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15 December 2017


Watch this performance from December 2017 of the New Orleans busking string band Yes Ma'am.

I find it utterly compelling, so full of variety and brilliant musicianship. After the gently stated start, note the changes of tempo, the attention to dynamics, the brilliant little solos, Matt's footwork. It will give you some idea of what this group - and especially its founder and leader Matt Constanza - have achieved in the eight years since he formed the band.

But let me go back.

During my April 2016 visit to New Orleans, I was thrilled at last to hear the string band Yes Ma'am. I had admired their work on YouTube for several years but unfortunately did not come across them when I previously visited New Orleans in 2015.

However, in Royal Street on 7 April 2016, I bumped into my friend Randy (the great video-maker codenamed RaoulDuke504 - he who also filmed the video I have recommended above) and he gave me a tip-off that Yes Ma'am were playing at that moment at The French Market. I hurried over and sure enough there they were.

What a dazzling performance! I can assure you they are even more exciting in person than when seen on YouTube. Each musician individually is a virtuoso. The finger-work on some of the solo choruses was mind-boggling. The songs were witty; and the control of 'breaks' and rhythm (sometimes doubling-up) was so clever and effective. You can't help having a big smile on your face and you can't stop your feet tapping when Yes Ma'am are playing.
Elena Dorn has been with Yes Ma'am since
the early days. She plays the violin beautifully
and her subtle improvisations perfectly complement
the textures of the other instruments.
At the break, I was fortunate enough to have a chat with the leader - Matt Costanza. On YouTube, Matt (like Yes Ma'am in general) has always given me the impression of being very laid-back, devil-may-care, unconventional and bohemian in life-style. Well, maybe some of that is true. But I have to report that the man I met that day was also deadly serious about his music, modest, very articulate, extremely hard-working and also kind and generous in talking with me. He allowed me to take this photo.
I thanked Matt for the pleasure his band had given to YouTube viewers all over the world. I told him I was amazed at his own brilliance and versatility: he sits at the centre of the band, playing the guitar with great vigour and lustily singing, while simultaneously providing percussion: with his feet he plays a 'drum' and a tambourine and a bell! In the course of a performance he uses a huge amount of energy.

He very modestly said he did not consider himself a great player. In his opinion, the rest of the band were the technically-gifted players and he was privileged to have them working with him.

Well, there you have the recipé for a perfect team: a leader who is a dedicated, tireless, directing presence surrounded by other musicians whom he respects and encourages to display their skills.

Those Yes Ma'am songs tend to be tricky in structure. Think of the sudden tempo changes. How does the band get to perform them so slickly? And where do the songs come from?

Matt's answers were surprising. He told me he himself now composes about 90% of the material. The band hones and masters it during their many performances on the streets. 

I had guessed they must get together from time to time to rehearse. No, Matt told me. He could recall that they had had two rehearsals. No more.

But is all this really traditional jazz? That's a question I hear some people ask. Well, yes, it certainly is. The links and overlaps between jug bands and string bands and what has become 'conventional' traditional jazz (with a front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet) go right back to the earliest days; and they have been gloriously revived by the young musicians in the New Orleans of today. Instrumentation in the string bands may be slightly different (though I should mention that Yes Ma'am sometimes - as in the picture below - includes a cornet and trombone), but the principles for playing and interpreting the music are exactly the same.
In the years during which Matt's band has been evolving, there have been several changes of personnel (and I believe he still draws from a pool of players). When I first discovered them on YouTube, they looked like this.
Although two of the ladies from that photo are still usually in the band, the line-up was rather different when I saw them in April 2016. I made a video and you can watch it by clicking on here.

If you would care to hear how they sounded at the end of 2015, click on this performance of Squishin' Bees, an up-tempo 12-bar blues in Bb.

For a very fine video of them with their late-2013 line-up playing a medley, CLICK HERE.

One of my favourites from their earlier days (2011) is this: CLICK HERE  to watch it.

Whatever you think, please watch right to the end: there are surprises along the way. And admire all the little details.

The band appeared to be absent from the streets of New Orleans after the end of 2016. According to an unofficial report, it seemed that Matt felt completely exhausted at the end of that year - hardly surprising, in view of the energy and hard work put into every performance. He decided to take a break, during which he could re-charge his batteries, probably compose some more songs, and make plans for the future. Well, I'm pleased to see he's back.