Sunday, April 21, 2013

From the French Quarter to le Quartier Latin

My trip to New Orleans was inspiring and revelatory. Some of the mystique of that city was stripped away - contrary to popular belief, Bourbon St. is not where it's really at. There were also some very stark lessons to be learned from that city, compared with my hometown of Montreal. One could argue that these are similar lessons to be learned from New York as well; maybe it's the French connection but they hit home a lot harder on this trip.

The most striking thing is that every club I went to in New Orleans was a pleasant listening experience, on multiple levels. Every club had a diligent sound man on hand. I think I heard feedback once at d.b.a, and that was it. Every club also had great sightlines and a layout that directed one's attention to the stage. Even from the very back of Maison, where I couldn't see much, I could hear the band clear as a bell. None of the clubs ever felt cramped or hard to navigate. Only a handful of venues had the stage at the front, in a window (which seems to be the trend in Montreal for some inexplicable reason). Even d.b.a, which has a bar that extends into the show room, didn't feel constrained, and it didn't bottleneck the way Montreal clubs can. There was also an etiquette among most audience members - outside of one late-comer who planted himself in front of everyone else at Jon Cleary's set for maybe two songs at the most, people were very aware of their surroundings.

All the clubs were open, in the sense of being able to sit if you wanted to sit and being able to stand and dance if you should so desire. I didn't go to Snug Harbor or Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse, the more conventional jazz clubs in town, so I can't vouch for whether that's universally the case. It's a great feeling as a listener, because it's not dependent on keeping the dancers on their feet, nor does the setting of the club impinge upon people's instinct to dance.

Contrary to the perception of New Orleans running way behind the beat, most shows (the Open Ears set at Blue Nile and the Trio at Maple Leaf excepted) started more or less on time (given a margin of error). Jon Cleary's set was called for 7, and he started at 7:15. Same with "Wolfman" Washington and the two outdoor shows, and the jam at Maison. Even at the Leaf, guitarist June Yamagishi was running late, but since the sound guy had already set everything up (and George Porter Jr. and Terrence Houston were ready to go), he only needed to plug in. Minutes after his arrival (and very close to the 11:00 hit time the bartender told me), they were onstage playing.

The amount of focus and respect that New Orleans and Louisiana place on their local artists is astounding. The French Quarter festival is almost exclusively local acts (with one stage devoted to "locally-inspired international groups"), and Louisiana Music Factory is devoted to their homegrown music, with a dedicated "NEW ORLEANS" vinyl bin or three. There is a New Orleans Jazz Historical National Park - complete with rangers in their hats - that direct you towards all things New Orleans jazz. The Old Mint on Decatur & Frenchmen has been converted into a museum and concert hall. The current exhibit celebrates 50 years of Preservation Hall, including Louis Armstrong's original cornet. This support of local artists is almost too much. The New Orleans Jazz Fest website states: "The Festival respectfully limits applicants to bands living and working in Louisiana," which frankly is a joke, looking at the full programming of the festival (Le Vent du Nord, from Quebec? Eddie Palmieri? Billy Joel? Fleetwood Mac?). While I take issue with that statement because it's patently untrue, the Jazz & Heritage Fest's dedication to local artists is admirable, with artists from Louisiana accounting for the vast majority of the programming.

Some of these are more easy to achieve than others. It's definitely a wake-up call for Montreal. I know musicians have griped about these issues in private for generations. We can do something about it.

Set your tail on fire

I made my first pilgrimage to New Orleans this past week. New Orleans is one of three personal musical beacons, the others being Brazil and Cuba. I felt it important to soak up the traditional music, the brass bands, the piano heritage and the gutbucket New Orleans funk courtesy of the Neville family and their compatriots. I also saw a good amount of music that I didn't expect from New Orleans.

After some of the best airport food ever - in a layover in Houston, eating some good Texas BBQ - we landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. The taxi co-ordinator wasted no time in chiding us that we were a day late for French Quarter Fest, a free weekend of music that takes over the entire French Quarter and rivals, even possibly surpasses, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the amount of great local music they present. I made my way to the hostel in the Garden District, passing massive murals for Zatarain's and various companies using jazz to sell their product. Honestly, after a week, seeing jazz this and jazz that for things that have absolutely nothing to do with the music became a little overbearing and tiresome. It was novel at first, though.

