Kindred Spirits: Tom McDermott Honors Louis Moreau Gottschalk
By Ben Sandmel
In New Orleans, a city teeming with extraordinary musicians, Tom McDermott stands out as an especially unique and accomplished multitalent. McDermott is an eclectic pianist, a composer, a music historian, and a sensitive, intuitive accompanist for vocalists and instrumental soloists alike. Virtuoso is not a word to be used lightly, but it’s certainly apt in this instance. For quick reference, McDermott is often regarded as a traditional jazz player. The polyglot parameters of this hybrid genre include blues, boogie-woogie, ragtime, miscellaneous popular songs, secular adaptations of gospel material, and the Afro-Cuban rhythms that Jelly Roll Morton described as “the Spanish tinge.” McDermott casts a even wider-than-usual net of traditional-jazz interpretation, however, by drawing on some twelve decades of music—the 1840s to the 1960s—and encompassing a geographic arc that connects New Orleans, the Caribbean, and Brazil. In regard to the latter country, McDermott is also a serious student and expert practitioner of the Brazilian choro repertoire, which, like New Orleans jazz, is rich in African roots. Such diversity clashes with some purist notions of trad-jazz orthodoxy, but McDermott further blazes his own trail by incorporating French musettes, elements of New Orleans rhythm and blues à la James Booker, and classical music.
Classical music is one point of departure on McDermott’s new album, Bamboula (Minky Records/mcdermottmusic.com/ ) which pays homage to Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869). A native New Orleanian, Gottschalk was the first American classical composer/performer to win international acclaim at a time when many Europeans perceived America as an untamed, uncouth wilderness. Eventually Gottschalk rose to stardom, while his prodigious, sophisticated technique garnered praise from such classical masters as Frédéric Chopin. A significant amount of Gottschalk’s original material drew on the indigenous Afro-Caribbean and African American sounds that he heard in New Orleans as a child. He stands as one of the first classical composers to utilize American folkloric sources, thus paving the way for the likes of Antonín Dvořák, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin. Gottschalk also incorporated related music from Cuba and Puerto Rico, where he traveled extensively as an adult. In addition, some experts regard Gottschalk as a progenitor of early jazz and ragtime.
There is only one Gottschalk original on this album—the title track, “Bamboula,” which McDermott reinvents somewhat by replacing the written solo piano score with group improvisation, a key characteristic of early New Orleans jazz—and a faster, more lilting tempo. (Bamboula is also the name of an African-rooted dance which was often performed at New Orleans’ Congo Square.) Apart from that selection and two songs by the pioneering ragtime composer Scott Joplin, the remaining 13 songs are McDermott originals, inspired by Gottschalk, which reveal the two as simpatico souls despite the 150-plus years that separate them. This is an ambitious concept, indeed, yet one that is fully realized, with a seemingly light touch that belies its complexity. The song forms here include choro, ragtime, ragtime melded with choro, musette, waltz, tango, and the related habanera, all played with verve and dexterity. McDermott is accompanied on various songs by musicians of note, including the virtuoso clarinetist Evan Christopher, soprano saxophonist Aurora Nealand, and trombonist Rick Trolsen.
Bamboula’s steady flow and sonic consistency make it somewhat surprising to learn that the album is a compilation, culled from four of McDermott’s previous albums, recorded over a period of seven years. Those albums, all highly recommended, are New Orleans Duets (Rabadash), Choro do Norte (STR Digital), All The Keys and Then Some (Parnassus), and Almost Native, with Evan Christopher (Threadhead). The songs on Bamboula were selected by Van Dyke Parks, a renowned pianist, composer, arranger, and producer. Since the 1960s, astute musicians have lauded the California-based Parks as a cult hero, a Renaissance man, and a connoisseur of world music. He is best known for work on the Beach Boys’ Grammy-winning album The Smile Sessions (2011) and his own solo album Song Cycle, from1968.
Parks is a native of Lake Charles, and his Louisiana credentials include arrangements on Allen Toussaint’s 1975 album Southern Nights. A fellow devotee of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Parks has long followed McDermott’s career and reached out to him to conceive this project. The imprimatur of an artist of Parks’ stature is a testament to McDermott’s talent and an indicator of Bamboula’s considerable cultural significance.
