10 February 2016


Robin Rapuzzi is very proud of the work done in New Orleans by The Rhythm Wizards, one of the jazz bands in which he played.

Alas, the band was short-lived. It disbanded by 2017.

I can tell you this was a really good and interesting band, unusual because of its instrumentation and broad-minded repertoire. It is admirable that so many of the young musicians in New Orleans are introducing us to long-forgotten and unfamiliar tunes, including some with a Caribbean origin. This is so refreshing after all the Bourbon Street Parades and When The Saints and Bill Baileys that we constantly hear elsewhere.

The Rhythm Wizards were formed late in 2014, with Tomas Majcherski as leader. Some of the musicians had earlier played together in an experimental band called The 4.99 Five-Piece (a name based on fried chicken on sale in the market!); and some had played in Steamboat Calypso - the group led by Madeleine Reidy. Robin says they were very inspired by that group. In fact, Maddy was the singer on the first album The Rhythm Wizards produced.

Robin had great respect for the leadership provided by Tomas: he told me Tomas had 'done a ton of research for the group, especially when it comes to picking out the significant poly-rhythms that make Caribbean and jazz music so much fun to play'.

Robin kindly let me know The Rhythm Wizards intended to perform in Royal Street on 7 April 2016, while I was in town. So I made a point of being there.
Who were the members of the band? It's hard to give a definitive answer because the young New Orleans bands all seem to have a pool of players to draw upon. But the 'core' players seemed to be:
Tomas Majcherski : Clarinet and Reeds
Robin Rapuzzi : Drums and Washboard
Jon Ramm : Trombone
Max Bien-Kahn : Guitar
Todd Burdick : banjo and tuba
Peter Olynciw : upright bass
Coleman Akin : Violin
Zayd Sifri : auxiliary percussion
Others who played and recorded with them include:
Max Feldschuh : Vibraphone and Piano
Madeleine Reidy : vocals
You will notice that The Rhythm Wizards usually played without a trumpet and they had up to four musicians on stringed instruments. It was the clarinet that tended to lead on the melody. All these features helped to make this a refreshingly distinctive traditional jazz band.

On its website, the Band claimed to play 'Traditional Jazz and Pan-American Music from the Mississippi Delta to the Caribbean and beyond'. Such a repertoire also made it rather special.

Yes, The Rhythm Wizards could be found playing a popular standard such as Ice Cream, or St. Louis Blues, or an elegant Maple Leaf Rag, but in the same programme you were also likely to hear that rarely-played number St. Louis Tickle and the rhythmic Caribbean-style Petrol or the sweetly melodic waltz-tempo Tres Bemoles (meaning 'Three Flats' - and it is indeed in the key of Eb). Or you might catch them playing Black Rag, which sounded to me like Down Home Rag. (I found later that Down Home Rag was composed in 1911, but that Papa Celestin's Tuxedo Orchestra was the first to record it - in 1925 - under the title Black Rag. I wonder why. To avoid paying dues?)

As you may infer, the variety of rhythms to be heard in a performance justified their name as the 'Rhythm Wizards'.

One of their most popular numbers was The History of Man. Codallo's Top Hatters Orchestra of Trinidad recorded that tune in the 1930s, and The Rhythm Wizards were one of the few bands to be playing it in the 21st Century.

I made two videos of their performance in Royal Street on 7 April 2016. While filming, I slowly walked round the band, to get a good view of all of them in close-up. The result is that the sound quality is sometimes unbalanced but I hope the videos give a good idea of the kind of music the band plays and, incidentally, what busking is like for a musician on the streets of New Orleans.

In one of my videos, they are playing The Cotton-Picker's Drag.  This tune was created by a string band of the 1930s - The Grinnell Giggers. View The Rhythm Wizards playing it BY CLICKING HERE.

The other video shows them playing the old favourite Ice Cream: View it BY CLICKING HERE.