Monday night was round one on Frenchmen Street, the renowned music drag in the city. I have never seen that many live music clubs crammed into such a small space (maybe two or three blocks). I had read about the jam session at Maison, which also had a great menu of traditional Cajun and Creole food, even though it's overpriced. That was our ultimate destination, but some of the clubs on Decatur Street like BMC and Vaso demanded our attention with their great live music too. Another tradition, outside of music, is red beans and rice on Mondays. Maison serves theirs with options of adding fried chicken and/or alligator sausage. I'm still not sure it was worth the $10 as opposed to the $4 other joints on Frenchmen were selling their beans & rice for, but it was still fantastic nonetheless.

The band playing the dinner set at Maison was saxophonist, clarinetist and vocalist Aurora Nealand, leading a group through some great trad tunes, including some Bessie Smith and Louie Prima. It beat the pants off the trad bands that parade through the Montreal Jazz Fest. The sousaphone player was phenomenal, too, possibly the highlight of the group. In general, all the sousaphonists I heard in New Orleans were stronger than the bassists I encountered, with the exception of George Porter Jr. At the jam session, the house sax player and guitarist carried the weight of the band, both with credible singing voices (the saxophonist took a Louie Prima tune and the guitarist covered the Neville's "Yellow Moon"). Bonus points for the guitarist rocking a Hannah Montana purple axe all evening! The drummer was good, and was also competent on the busted baritone horn hanging on the wall of the club. The bassist was coming out of a rock bag and was rather stiff (as was the case for the bassists who sat in after him). The first jammer was a drummer from Fargo, North Dakota, who was charged with playing a second line so the host drummer could solicit tips. He said he could play a second line, but he was either nervous or an outright liar, with a feel that hiccuped more than a drunk tourist on Bourbon Street. Perhaps that made the host gun-shy about inviting up unknown white people to play. It took my travel buddy, bassist Mark Haynes, reminding the host about his sign-up list, for him to call me up. I relieved the house keyboardist - who was a great singer and a good blues player - for a good majority of the night. It was a true thrill to be playing on Frenchmen Street my first night in town.

On Tuesday afternoon, after visiting Loyola campus, Mark and I headed back to the source: Congo Square. The birthplace of all #BAM, the place where free people of color were allowed to congregate on Sundays and play their music. It bleeds into Louis Armstrong Park, decorated with multiple gorgeous statues and cement blocks inscribed with the names of New Orleans music legends. It is truly an inspiring and important place in which to set foot. Tuesday night, I made a point of visiting Twitter friend Jeff Albert's Open Ears music series at Blue Nile. It featured drummer/bandleader Justin Peake at the helm of some of the city's great improvisers, including bassist James Singleton (from Astral Project) and Aurora Nealand again, this time on saxophone and accordion! It seemed like most people that night doubled: the tenor player also had an analog synth, the percussionist spent most of his time on various electronic gadgets, Singleton also sang. Poet Moose Jackson narrated non sequiturs (both improvised and written by Peake) over the music. It was easily one of the most riveting out music shows I've seen in a long time, with immense musicality and deep listening happening. There were moments of Frisell's mix of anthemic, folk melodies that were subverted by various sonic treatments and noises. Clearly, the community around Open Ears is a fertile one, and a subset of New Orleans music that is probably a surprise to most people who don't follow Jeff on Twitter. One girl planted herself in front of the band on a bar stool, and was performing interpretive dance to the improvisation. She appeared to be a regular at Blue Nile.

