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

Thursday, December 21, 2006

the great New Orleans drummer Shannon Powell

At the annual Winter Solstice Party of friends of ours tonight, I bumped into my old comrade Geov Parrish, a political activist and commentator who left a weekly political column at
Seattle Weekly after the New Times bought it. Seeing him reminded me that I hadn’t linked to his excellent piece on why he left the Weekly, which he published in the free ‘zine, Eat The State!, which he edits and which I believe he founded. Geov’s piece -- ai yai yai. They really wanted him out, but they wanted to be in a position of not being seen as having fired people, so they gave him assignments they knew he wouldn’t take. They lacked the dignity to fire people outright. But what’s business got to do with dignity, right?

Geov told me that the Weekly doesn’t appear to be doing too well. He said that their page count in their pre-Christmas issue was down to 80 pages this year from 130 last year -- not a good sign. I rarely pick it up any more, though I’m glad that they dropped “Ask the Mexican.” They replaced it with the ‘80s-style snarky, anti-local-culture, pro-homogenization column “Ask an Uptight Seattleite.”

As Geov said, “Not my problem any more.” Although he was a regular, I’m pretty sure he was free-lance, so he probably didn’t have health insurance anyway.

Robert Christgau, whom the New Times did fire from the Village Voice, did have insurance.

In New Orleans last week, I bumped into a colleague who had recently gotten his lay-off notice from a giant housing nonprofit.

We talked. He and his wife are 60, and his wife wants to retire, but now she can’t until they’re 65. Because he’ll be working as a consultant now, and they need her access to company-subsidized health insurance. For them to buy health insurance on the open market would cost them $1,500 a month -- $18,000 a year.

Mind-boggling. Insane.

My 60-year-old colleague and I went to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Preservation Hall together. As I mentioned last week, the Hall, which for decades had been open 7 nights a week, is now open only Thursday through Sunday. But the music is still fantastic.

When I read in the paper that drummer Shannon Powell would be leading the band Thursday night, I was stoked -- I had seen him two years ago and been mightily impressed.

Powell’s got the jazz combination of delicacy and spontaneity and guts, hitting one beat so softly and the next so loud, mixing it up, playing the musical music musically -- a great drummer. He was fronting a neo-trad 7-piece New Orleans band -- 2 brass, one reed, piano, banjo, bass, and drums. The brass were the trad trumpet & trombone. Instead of the usual clarinet, the reed was a tenor sax. The banjo was a 6-string guitar-tuned banjo, and the player played it with the jazz guitar chords, but the single-note sound was banjo all the way.

This fourth trip to Preservation Hall wasn’t as transcendent for me as the first two times I’d been there (including the first time I’d seen him), but better than the 3rd. Besides Powell, the band sported another extraordinary musician, pianist David Torkanowsky, who could swing it sweet, stride it steady, play loud & wild or quiet & delicately filigreed. And Torkanowsky was a showman -- in the middle of one solo he stood up, did a downward glissando the length of the piano with his left hand, followed by another with his right hand as he started to spin, and concluded with a 3rd gliss from his left hand as he completed his 360. Sounded -- and looked -- great.

Torkanowsky led a trio version of “Silent Night” swung so sweetly and delicately and funkily, with a ‘50s funk-jazz style bass riff anchoring it -- truly beautiful. Torkanowsky also sang Hoagy Carmichael’s great song “New Orleans.” As he led the band in the intro, I called to the drummer, “Hey Shannon, you gonna sing this one?” Shannon would have sung it great -- but he placed his finger to his lips, Shhh, and Torkanowsky sung it, slightly off-key and poignantly.
Powell is a joyous presence onstage, cracking jokes, loving the musical felicities of his bandmates, playing that great music. On the traditional New Orleans song “Little Liza Jane” he played a wonderfully funky melodic tambourine solo, with bass drum & high hat accompaniment -- really great. He sang a funny-funky-mournful “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (next line: “and I can’t buy no more milk”).

The rest of the band was fine; trumpeter and singer Leon Brown had some fine moments, and a young trombonist who sat in on a few songs blew my ears back with his rhythmic verve and dramatic dynamics, but I didn’t catch his name.

My colleague and I sat on the floor and spoke of health insurance. He had been in the Peace Corps in the Phillippines. A sweet guy; his wife is disappointed that she won’t be able to retire soon, and he’s disappointed too. What a crazy society.

New Orleans ain’t coming back to full population strength for at least a couple decades, but the tourist sector is mostly intact, just under-utilized. If you like the music and can afford a trip, I recommend it. They can use the business. You’ll hear great stuff that you won’t be able to hear anywhere else in the world.
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