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22 May 2015

Traditional Jazz: Meeting Charlie Halloran, Trombonist

One of the hardest-working and most versatile of the hugely-talented musicians I met during my visit to New Orleans in April 2015 was the trombone player Charlie Halloran. Charlie is one of the many young players who migrated to New Orleans - in his case from St. Louis - shortly after Hurricane Katrina. It is not surprising that he is in great demand. Is there any tune in any style that he can't play brilliantly? It seems not. I should mention that he's a pretty good singer, too.
Charlie Halloran (left) playing in The Shotgun Jazz Band
During the four days of the official French Quarter Festival he played in at least nine concerts featuring various contrasting bands - The Palmetto Bug Stompers, Tom Saunders and the TomcatsDiablo's Horns, The Panorama Jazz Band, Steve Pistorius's Southern Syncopators, Cori Walters and the Universe Jazz BandOrange Kellin's New Orleans Deluxe Orchestra, and Tim Laughlin's Band. On top of these official Festival engagements, I saw him twice - in the evenings - playing with The Shotgun Jazz Band and (deputising for Barnabus Jones) with Tuba Skinny.

All that in four days. What stamina! What energy!
Charlie playing with Diablo's Horns
at the French Quarter Festival 2015.
(Photo courtesy of David Wiseman)
Charlie approaches his music in the same way as a great athlete approaches competition. He always aims to get a good sleep and does not stay out late when he doesn't have to. He makes a point of eating well.

Even on a day when there will be a lot of playing, he aims to be up by 9am to spend some time practising the trombone - 'warming up carefully' and 'playing long tones'. He carries in his kit a gel that he can apply to his lips in case of emergency. He says this helps prevent his lips from becoming swollen later in the day. (I noticed that Haruka Kikuchi, another great trombonist, occasionally applies vaseline to her lips during a performance.)

Yet, despite his massive talent, Charlie is such a modest and gentlemanly person, always friendly and willing to chat during his few spare moments. He loves his work but enjoys being a side-man rather a leader or star. When he told me he would be playing with Tuba Skinny the following night (deputising during a very rare absence of Barnabus Jones), I asked him how he would cope with Tuba Skinny's often complex head arrangements. What if they played Deep Henderson, for example? He said Deep Henderson would be no trouble, as he knew their arrangement well. However, he told me 'I expect they will dumb down the programme a bit to make allowances for me.'

Well, I went to the concert. And I can tell you this: Tuba Skinny did not 'dumb down' at all. They played a typical programme, complex arrangements included. And how did Charlie cope? Brilliantly. He played some wonderful stuff and, as far as I could tell, never put a foot wrong.

Listen to Charlie for yourself:

In this video, Charlie talks to us and gives a demonstration of some styles: CLICK HERE.

Listen to a lovely gentle tune in 3/4 time with The Panorama Jazz Band:  CLICK HERE. You will need then to click the arrow button to run the video.

For You Always Hurt the One You Love with The Shotgun Jazz Band  CLICK HERE.

And for a totally different setting:  CLICK HERE.

Or watch him with The Panorama Parade Band at Mardi Gras 2015:  CLICK HERE.

21 May 2015

Traditional Jazz Musicians in New Orleans, 2015

While I was in New Orleans in April 2015, I had the privilege of conversations with several of the musicians I had previously seen and admired only on YouTube.

I also listened to several of the great bands playing in the bars and clubs (such as The Spotted Cat and The DBA and The Maison) and to dozens of street musicians (buskers, as we say in England).

It was a special thrill to chat with them wherever possible. Some - under pressure from their adoring public - could spare me only a few moments; but with others I managed to have quite long conversations, from which I learned a great deal about how they practise, rehearse and manage their lives.

They tend to live in rented shotgun houses just outside the French Quarter. Some of them are near enough to walk to work. But many use bicycles, often fitted with trailers, to take themselves and their kit to the spot where they will play.

