JOIN THE MAILING LIST
The WILT Archive
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.
Back in March 2014 I wrote about New Orleans music on the occasion of Mardi Gras. This year Mardi Gras falls on February 28. If I'm being a bore by repeating an idea, you know what to do (bye!) but there's still plenty more New Orleans music to talk about, and more importantly, enjoy.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: New Orleans Funk Vol. 4
It's a happy day whenever the Soul Jazz label releases a new compilation, and here we are, spoiled rotten with two. I love their New Orleans Funk series, and although this one didn't initially strike me as being as strong as the others, it keeps growing on me.
As time goes by, I guess any series is going to start running out of big names and bona fide classics. I'd never even heard of Gus 'The Groove' Lewis, James K-Nine, The Barons Ltd., or Zilla Mayes. But they're all represented by great tracks, as are the better-known Johnny Adams and Eddie Bo. More surprisingly, there's a pretty damn funky track by Zydeco accordion king Clifton Chenier.
BETTY HARRIS: Betty Harris: The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul
This one is even better. Betty Harris has shown up on other compilations (including the New Orleans Funk ones) but it's time she had one of her own, and lo and behold, here it is. I'm not sure whether or not she's a 'Lost Queen', but she is underrated, even if the real genius behind her records is that guy who, when it comes to New Orleans music, is all over just about everything, namely Allen Toussaint.
I was shocked to find out from Soul Jazz's liner notes that Ms. Harris never even lived in New Orleans. She was from Florida, and flew in for her recording sessions. But the songs, arrangements, production, and piano-playing are all Allen Toussaint at his best, and the band is mostly The Meters plus friends. In other words, this stuff positively reeks of the Crescent City. Within a few bars of the first track, you can smell the Gumbo - you know, for instance, that's Zigaboo Modeliste on drums, and it's such a joy to hear someone whose style is so distinctive that it makes you laugh, the way you might laugh if you ran into an old pal you haven't seen in forever, but who hasn't aged a bit.
Seen as a front-person for Toussaint, Betty Harris could be a female counterpart to Lee Dorsey, another good, photogenic soul singer who would otherwise probably not have shone so brightly. On the other hand, Harris is a damn good singer. If she has a fault, it's an occasional overindulgence in flat-out belting, but when she lays back a bit, you can't fault her. On one of my favourite tracks, What Did I Do Wrong, everything comes together. It's the perfect blend of soul torch song and greasy blues grooving, with Harris sounding almost like a too-good-to-be-true combination of Etta James and Dusty Springfield.
Lost Queen gets more torchy, and runs out of steam a bit, towards the end. But thirteen or fourteen absolute killer tracks out of seventeen is a pretty good deal, if you ask me.
HENRY BUTLER, STEVEN BERNSTEIN and the HOT NINE: Viper's Drag
Henry Butler has been on my mind lately, since I saw him perform solo a few months ago at Bar Lunático in Brooklyn, and since he will soon be en route to Germany to have some strange kind of treatment for some strange kind of cancer. I really, really hope he comes through it.
Butler is a blind New Orleans pianist whose style is firmly rooted in his hometown, but at the same time, is too open and too quirky to be limited by it. You could describe him as (among other things) a cross between Professor Longhair and Thelonious Monk.
Maybe one of these days I'll write some kind of dissertation on the art of solo piano playing. I like playing solo myself, but I never take any compliments too seriously, as I'm very well aware of what a blundering amateur I am compared to people like Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Willie 'The Lion' Smith, etc. This is a great art, involving a lot of practice, hand/hand coordination, and good technique. All those things can be learned, but the most underrated skill probably can't, and that is the ability to swing - to actually create and sustain a groove - while playing solo. I've seen solo pianists in bars who seem to feel as though not having a drummer somehow 'gets them off the hook' – they don't have to bother with playing in time! Wow! I find this either exasperating or hilarious, depending on how many drinks I've had.
Playing any instrument in a tradition like jazz, which values spontaneity and improvisation, means constantly negotiating with an infinite number of possible choices. This is especially true of a solo pianist, who gets to call all the shots, and has a lot more shots to call. Only a solo pianist – or a good one, anyway - is able to emulate a whole band. Despite this (theoretical) total freedom, some will nevertheless consistently default to 'I know what will work here, so I'll go with that'. Others are more inclined to think 'let's try something different – what the hell?' Henry Butler is a 'what the hell' player, but one with a solid foundation. This is a combination I like.
Having said all that, his latest album Viper's Drag is collaboration, with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and with great arrangements for a nine-piece band. It's part of the current revival of a classic jazz label, Impulse!, and comes across as a spirited attempt to mix up musical elements from several different eras, going all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, but incorporating elements of modern jazz and funk. It doesn't always work, for my taste, but at its worst it’s stimulating and a noble effort, and its best, it's tremendous fun.
The last time I did this Mardi Gras WILT thing, I ended with a recipe for the New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac. It's still the cocktail and I can't follow it, but if you like to cook, I can suggest going to the website of Mr. B's Bistro on Royal Street in the Vieux Carré, and downloading their BBQ Shrimp recipe. If you get it right, you will think you are dead and in heaven.