The obsession with trying to define or assign a meaning to the word “jazz” is almost as old as the first soli played by the legendary Jelly Roll Morton, who – if you believe him – claims to have “invented” it. Everyone from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus have been quizzed about it. There have been as many answers (or non-answers) as there have been musicians questioned… And so in the end, when asked, no one quite gets the answer they are looking for… because there is no answer.
“The music sang and notes literally leapt off the page, and danced in the air of the room”
The Black American musician, who experienced it, wrote it. They called it music… and this and that. For instance: Buddy Bolden called it “Funky Butt”, Charlie Parker called it “Ornithology” and “klactoveedsedstene”, Dizzy Gillespie called it “ooh bop sh’bam”, Thelonious Monk called it the “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” … and Charles Mingus called it “Pithecanthropus Erectus”, “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” and “Ecclusiastics”… Duke Ellington simply called it “The Feeling of Jazz”… but they all played “it”… Moreover if you don’t get it from “the spirit of the real music”, then you’re not likely to “get it” at all.
Moreover, every once and a while there comes a band that not only communicates “the spirit of the real music”, but embodies it in everything it does because each and every thing – every note played, every phrase “sung”, every melodic and harmonic invention and in the very heartbeat of every rhythmic phrase that every musician plays alone and together… and that band is the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. There are many other great bands in New Orleans, of course, but few who so embody the history of the city – its despairs and its hopes, and the music that it gave the world more completely than the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, here in Canada to celebrate – among all things Jazz – the music of Allen Toussaint.
Mr Toussaint is to the piano in New Orleans what Zigaboo Modeliste is to the drums. People in New Orleans – and the artistic cognoscenti of the world at large – have long known him to be a person of sartorial elegance and a composer non pareil. His music is joyful, eloquent and breathtakingly beautiful to listen to and play. Like the great composers – and unlike even more of them – in Jazz he had something of the Aesop in him; he was capable of condensing an epic into just over three minutes such as he did, for instance, in “Southern Nights”. He had an eye for detail and it showed when he was describing human endeavor in “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Java” (immortalized by the trumpeter Al Hirt). But he was also in touch with his inner self and could thus describe the greatest human emotion – love – bringing to life as if with hot breath on a cheek, the most spine-tingling moments of romance just like in “Ruler of My Heart” and best of all in “With You in Mind”.
Jazz quite literally hung in the air all night long. Even the characteristically polite Canadian audience in Markham, Ontario, quiet in their applause, was whistling and yelling their appreciation by the end of the night at the Flato Markham Theatre when the band closed its Canadian tour on the last day of February in this leap year, 2020. Jazz also shone on the faces of the musicians. But most of all, “Jazz” came to life, especially through ensemble passages of spectacular arrangements such as what pianist Victor Atkins created for “It’s Raining”, as the music sang and notes literally leapt off the page, and danced in the air of the room. And the fun refused to set until long after the rousing Second Line procession led by Musical Director Adonis Rose up, then down the aisles through the small theatre, twirling the ornately decorated black parasol was a perfect end to a memorable concert.
Of course there was much more to the unforgettable evening and it all began with the opening song of the first set – “Get the Bucket”, one of the best-known compositions by the Godfather of Jazz, Mr Ferdinand Joseph LaMenthe, “Jelly Roll Morton” (1890–1941). It may not have been one of Mr Morton’s more famous songs (such as “King Porter Stomp” or “Wolverine Blues” or “Black Bottom Stomp”). But the song was, almost certainly, the next best thing to turning up the heat of the furnace of the Flato Markham Theatre.
Moreover we got to hear the first solo of the night – a breathtaking one by tenor saxophonist Ricardo Pascal – several bars long (and reminiscent of – if not in length, then certainly in heft – the legendary 27-bar solo taken by Paul Gonsalves with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival). This was “Jazz” coming alive, not only – proverbially – in the flesh but, more importantly, in the spirit, just like the day in July when The Duke and his great band performed on Rhode Island. On the 29th of February the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra had just cut loose and there was no looking back.
“Inheriting a proverbial mess, Mr Rose rebuilt the orchestra seemingly from the ground up together with other founding members”
Adonis Rose, one of the best-known protégés of two famous men: the first was his uncle, Chris Severin, once the bassist in the band of the legendary Allen Toussaint and the other was the great New Orleans drummer and history-come-to-life, Herlin Riley. Mr Rose came to greater prominence when he was called upon to pick up the pieces of The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra after it was hit by the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Irvin Mayfield, the founder of this celebrated orchestra (in 2002), who was forced to step down from artistic leadership in 2016. Inheriting a proverbial mess, Mr Rose rebuilt the orchestra seemingly from the ground up together with other founding members, Ed Peterson, Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown and pianist Victor Atkins. After a year in limbo, Mr Rose led the revival of the great orchestra, recording under his leadership an iconic album Songs – The Music of Allen Toussaint (Storyville Records, 2019).
The North American tour of the ensemble brought this music to life again. Seldom has a Jazz orchestral programme (with poignant and joyful vocals mixed in) hung together so perfectly, with each successive song in its repertoire tightening the ratchet of intensity towards the proverbial final burst of explosive energy on “Do What You Wanna” with which the programme ended. It helped that all of the performers directed by Adonis Rose – from the brass and woodwinds to the rhythms section and featured vocalist – the seductive-voiced Gabrielle Cavassa – who worked together like a well-oiled machine to create the rippling Jazz grooves.