They work long and hard. You sometimes pass a band playing for tips at a certain spot and then - when you return five hours later - you find they are still there and still playing. What stamina they have! Here's the famous Doreen Ketchens, for example, playing a very long session in Royal Street.
Musical standards are so high. For example, I noticed street musicians have no problem playing terrific improvised 32-bar solo choruses even when they have a singer who chooses to sing in an 'awkward' key. Pretty well any of the musicians busking on Royal Street would be instant stars on the jazz scene here in England. But in England they would not make a living, whereas in New Orleans the tips from tourists give them just enough to live on.

There are now so many street musicians in New Orleans that competition for attention and for tips has become a problem. In Royal Street (the main location for buskers), you may be brilliantly singing songs accompanied by your own guitar, but there will be a five-piece band only 100 yards to your right and a solo classical violinist 100 yards to your left. So it's not easy to hold the attention of passers-by.

In addition, the streets are full of other 'entertainers' - the human statues, tap-dancers, the man who types instant poetry, the sword swallower, the magician, the exhibitionists (often vulgar) who expect tips just for posing in outrageous costumes, and so on.

I was told independently by two musicians (so it is surely true) that, if you want to play in a prime spot from 11a.m. (when music is allowed), you need some member of your band to man that position from 11p.m. the night before. All through the night, someone must be on the spot to hold it. Sometimes members of a band do this in 'shifts', with one arriving at 2a.m. to relieve the musician on duty since 11 p.m., and so on. How can they be fit to play after such a night? It's tough; and for this reason some who are now being offered decent gigs in the bars have decided not to play on the streets any more.

Of course there are other spots (such as on the Walk along the north bank of the Mississippi) where you could set up and play, but far fewer people pass by there.

When you talk to the musicians, it's not easy to get some of them to be serious on the subject of their talents. They constantly joke and belittle themselves.

But some of the musicians, notably Tommy Sancton, Ben Polcer, Charlie Halloran and John Dixon, were happy to chat about the technicalities of the music. What impressed me was how seriously they take it and how hard they work and practise. Often they will do two gigs (sometimes three) in a day - gigs of three hours or four hours each. On rare days when there is no gig, they still insist on the need to practise for a couple of hours. As one musician said, 'It's like being an iceberg. The public sees the little bit above the water; but there's a huge amount of hard work that goes on underneath the surface'.

I asked how important it was for trumpet, clarinet and trombone players to know the chord progression of a particular tune. To my surprise, they all considered it essential. Of course, they pointed out that - when you have played a tune many times - the chord sequence is 'in your fingers' and instinctive, so you no longer consciously think of it; but you must learn it in the first place.

Did they reach a point at which they had no need to learn any more tunes? Definitely not. The joy of mastering new tunes goes on and on. Ben Polcer - who as a young music graduate was among the first to migrate to New Orleans - is a brilliant player of both the piano and the trumpet. He has been one of the most important influential figures on the New Orleans scene since Hurricane Katrina. Yet he is still learning new tunes. He told me he can usually pick up a tune of the more 'straightforward' kind after hearing it a couple of times, especially as he will usually recognise familiar chord sequences within it. I had great pleasure hearing Ben play both instruments during my visit. You can watch his piano playing at close quarters if you click on this video of 'I Can't Escape'. And - with the same band - you can see him playing trumpet on 'The Original Dixieland One-Step' by clicking here.

One of the most exciting musicians on the current New Orleans scene is Aurora Nealand, who plays in various contrasting styles with different bands, some of which she leads.
Typical of the sort of thing Aurora does was this: her band started to play Dans Les Rues d'Antibes with its usual brisk up-tempo Introduction. Then they suddenly stopped and switched to a weird almost dirge-like bit of (what seemed to me ) free-style jazz. It was fun and went on for about a minute. Then they bounced back into Dans Les Rues and performed it in the conventional way, with some sensationally good solo choruses. Playful treatments such as that seem to be something Aurora is very keen to experiment with.

Aurora - one of the most brilliant and versatile reed players in the world - told me there is something very special about playing with bands in New Orleans. She said the technical standard of traditional jazz musicians in New York is extremely high; and yet compared with New York (where incidentally some of the New Orleans musicians spend a month or two in the summer), she found there was something more 'relaxed' and less cerebral about the music in New Orleans. This quality is hard to define; but it's there all right.

