Friday, July 25, 2008

John Swenson wins Press Club of New Orleans Awards

John Swenson has been awarded first place in the Entertainment category by the Press Club of New Orleans for the article "Every Accordionist A King" published in OffBeat magazine in 2007.

The Press Club of New Orleans celebrated its 50th anniversary with a dinner at Harrah's Hotel. At the event, hosted by NBC News anchor Hoda Kotb, Greg Shepperd of WDSU-TV was introduced as president of the Press Club for 2008-09. Terry Westerfield of the United Way for the Greater New Orleans Area served as awards chairwoman.
Three Louisiana college students received journalism scholarships at the ceremony: Lauren LaBorde and Briana Prevost of Loyola University and Kevin Sims, a student at Louisiana Tech University

Swenson also received an award for third place in the Critical Review category for "Songs of Innocence and Experience"; and an honorable mention in the Feature category for the article "The Blue Room Blues."

Here are links to the stories:

Every Accordionist A King

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Blue Room Blues

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nappy Brown Needs Your Support

Last month we described the heroic performance of blues legend Nappy Brown, who collapsed onstage during his show at Michael Arnone's Crawfish Festival on June 1.

Brown was helped offstage by paramedics and taken to the hospital. He made it home to Charlotte, North Carolina, but has been hospitalized ever since.

The rhythm and blues pioneer had been enjoying a heady career resurgence since the release of his universally acclaimed CD, Long Time Coming, on Blind Pig Records. Brown received two Blues Music Award nominations and turned in a show-stopping performance at the recent BMA awards ceremony.

Brown's summer tour, including a number of festival dates, has been canceled due to his illness. In the meantime, Chuck Jackson and other board members of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation have been very supportive during this difficult time.

It is uncertain when he will be released, and doctors view his condition as serious. This extended stay in the hospital is a lonely and trying time for Nappy. If you would like to send get-well cards or pass on your appreciation you may send to:
Napolean Culp
c/o Carolinas Medical Center
1000 Blythe Boulevard
Charlotte, NC 28203

Friday, July 11, 2008

Another kind of gospel

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic with Oral Moses
Extreme Spirituals
Cuneiform Records

Gospel is one of the most conservative American music forms. It's canon has been codified for generations and its stock arrangements vary little from performer to performer. The music's power lies in the technique and emotional delivery of the singer, appropriately enough for a genre whose reason for existence is spiritual transcendence.

But what if you took the gospel canon, deconstructed it and reassembled the compositions themselves to examine their contours more thoughtfully? That's exactly what Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, with the help of vocalist Oral Moses, attempt on Extreme Spirituals. Mesozoic keyboardist Erik Lindgren, who arranges eight of the twelve tracks here, channels Ellington, Coltrane, Zappa and Bach en route to
what some might call an epiphany of interpretive genius. The songs certainly speak a language of their own, and the arrangements translate them by reweaving the simple, powerful melodies through harmonic and rhythmic variations interlaced with fantastic constructs of piano, treated guitar, synthesizer, flute, saxophone and four
percussionists. The music is meticulously composed, as the Zappaesque "Listen to the Angels Shoutin'" or the stirring program music of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" easily demonstrate, but on the angular foray during "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" and the swinging "Great Day" the playing has an improvised quality. The ensemble employed extraordinary discipline to pull this off.

Extreme Spirituals would be a fascinating experience as an instrumental album, but Moses' vocals are nothing short of genius. Moses avoids the usual emotive approach to gospel shouting in favor of a classical reading a la Paul Robeson that interacts brilliantly with the well crafted arrangements. The beautiful intro to guitarist Michael Bierylo's arrangement of "A Little More Faith in Jesus" matches Moses' sonorous baritone moans perfectly, while the simple accompaniment of "Swing Low Sweet Charity" and the quiet, contemplative fugue "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," with Moses humming along to a synthesizer coda, opens this music up to another dimension. And the album closes with a pure triumph, “Amen,” recast as a terrific dance medium with a catchy rhythm track that has Moses actually breaking out of the stern character he maintains throughout when he sings “Feel so good now!”

Ultimately, of course, the success of such an iconoclastic approach to sacred
music is in what Dewey Redman called “the ear of the behearer,” but it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most orthodox of gospel fans finding fault with such a creative attempt to bring new life to this material.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dirty Dozen Brass Band/Blind Boys of Alabama in Montreal

Here's a review of one of the more exciting shows at this year's Montreal International Jazz Fest:

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is as fine a concert group as a parade band and the audience at the Theatre Maisonneuve treated the front four of trumpeter Efram Towns, tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris, trombonist Keith "Wolf" Anderson and baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis like the jazz lions they've become. Lewis in particular was at the height of his power, blowing deep, carved wood notes as a striking counterweight in the brass arrangements. This is a different version of "Saints" that we've been hearing elsewhere. In the hands of the Dozen it's a musical corrolary to "Egalite" and the audience went from reverence to ecstasy,
delivering one of several standing ovations.