Every one of these masterful musicians were at the top of their powers and it seemed that everyone had interiorised Mr Toussaint’s music perfectly. So much so that they seem to effortlessly swing their way through the technical challenges – and there certainly are some, especially on “It’s Raining” and “Southern Nights”. One of the remarkable moments early on in the programme came when the orchestra showcased “Working in the Coal Mine”; alto saxophonist Khari Allen Lee not only shone on his instrument, but also brought the house down with his Blues shout at the end of the song.
The soli by dueling trumpeters Ashlin Parker and Ricio Fruge was humourously set up by an outrageously funny story by Adonis Rose and the orchestra also seemed to revel in the high and mighty brassy quarrel. There were also moments of great showmanship and musicianship during other songs – such as the challenge to percussionist Alexey Marti who responded with a masterful tumbadora introduction to “Tequila”, the gigantic 1958 hit song by Danny Flores for his group The Champs. The orchestra also brought to life the song’s famous dirty-sax solo. Trevarri Huff-Boone also shone on baritone saxophone. And if you thought that the tuba dwelt in the shadows of the stage, perish the thought, for Steven Glenn – a virtuoso on the diabolically difficult-to-play instrument – seized his moment in the spotlight with a breathtaking solo.
“Some of the finest moments of the night also came during the songs that featured the two vocalists on that memorable evening”
The finest moment together of Miss Gabrielle Cavassa and the velvet-voiced trombonist Michael Watson, whose vocal turn was at times even evocative of the great Al Jarreau, came with a glorious ballad, “With You in Mind”, which turned into a kind of enactment of the true love story envisioned by Mr Toussaint when he penned this ballad. Miss Cavassa also shone on Duke Ellington’s monumental song “Come Sunday”.
The song was written by The Duke in 1942, becoming the first part of his iconic “Black, Brown and Beige” suite. It’s most celebrated recording came in 1958 when Mahalia Jackson sang the lyric in the 1958 recording Black Brown and Beige (Columbia).
Another breathtaking version came in 1965 when Queen Esther Morrow sang the song on Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music (RCA), the first in a trilogy of Sacred Concert recordings by the grand master of Jazz. Miss Cavassa “wept” the lyric in a benchmark version that night as she sang with extraordinary Gospel fervor and pathos especially when singing this, Alice Babs’ poetic entreaty:
“Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty,
God of love, please look down and see my people through.”
Miss Cavassa is an extraordinary interpreter of song and the work of Duke Ellington, of Mr Toussaint and others seemed to speak to her in a very special way. She surely had the audience hanging on to her every word that she sang with smoky eloquence. Michael Watson, was just as riveting when he was called upon to sing. The orchestra responded splendidly to both singers.
There is much to be said of the orchestra’s rhythm section and this is often left unsaid; left, as it were, in the back of the stage where not much of the spotlight shines because it’s almost always focused on the soloists. But the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra also boasted a superb drummer in Gerald Watkins and a marvellous bassist in Amina Michele Scott, who played with sinewy ingenuity, giving the music muscularity that it so greatly deserved. Miss Scott will be remembered because of the musicality she brought to her instrument and not only because she was the only woman in the group (other than Miss Cavassa, that is).
At the end of the evening – just after a performance of “Tremé”, by John Boutté (another iconic son of New Orleans) and the Second Line on “Do What You Wanna” – it was hard to leave the venue. I, for one, wanted to hang back and soak in the echoes of the music by one of the most vibrant big bands in the world.
“Like many iconic cultural figures in New Orleans Mr allen Toussaint weathered the great challenges of life with a nobility that will forever be reflected in his music”
I wanted to soak in the community that Jazz brought me – indeed all of us – but not only that night; every night I choose to put on an LP which features the music. Jazz… Perhaps the most significant description of it is “community”. It is, after all the music of Black Americans, descended from The Blues which, once upon a time it helped alleviate the pain of slavery. But it was – and is – enormously cathartic. It leaves you feeling drained but happy just as once the ancient griots of African civilisation did for their communities and like the epic drama of ancient Greece did for their communities. If you believe, as I do, that one of the greatest joys for a Jazz musician – more than composing and improvising, more than dazzling melody, harmonic and rhythmic conception – it is building and sustaining healthy community. And we experienced all of this with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra on the last day of February 2020.
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra had also done, once again, exactly what they had set out to do, which was to honour the music (and memory) of the great Allen Toussaint, favourite son of New Orleans and one of the finest – sometimes unsung – composers in Jazz. Like many iconic cultural figures in New Orleans Mr Toussaint weathered the great challenges of life with a nobility that will forever be reflected in his music, a legacy so rich that it continues to enrich our lives – for now and for always in performances by one of the premier large ensembles of our time, anywhere in the world: the great New Orleans Jazz Orchestra directed by the incomparable Adonis Rose.
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra – Adonis Rose: director and drums; Dr Brice Miller: trumpet; Barney Floyd: trumpet; Ashlin Parker: trumpet; Ricio Fruge: trumpet; Terrance Taplin: trombone; Michael Watson: trombone and vocals; Christopher Butcher: trombone; Steven Glenn: tuba; Khari Allen Lee: alto saxophone; Bryan McNamara: alto saxophone; Ricardo Pascal: tenor and soprano saxophones; Norbert Stachel: tenor saxophone; Trevarri Huff-Boone: baritone saxophone; Victor Atkins: piano; Amina Michele Scott: contrabass; Gerald Watkins: drums; Alexey Marti: percussion; Gabrielle Cavassa: vocals.
Set list – 1st Set: 1: Get the Bucket; 2: Working in the Coal Mine; 3: Java; 4: It’s Raining; 5: Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans; 6: Southern Nights 2nd Set – 1: Come Sunday; 2: Basin Street Blues; 3: With You in Mind; 4: Tequila; 5: What a Wonderful World; 6: Tremé/ Do What You Wanna