20 May 2015

Traditional Jazz: Walking In The French Quarter, New Orleans

For the benefit of readers who have never been to the French Quarter of New Orleans, here are a few pictures I took during my visit in April 2015.
George Lewis's House
- in which some legendary recordings were made.

Such famous roads as Decatur, Chartres, Royal, Burgundy and Dauphine run south-east to north-west and are criss-crossed by Iberville, Bienville, Conti, St. Louis, Toulouse, St. Peter's, Ursuline, and so on. The whole area is compact (well under a square mile) and very easy and pleasant to explore on foot. I guess that in total The French Quarter represents only about 2% of the entire City of New Orleans; but what a special area it is!

It is believed that about 4000 people actually live within the French Quarter.

Strolling round the quieter streets (no need to mention the noisy, brash Bourbon Street, which you can't avoid once in a while), you can admire the historic and very pretty colourful domestic architecture, including shotgun houses, classic nineteenth-century creole cottages and double-gallery houses. In case you are puzzled by the expression 'shotgun houses', I can tell you these are very simple homes, narrow and rectangular, with no hallway. The rooms are one behind the other. If all the doors of the house were open, it would be possible to fire a shotgun straight through the house - in at one end and out at the other - passing through all the rooms. Hence the name. There are also 'double shotgun houses', with two entrance doors and a central wall dividing the two homes, as in the first picture below.

Characteristic local transport
- passing Preservation Hall.

This next one is a bonus photo - sent to me by my friend Barrie Marshall. He took it when visiting the French Quarter in 1996.
When you are ready to hear some outdoor jazz in the French Quarter, you can head for Jackson Square:

or Royal Street:
At the north-eastern edge of the French Quarter, close to the Mississippi, is the wonderful and extensive French Market, where you can buy your souvenirs and take a break for refreshments.

Finally, you could head right out of the French Quarter and look back along the Mississippi at the City - including the more modern business district with its taller buildings. The French Quarter is the low-level area to the right of them:

19 May 2015

Traditional Jazz: Tuba Skinny and Disentangling 'Tangled Blues'

A new 18-bar vocal from Erika

I first heard Tangled Blues when Tuba Skinny performed it at The Louisiana Music Factory on 14 April 2015. It sounded like a new composition by Shaye Cohn, with words by Erika Lewis. And I believe that's exactly what it is.

Tangled Blues is a very pleasant tune, somewhat country-and-western in feel and played in the Key of F. But something about it struck me as strange.

You form the impression  that you are listening to one melody. But listen carefully and you find there are two separate tunes. Let's call them A and B. They have a lot in common. For example there are motifs such as this one that occur in both A and B (giving the piece that feeling of unity).
It occurs twice in A, played (I think) on the chord of F. It also occurs twice in B, but this time (I think) played on the Bb chord. So we begin to see what a clever 'tangle' Shaye has woven for us. Part A has a lyric and comprises 18 bars. How many tunes can you think of that consist of 18 bars (not counting tunes that are really 16 bars with a 2-bar tag, such as Sister Kate)? Can you think of any? I can't. So Shaye has played a very clever trick here.

However, Part B is a conventional 32 bars but with no lyric.

Despite their similarlity of 'feel', the two parts sound (to my ear, which may be misleading me) quite different in chord structure. It seems A starts with, and twice uses, the I - IV - V - I chord pattern whereas B starts on the V chord (dominant - C7th, followed of course by the tonic), of which it makes much use later.

The whole performance goes like this:

4-bar Introduction
18-bar A (Ensemble)
32-bar B (Cornet 16 + Ensemble 16)
18-bar A (Todd on Tuba playing the melody)
32-bar B (Clarinet 16 + ensemble 16 - trombone with melody)
18-bar A (the only occurrence of the vocal - sung by Erika)
32-bar B (Ensemble, cornet-led)

Total = 154 bars; performance time about 4 minutes 20 seconds.

What a clever, pretty and intricate tangle indeed! Well done, Shaye!
'Tangled Blues': Todd plays
the  18-bar melody.
You can watch a street performance filmed by RaoulDuke BY CLICKING HERE or digitalalexa's video (the performance at which I first heard the tune) BY CLICKING HERE.