Pianist Tom McDermott and trumpeter/vocalist Connie Jones celebrated the release of their duet album Creole Nocturne last night at Snug Harbor in New Orleans. Both early and late shows were well-attended. Comedian Harry Shearer, who will be hosting the 20th annual Big Easy music awards show tonight, caught the second set and applauded enthusiatically throughout. There was plenty to applaud. McDermott and Jones were dazzling, but clarinetist Evan Christopher was no less impressive. Most jazz pianists have an identifiable personal style, but McDermott's encyclopedic mastery of genres and technique makes him something of a musical chameleon. Accordingly McDermott played masterfully on traditional jazz standards, Brazilian choros, a French musette and the Chopin nocturne that the title track is based on, as well as the work of James P. Johnson and James Booker and his own compositions.
My cover story on McDermott and Jones in the current issue of OffBeat explores the nature of New Orleans traditional jazz and how it can keep itself from calcifying into a rote form. Players like McDermott, Jones and Christopher demonstrated how to keep that tradition vibrant at the Snug Harbor show by bringing emotion and creativity to bear on standard lines. Jones is remarkably inventive on the most familiar material, playing Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" with delicate, nuanced tones and a vocalist's sense of rhythmic variation and approaching "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" with fresh perspective, altering the melodic line in a way that dramatically transformed its focus from a personal observation to an archtypal truth. Christopher offered an astonishing range of tones, at one point disassembling his clarinet and playing the stem to achieve a soft, spooky sound.
Over the weekend I also saw John Gros with his "solo" band at the Maple Leaf. Away from Papa Grows Funk Gros is the literal center of attention, playing electric keyboards while flanked in this case by guitarists Robert Mache and Camile Baudoin. Both guitarists are primarily concerned with song structure, framing Gros' man mountain vocals on originals such as "What's the Matter? Part 2 #35" and "Black Rider." But the hard dancing crowd delighted to the moments when Baudoin and Mache wound up for a series of glimmering raveups on covers like the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed," Earl King's "Make a Better World" and two classics by the Band, "Ophelia" and "Cripple Creek." Gros is picking up steam as he barrels into the upcoming first weekend of Jazzfest. Tonight he'll be rocking the Maple Leaf again with Papa Grows Funk.