Wednesday, I went down to Louisiana Music Factory. with the mission of grabbing local records that I could not find back home. I scored a couple of New Orleans funk compilations with the likes of Eddie Bo, Ellis Marsalis' Syndrome, a compilation of James Black tracks, and a CD issue of various live James Booker cuts. I also stumbled across a Venezuelan salsa record and an old-school Brazilian samba compilation that I couldn't turn down. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I got home, my long walk through the French Market with these records in my bag caused them to warp a bit. They're still playable, though! After having some phenomenal gumbo for lunch (the Brit to the table beside mine called the chicken & andouille concoction "the closest thing I've had to a religious experience"), I walked back through the Quarter to Congo Square to sit and write. Heading uptown along Rampart St, I wound up at the Little Gem Saloon, watching pianist Joshua Paxton give a master class in all things New Orleans piano. Paxton has done all the published transcriptions of James Booker, Professor Longhair, and Dr. John, and clearly has mastered that language, with a monster stride left hand that would make Ethan Iverson proud, as Paxton played a mashup of Fats Waller and Scott Joplin.

Some elderly gentleman in the Treme, as well as the staff at the hostel, told me about the free Wednesday concerts in Lafayette Square. By some kind of happenstance, the band was David Shaw and the Revivalists, a group I had just discovered the week before thanks to video of Shaw guesting with Galactic on their last tour. The park was full of food vendors from across town and a stage was set up, emblazoned with the New Orleans Saints logo. It seems the Wednesday concert series is sponsored by the Saints. In addition to their fantastic swamp-rock, complete with pedal steel and yet another multi-instrumentalist playing keys, trumpet and providing backing vocals, it appears Shaw has a tendency to take off his shirt at every show. I was standing beside a massive betting pool of people who had wagered upon how long it would take Shaw to disrobe (official time: 60 minutes). From there, it was back to Frenchmen Street to witness blues legend Walter "Wolfman" Washington. I remember when I discovered Wolfman, thanks to the early web radio stream of Radio Free New Orleans, and later, WWOZ. It was great to be there, up close and personal, at one of his Wednesday night residencies at d.b.a. Added perk: d.b.a. has possibly the largest beer list in the city, including some of my favourite brews such as Brooklyn Lager, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, and Unibroue's Ephemère Pomme. I ordered a St. Ambroise Apricot Ale, with my default Anglo-Montrealer accent, and the bartender took about 15 seconds to register what I had asked for.

Thursday, I headed the furthest downtown in my trip, to the Bywater neighbourhood for Euclid Records. I went in looking for some more New Orleans funk, and wound up getting a William D. Smith record produced by Allen Toussaint with James Booker on organ, as well as another volume of Kip Hanrahan's collaboration with Ishmael Reed, Conjure. I picked up one volume of this on my last trip to NYC, and I was pleasantly surprised to find its companion in New Orleans. Round four of the French Quarter awaited with another open-air festival, this time in Armstrong Park. More fantastic food, and music provided by a young up-and-coming brass band followed by the jam-band nostalgia of Flow Tribe. The event was hosted by percussionist Bill Summers, who has lived in New Orleans for 20-something years. It was an unexpected surprise.

Jon Cleary is probably the most well-known advocate of New Orleans piano history. Every Thursday that he's in town, he does a solo piano set at d.b.a. I got there early to absorb every note of this masterful player, and he dealt some serious history lessons. I had forgotten Earl King wrote "Big Chief" (not Professor Longhair), which he then took through three keys, and I had never heard Smiley Lewis' "One Night of Sin," which was cleaned up into Elvis' "One Night With You." From the Allen Toussaint covers to Cleary's originals, the dude just oozes effortless soul and class, decked out in a white suit with matching wide-brimmed hat.

From there, I hopped in a cab back uptown to the venerable Maple Leaf Bar, where drummer Johnny Vidacovich holds court every Thursday night. Johnny V subbed this one out, so it was Terrence Houston behind the kit with funk legend George Porter Jr (of the Meters) and guitarist June Yamagishi. I was initially disappointed, as I really wanted to hear the deeply swampy, "in-the-cracks" hookup that Johnny has with George, and Houston's youth and considerable chops meant everything turned into an extended drum solo. In the second set, though, Houston brought out the street beats and nailed them. A fitting nightcap to a trip filled with inspirational music.