Conrad "Connie" Jones has achieved an enviable reputation in his more than a half century on the New Orleans (and national) jazz scene. Roundly respected by his peers, he is a trumpet (cornet) player of impeccable taste and phrasing. His audiences can usually expect to be struck by his elegantly executed musical turns of phrase. "Clams" are totally alien to his playing.
Tom McDermott has now been a highly valued member of the New Orleans music community for more than two decades. Ever since his arrival from St. Louis in 1984 he has infused a breath of fresh air into the local traditional jazz scene. A gifted composer, he has come to be recognized as one of the best and most creative pianists in a city blessed with many fine keyboard artists.
McDermott and Jones have worked together many times in a variety of New Orleans bands. But for this session, McDermott has chosen to revisit the duo format that goes back at least to the time of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton (one of McDermott's favorite New Orleans pianists).
Since this seems to be his recording date, it is not surprising that more than half of the program consists of McDermott's original compositions, including his clever arrangement of the title track, which is a recasting of a classic melody by Frederic Chopin. "Africa meets Europe via Cuba, just like in the beginning of jazz," as he explains it in a liner note. Beyond that, there are tunes associated with some of his other musical favorites: James Booker's "Keep on Gwine" and compositions by Jelly ("King Porter Stomp") and Louis Moreau Gottschalk ("Danza").
McDermott's playing is tastefully inventive throughout. The program includes two strictly solo numbers -- his pleasant musette "Ambivalence" and his pretty ballad "Song of Bernadotte" (a takeoff on the name of the New Orleans street where he lives). On "Satchmo Speaks," he takes a well-known Armstrong coda and cleverly creates a vehicle to showcase Connie Jones' inspired playing. There is more unpredictability in McDermott's lovely and somewhat haunting reworking of "Tishomingo," with some fine playing and vocalizing by Jones as well. Jones takes center stage on the more straight-ahead renditions of "Sleepy Time," "Do You Know What it Means" and "King Porter."
There is a great deal to like about this album. If you are a fan of McDermott or Jones, you will certainly want to add it to your collection.
Available from www.arborsrecords.com or 1-800-299-1930.
Ever since clarinetist Evan Christopher moved to New Orleans from California in the fall of 1994, he has aimed to achieve an intimate understanding of the "New Orleans Creole clarinet aesthetic," as he once put it to me. To that end, he began playing an Albert-system instrument (rather than the more standard Boehm system of today), with the idea of "getting into the heads" of early Creole players like Barney Bigard in order to see to what extent the instrument might have influenced the musician's playing. You will hear him on both Bb and C Alberts on this recording, which, not accidentally, is dedicated to Lorenzo Tio, Jr., the teacher of Bigard and so many others of those early New Orleans clarinetists.
Now in his late 30s, Christopher has moved around a good bit over the last decade or so and has performed in a number of musical styles. But he is now back in New Orleans playing the kind of music you hear on this CD, revealing the breadth of his interests as both player and composer. At the same time, his commitment to the Creole clarinet tradition remains clearly evident.
Christopher is joined by a superb trio of collaborators on this recording. Drummer Shannon Powell and bassist Bill Huntington rank in the top echelon among New Orleans musicians (though the latter remains displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina). Pianist Dick Hyman is something of a legend in his own time, widely known for the skill with which he executes a variety of musical styles. All perform to their expected high standards, and the versatility of all three must have been a significant criterion in selecting them for this recording.
There is too much worthy of comment here to recount in a short review. The program itself is fresh and interesting, including five tasty originals by the clarinetist and several rarely heard traditional numbers. Among the latter are, for example, homages to Tio ("Kiss Me Sweet") and Jimmie Noone (the title track). Yet even the few standards, such as Hoagy's "New Orleans," with its verse followed by an easy swing 3/4 time, are executed in refreshingly novel ways.
It may be in his original compositions -- "Rampart Street Ramble," "La Ciudad Criolla," "The King of Tremé," "Out of There," and "Sunday Mornings" -- that we get the best impression of where Evan Christopher is today. As a group, these times are most appealing and aptly reveal Christopher's compositional skills. They range from lovely, introspective ballads to the unexpected Brubeck/Bill Smith-like bounce of "Tremé." I like the variety, and, in all instances, the clarinetist's rich, woody (and often breathy lower register) Albert sound swings.
Of his many recordings (and I've heard most of them), this has to be Evan Christopher's best to date. I cannot recommend it too highly. Available from Arbors Records at www.arborsrecords.com or 1-800-299-1930.
Mimi Blais, though a native of Montreal, is one of the most widely heard of the current ragtime piano players in America, and elsewhere for that matter. Her extensive touring insures that anyone who has heard her in the last 10 years (since this disc was issued) will undoubtedly be familiar with some or most of the material. Blais does not simply write up a set list of rags for her concerts or recordings. Each of these titles is a set piece, a completed and perfected arrangement of existing and new material with carefully thought through ideas and design. The typical piece might draw from classical repertoire, theatrical characterizations, costume, monologue and jokes.
Blais is an entirely creative and artistic individual who wins over audiences by being original, prepared, consistent and surprising. Just when you think you've heard her ultimate "Dizzy Fingers"/"Flight of the Bumble Bee"/Liszt/Bizet/Khachaturian medley she is likely to have found a new way to tweak it the next time. One of the interesting characteristics of this recorded collection is the point of reference. Here is a documented example of some of the early and midway stages in the development of these pieces, a chance to hear how the brilliant arrangements sounded in earlier incarnations.
Another element of the formula is the built in variety. Since hers is not a program of straight rags, though it is largely ragtime-based, she avoids the pitfalls of so many players who provide dynamic and tempo contrasts simply by inserting a Latin rhythm (like "Solace), a waltz (like "Bethena") and a modern rag (like "Graceful Ghost"). Anything but cliché, the pieces arrive with their own varieties of pacing, dynamics and temperaments. Her fondness for animals, for example, is exhibited with "The Cats," a quiet, soft-padded cat entering the scene, enhanced with a vocal and moving to a bluesy, jazzy riff within the mood. And from that she goes on to Eubie Blake's "The Baltimore Todolo," somehow making it a natural sequence.
Other familiar territory for Blais is her never-ending quest to introduce the works of Canada's own ragtime composer, Jean-Baptiste Lafreniere ("Taxi Rag" and "Valse miroir"). There also are her own originals and pieces so reconfigured that some might say they are more hers than the original composer's, but that would be unfair all the way around. "Black and White Rag" (George Botsford) may start as a waltz and be interrupted with a bit of "Hearts and Flowers" and the "Wedding March," but hang with it and you'll hear yet another showpiece display in a way no one else can match.
It has sometimes occurred to me that Mimi Blais might have most successfully picked up the ragtime ball where Max Morath left it -- music in the setting of theater. But where Max comes on stage, tells a story illustrated with music, but usually records just a set list of rags, Blais records pieces nearly the way she plays them in concert, though her concerts don't have the overall arc of a story line in Morath's style.
The final comment on Mimi Blais' recordings, alluded to already, is that she is a very competent pianist. Even though there is much that is visual and narrative in her concert appearances, you get your money's worth in an audio-only CD, because all her ideas started as musical ones, and her personality carries them all the way through the recording.
See her website: mimiblais.com for information about this recording (priced at $19.99 through orangemusic.net) and others.