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Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
This year Mardi Gras falls on March 4th. I’ll be in Berlin, but I’m going to celebrate by mixing myself a Sazerac and putting on some great New Orleans music.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: New Orleans Funk, Vols. 1 – 3
New Orleans Funk, released some time ago by the excellent London-based Soul Jazz record label, was for years one of my favourite compilations. I somehow missed the fact that there was a Volume 2, until I was in New Orleans last November, and in Lousiana Music Factory on Decatur Street (one of the great record shops in the US) I found not only Volume 2 but the newly-released Volume 3. I felt like I’d just won the lottery.
It seems to me that there must be two kinds of people in the world: those who would like pretty much everything on these records, and those who wouldn’t. The former, I understand. They are what the Germans call richtiger Menschen: real human beings. The latter – well, I can’t imagine what kind of people they are, but I’m scared of them.
It’s very difficult indeed to pick favourites from the 77 tracks spread across these three albums, but it’s worth noting that The Meters show up not only under their own name but as backup band for people like Cyril Neville, Willie West, and Lee Dorsey, and that Allen Toussaint regularly lurks in the background as writer or producer. There’s a lot of fun to be had, though, in getting to know artists popular in New Orleans but less so elsewhere: Betty Harris, Eddie Bo, The Gaturs, Chuck Carbo, etc. The accompanying booklets are luxurious too. If not for them, and a little help from Google, I would never have known, for instance, that cult R&B singer Lee Dorsey (who opened for The Clash on their 1980 US tour) was previously a boxer, and fought under the name Kid Chocolate; or that the first version of Fortune Teller (covered by many artists, most recently Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Raising Sand album) was written and produced by Toussaint but performed by Benny Spellman, who in 1965 ‘semi-retired from music to work in the beer industry’.
Incidentally, speaking of New Orleans Funk, you could also either get The Meters’ first 3 albums and a bunch of additional singles, or get the double CD Here Comes The Meter Man, which contains all of the above. If you download it, make sure to get the cover photo, which features some of the baddest high-waisted bell-bottomed pants ever captured on film.
GALACTIC: Ya-Ka-May and Carnivale Electricos
If The Meters defined the state of the art of New Orleans funk in the 1970s, Galactic are doing it for the 21st century. Though they’re great live (drummer Stanton Moore especially) they’re at their best in the studio, where they collaborate with a dizzying range of local singers and rappers, and experiment in innovative ways without losing their tremendous funky grooves. Ya-Ka-May is a masterpiece, bringing together old legends like Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas (on the brilliant Heart of Steel) with young upstarts from the Sissy Bounce scene (only in New Orleans can you find a sub-genre of hip-hop in which the rappers are drag queens). Carnivale Electricos is very nearly as good, and cleverly combines the influences of New Orleanian and Brazilian carnival music. My favourite track, though, is Voyage Ton Flag, where an old Zydeco accordion tune by Clifton Chenier is mixed into the dirtiest, nastiest groove you’ve ever heard.
JAMES BOOKER: King of the New Orleans Keyboard
I love the distinctive New Orleans piano style, and Booker may just have been the best of them all. Some say he was an eccentric character. I disagree. I say he was flat-out crazy as a loon. Dr. John (whose playing sounds, to my ears, like a mixture of Booker and Professor Longhair) once described him as ‘the best black, gay, one-eyed, junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced‘.
I also found out a couple of years ago that Booker was known, because of his flamboyant style, as ‘the Black Liberace’. This immediately reminded me of the first time I performed on Saturday Night Live, way back in 1983 (or was it 1982? Or 1897?) Liberace had just been ‘revealed’ to be gay, and my band and I were in stitches in the Green Room as Eddie Murphy, with a straight face, claimed to be greatly offended that anyone could say such a thing about such a bad-ass piano man, someone who was a childhood hero to him and the brothers growin’ up in the ‘hood. Imagine my surprise when I learned that James Booker admired Liberace and even performed some of his hits live. Then again, he was just as likely to launch into a Chopin waltz, stop the show to try to score drugs from audience members, or not show up at all.
It’s hardly surprising that Booker’s recorded legacy is inadequate and inconsistent, but at his best, as he is on much of this 1984 live recording from Germany, he’s phenomenal. He usually performed solo, but his left hand alone was able to replicate a whole band. In Blues Rhapsody he seems to channel early New Orleans piano music all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton, but adds his own distinctive jazz-latin-blues syncopations and embellishments – here and, for instance, on the 6-minute version of Junco Partner, he’s also able to keep a hypnotic groove going with his left hand, while not only playing cross-rhythms but actually dragging or pushing the beat with his right hand, while keeping the left hand right on the money. Hearing is believing.
SYDNEY BECHET: The Best of Sidney Bechet (Blue Note)
If you saw the recent Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris, you might remember the opening sequence, in which gorgeously romantic scenes of Paris are accompanied by the most perfect music imaginable. That music is Si Tu Vois Ma Mere, written and performed by Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans Creole who lived the last nine years of his life in Paris and became a kind of French national hero.
Bechet is also a hero to true jazz fans, who know that he was as innovative and influential in the early days as his more crowd-pleasing contemporary Louis Armstrong. It took me a while to appreciate Bechet, however. He played clarinet and especially, soprano saxophone (he was the only major soloist on the instrument until Coltrane revived it in the 1960s) with a huge, utterly distinctive, love-it-or-hate-it sound, with a big, wide vibrato. His only real musical heir was Johnny Hodges, who translated some of Bechet’s techniques to the alto sax and whose lush, sensuous style made him the star soloist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Then Charlie Parker came along, playing with a harder edge and little vibrato, and suddenly everyone else sounded old-fashioned. The Parker influence has gripped every altoist ever since, from the great Jackie MacLean (a self-professed ‘sugar-free saxophonist’) and Cannonball Adderley’s soul-jazz to, more recently, the metallic edge of Maceo Parker with James Brown or David Sanborn on Bowie’s Young Americans. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever hear a young saxophonist return to the romantic Hodges approach.
Getting back to Bechet, I think that one day I simply accepted his ‘old-fashioned’ vibrato as part of a passionate, intense and completely personal sound, which I now love more and more. Like all the greatest jazz improvisers, his musical imagination, too, was powerful, focussed and always fresh, even in his last recordings. And like many artists who did much of their work in the pre-LP era, he has to be discovered through a large assortment of overlapping compilations. The Blue Note one is pretty good, since it includes two ‘musts’, Summertime and the amazing clarinet blues Blue Horizon. But there’s also a good set on the Avid label, one in the Ken Burns Jazz series, and . . . well, too many others. Good luck.
You’ll need two Old-Fashioned glasses. Chill one in the freezer or by filling with ice. In the other, mix about a tablespoon of sugar syrup and several dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters (no, Angostura won’t do). Another, more traditional method is to crush and muddle a sugar cube with the bitters and a little water. Stir. Add 3 (or 4) oz. of good Rye whiskey. Stir. Add several ice cubes. Stir.
Take the other glass out of the freezer, or dump out the ice. Into the chilled glass, pour a shot of absinthe (or a substitute such as Pernod or Herbsaint) and swirl until the inside of the glass is completely coated. Chuck out the absinthe. Strain in the mixture from the mixing glass. Squeeze a lemon twist over it, and drop it in.
Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez.