be bygones, these 85-plus years later -- Sweet Emma herself recorded “Clarinet Marmalade,” and the band I saw last week raised their eyebrows at the obscurity of the request, but they remembered it and wailed it. It’s a hot and interesting tune with structural holdovers from Sousa-style marching music -- the interlude riff could be a Sousa riff, jazzed.

I stayed for a few hours and had a wonderful time.

Had such a good time that I went back the next night, last Thursday the 16th. The band I heard that night was different again, and not nearly as good. Gone was the comradery, gone was the comedy, and on the whole the players weren’t as accomplished or inspired. Another excellent drummer, also in the 1920s 2-beat style, with even greater use of woodblock and cowbell. A terrific clarinetist-soprano saxophonist who played in the wide-vibrato traditional New Orleans style. Bass, piano, and trombone were fine, but the trumpeter was shockingly mediocre -- unswinging, unswift, unsure. That night I succeeded in requesting “Petite Fleur,” and it was gorgeous. I didn’t write down the players’ names that night.

Every night you go, it’s called the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but the name of the band isn’t a band name, it’s the name of the company. Which is too bad -- I’d go to hear William Smith’s band once a month, easy, if I knew what night he played (if I lived in New Orleans). In the 3 nights I’ve gone, I’ve seen 19 different musicians -- a few were brilliant and unforgettable, and all the rest but one were splendid; only one was mediocre. It really is a great place to hear music -- it’s only about the music, the sounds the instruments and voices make, unfiltered by electricty. It’s a tourist attraction, and my co-listeners gave obligatory ovations even to the mediocre trumpeter’s solos. But remember: The original tourist attractions were holy sites for pilgrimages. This is one.

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