"St. James Infirmary" is a song no New Orleanian can sing without emotion. Its subject, the contemplation of a loved one's lifeless body, remains a stark reminder of the horrors of Katrina just as it was to the survivors of the early 20th century
yellow fever epidemics. Anderson delivered an impassioned, bulging-eyed vocal, his face etched in horror in response to the sight of the corpse, while Lewis played a sepulchral repetition of the dirge on baritone sax, an exercise that enduced a
hypnotic state in the crowd as the song went on. Lewis kept playing that same eerie phrase behind the first two verses, Towns' trumpet solo and another verse. Then Anderson and Lewis played a trombone and baritone sax duet with Anderson taking over the dirge line as Lewis crawled into a doleful and serpentine final statement.

The band's ingenious reworking of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" followed as a showpiece for Towns on vocals, trumpet and pocket trumpet. From there it was a sprint to the end with tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris taking the vocal lead for a James Brown vamp with Jake Eckert on rhythm guitar overdrive, taking them right on into the Dozen anthem "My Feets Can't Fail Me Now."

Few could follow such a display but the Blind Boys of Alabama did New Orleans their own way. "The Blind Boys like Canada... because Canada is good to the Blind Boys," Jimmy Carter told the adoring crowd. After promising to consume not just any hot dog
but "a Canadian hot dog" Carter instructed the crowd to dance by telling them "The Blind Boys don't like conservative audiences."

Carter, Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore mixed in several songs from ...In New Orleans, starting the show with "Down By the Riverside," with the Dozen on Earl King's "Make A Better World" and including a scream-inducing "Free At Last." At the
climax of the show Carter left the stage to roam through the theater shouting "Feel Good" and other exhortations over and over as the crowd chanted and clapped along. Now that's "L'esprit de la Nouvelle-Orleans."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Letter from Jesse Paige manager of Soul Rebels

My friend Jesse Paige who manages the great New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels, just sent me this email and I wanted to share it with y'all.

Just got back from Greece with the Soul Rebels. It was incredible! We
didn't realize how important of a trip this was going to be. We played
as the closing act of the first annual Jazz fest in Heraklion, Crete
in Greece. It was a 3 day event to honor the fantastic Greek jazz
drummer, Kostas Kouvidis, who died too young in a tragic car accident
in Athens, Greece. ( His family and friends
put this incredible event together. We hung out with musicians from
all over the world as we came together to honor this man. We leaned
that music is a universal language that has a healing power beyond our
understanding as I feel it helped the city and his family finally be
at peace and to know that the power of their son's spirit lives on.
Next we went to Athens to play as the main act for the 13 annual
Anti-racisist festival. This is a festival to promote understanding of
different cultures through food and music. They do have problems with
this in Greece and this was an incredible blessing to represent as the
only act from United States and to represent our city of New Orleans.
Looking out from the stage the crowd looked like a sea of people
hypnotized by the power of the Soul Rebels music. They had never seen
anything like it before. The head music critic in the country came up
to us after the show almost in tears and speechless to tell us it was
the most incredible music he has ever seen come to Greece. In a time
when it seems the world is falling apart and people don't know what to
think of Americans anymore, it meant so much when Winston (the
trombone player) said to the crowd at the end of the concert, "We wish
you peace from New Orleans and peace from the U.S.A." We left the
stage with peace symbols in the air as the whole crowd chanted "Soul
Rebels, Soul Rebels, Soul Rebels...." I got incredible high quality
digital pictures and there is already stuff on you tube that people
captured in the audience. If you would like to check out some pictures I posted some on my personal Myspace (

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Summer fun at Montreal Jazzfest

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Montreal, Canada, two blocks from the biggest town square festival ever assembled, listening to WWOZ on the Internet. It's July 4, U.S. Independence Day and Julie Posner is talking about the Essence Festival, the Superbowl of Soul Music events, which is going down in New Orleans right now. Just around the block from where I'm staying in Montreal a group of musicians from this other outpost of French influence in North America are about to pay homage to the music of New Orleans as part of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

"L'esprit de la New Orleans," as the small jazz band was called, proved to be an enjoyable little combo that took a relaxed approach to the standards and New Orleans classics in their repertoire as they played on a little stage in the middle of a plaza flanked by a beer garden and a wine bar where patrons sat and enjoyed the band. There was no confusing this music with the high octane set of New Orleans jazz played the night before by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, but this music is serviceable even when being played by amateurs. The musicians enjoyed themselves without clowning around and were respectful to the music, kind of in a formal 1950s revival way as compared to the hot sound of the traditional enthusiasts. But when they played a languid "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in the warm late afternoon sun of a Canadian summer the moment had its own quiet sense of perfection. This is the perfect music for lounging around, sipping a frosty in the beer garden before you set out for an evening's activities.

Even as this was happening the members of Swing Tonic were getting ready on Sainte-Catherine Street for the day's Louisiana parade. When they kicked it off the crowd stopped to watch politely. Unlike a second line in New Orleans this was not a participatory event, it was a performance. Then the parade began moving to the sly groove of the Smokey Johnson classic "It Ain't My Fault" and the anthem sort of worked its magic as people got the idea and shuffled along behind the parade. Not exactly the Krewe De Vieux but it worked well enough.

Canada celebrated its own national holiday earlier this week, and Canadians are keenly interested in whatever is happening in the United States. Montrealers are particularly interested in what's going on in New Orleans. It's gratifying to see how deeply concern for New Orleans still runs in these audiences. Invariably people would come up to me while I was taking notes and when I told them I was writing for OffBeat the next question was always related to the city's recovery.

It's also interesting to note how many people at the festival were aware of OffBeat magazine, the Louisiana music publication where I serve as Consulting Editor. One of them, John Dodge, leads a band called the Fat Tuesday Brass Band. Dodge is a music teacher and audio engineer who had a life-changing moment upon first hearing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

"I had been a bass player, but when I heard that music I knew I had to start playing a sousaphone," says Dodge.

Dodge's group -- two trumpets, tuba, trombone, saxophone, bass and snare drum -- plays contemporary brass band music, mostly composed by Dodge himself with a fresh take on a few old chestnuts. Dodge has a complete understanding of this music's structure and writes engaging charts that make good use of brass harmonics. The technically proficient musicians in his band were hand selected and tutored by Dodge in the mysteries of this ritual music.

"I've been doing this for six years now," he says. "I'm doing the bookings myself so things are moving along at a slower pace than I would like, but I don't see why we couldn't be playing every festival around. We're kind of unique. Most of these Dixieland bands just exist to play corporate events."

The Fat Tuesday Brass Band has a representative album under its belt. It's well worth a listen.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

All festivals have their own personality but the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is a truly unique event. Imagine closing down the center of one of the most important cities in the country for 9 days to put on 500 individual concerts including 350 free events. The festival pulls in hundreds of thousands of people for these events and they all behave in a completely civil manner towards each other while drinking copious amounts of beer and wine. The food is pretty good too, highlighted by delicious crepes and barbecued sausages, although the Montreal Jazzfest has a long way to go to compete with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on that front. The entertainment is a brilliantly conceived cross section of jazz, folk, blues, pop, hip-hop, world music and children's music. It is the only festival I know of that casts its nets so wide, surpassing even Bonnaroo by being extremely kid-friendly. Because it's in the city center you don't have to camp out for three days to hear the music, either.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Vanilla in my Chocolate Drop

In popular music the customer is always right. So the extremely well meaning crowd at Prospect Park, primarily composed of people young enough to have no concept of what Martin, Bogan and Armstrong or the Mississippi Sheiks sounded like, gave an appropriately enthusiastic response to the polite, stylish, well educated young musicians with the cute name the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Drops play what they refer to very seriously as African American String Band Music and they play it with the studied enthusiasm and complete lack of empathy the folk groups in A Mighty Wind demonstrated. The string band tradition, played by a mixture of African American, European and Creole musicians dating back to the pre-jazz days in the 19th century, is a vivid amalgam of styles. The well spoken and likable Carolina Chocolate Drops play mostly in a later, early 20th century version of the style, and they supply detailed observations of how they discovered the various cover songs in their repertoire. "Viper Mad," explained Rhiannon Giddens, was unearthed from a soundtrack by that exemplar of African American string band music, Woody Allen. The very beautiful Rhiannon, born in 1977 just at the right time to be named after the hit song by that seminal African American string band touchstone Fleetwood Mac, plays a very credible fiddle and not so good banjo but has an excellent voice and really knows how to loosen up a crowd with observations like "I know you are in seats so if you want to dance and you don't want to block the view of someone in front of you there are spaces in the aisles where you can stand up and dance." Rhiannon sounded most comfortable singing a Scottish folk song, right after pointing out that there were more Scottish immigrants in North Carolina than in Canada! Justin Robinson, whose fiddle playing is the best instrumental work in the group, sometimes steps on Rhiannon's lines accidentally in those pre-song history lessons. Unfortunately he also attempts to play jug during the set. The jug wasn't intended to be played through large amplified sound systems in concert settings. It's a back porch instrument that the skilled player can get damn good resonance out of in the right context, but Justin might as well have been blowing across the lip of a coke bottle that night. The crowd might well have thought the Grateful Dead or the Lovin' Spoonful invented jug band music, though, because they applauded like that jug was telling a lively story. Dom Flemons, the Carolina Chocolate Drop who is actually from Arizona, also tried to play the jug on another tune with equally fatuous results. He also plays banjo, exciting the crowd with a trick where he uses a slide on the banjo strings for dramatic effect, and National steel guitar, which he attacks with a technique apparently drawn from another important African American string music source, the Clash. His windmilling arm motions and high speed playing may not contain much syncopation but boy did they excite this audience. One can only imagine the potential response to Tampa Red, Bo Carter or even Charlie Poole.