McDermott also makes a brief appearance as an accompanist—along with a host of other fine New Orleans musicians—on Alexandra Scott’s compelling I Love You So Much Always (www.alexandrascott.com). Scott could be described as a singer-songwriter, although that term, like most music-industry nomenclature, is imprecise. Scott writes and performs original songs with haunting melodic lines and powerful emotional content. On this album she and co-producer Rick Nelson draw on varied instrumental settings to craft a seamless, sensual blend of pop music, contemporary folk, and traditional country. The sound is thoroughly cutting edge and “radio friendly,” but there is no trade-off of substance to attain such accessibility. Scott sings with strength, passion, and a beautifully clear tone. Her vocal approach eschews pyrotechnics and ornamentation in favor of straightforward phrasing that focuses attention on her lyrics. Some of Scott’s songs are elliptical and impressionistic, presenting a series of disparate images that meld to create an evocative effect bigger than the sum of its parts: “He’s a rambler, denizen of darkness / Coney Island baby, born again at Christmas / Waiting for the sunset, given up to silence…” Other compositions, in stark contrast, are unambiguous, direct, and intensely personal: “Never think for an instant / That you were anything but nectar to the bee / Never say I didn’t love you / Never say that to me…”
I Love You So Much Always makes an important artistic statement in itself, and also points up the existence of a busy cadre of contemporary singers and songwriters who live in New Orleans but do not concentrate on the city’s renowned traditional music. (Others working in this vein include Alexis Marceaux, Lynn Drury, Gina Forsyth, and Andrew Duhon.) Instead Scott’s music has more in common—and compares quite favorably—with that of the nationally prominent songwriter and chanteuse Neko Case, whose Middle Cyclone (Anti) is discussed in the Fall 2009 issue of LCV. Last fall Case released yet another primal, genre-defying album, entitled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti). Case’s recent sold-out performance at New Orleans’ Civic Theater underscores the avid local following for the cutting-edge, iconoclastic music that she and Alexandra Scott both write and sing so skillfully.
The best-known Louisiana singer-songwriter is Lucinda Williams. During 1980s and 1990s, however, Williams’ music also was categorized as both “alternative-country” and “insurgent country.” These names have long faded from usage, and today—illustrating the arbitrary, fluid nature of musical terminology—Williams is lauded as a founder of the amorphous genre known as “Americana.” (Case is likewise considered an Americana standard-bearer, even though her sound is quite different.) What’s more, the 1988 release Lucinda Williams is now cited as the album that started the Americana movement. Although she was a decade into her career when it was released, Williams has commented, “I was, quote-unquote, ‘discovered’ with that record.” To celebrate the 25th anniversary of its original appearance, Lucinda Williams has been rereleased in a two-CD package (Lucinda Williams Music/Thirty Tigers) that also includes bonus tracks and a live concert.
Williams’ distinctly Southern vocal delivery is twangy, drawling, sensual, and deeply affecting. Her original song-structures organically synthesize swamp pop, Cajun music, zydeco, blues, R&B, and country, while her lyrics combine the influence of country’s Hank Williams (no relation) and such Southern fiction writers as Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Williams’ forte is succinct, eloquent vignettes: “I walked out in a field, the grass was high, it brushed against my legs / I just stood and looked, out at the open space and a farmhouse out a ways / And I wondered about the people who lived in it / And I wondered if they were happy and content…” Last September Williams performed her 1988 album in its entirety at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, and many in the packed house knew all the words by heart. Lucinda Williams still holds up as a master work a quarter-century later , while Williams remains a cultural icon who continues to work at peak form.
Let’s close by paying tribute to two vitally important new books about Louisiana music, and a book of artwork by a Louisiana musician. Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings, by Joshua Clegg Caffery (LSU Press) is an in-depth analysis of the field recordings made by folklorists John and Alan Lomax in south Louisiana. Caffery’s exhaustive examination of this music—most of which has now vanished—includes French to English translations where applicable. New Orleans’ stature as a bastion of classical music—a fact that is sometimes obscured by the city’s prominent identification with jazz—is definitively documented in the true magnum opus that is John H. Baron’s Concert Life in Nineteenth Century New Orleans (A Comprehensive Reference) (LSU Press). And Soul Exchange: The Painting of Dennis Paul Williams (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press) presents the deeply spiritual—and at times music-inspired—paintings by the St. Martinville native who is best known as the guitarist for the band led by his brother, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas.
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist and producer, and the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. Learn more about his latest book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by visiting erniekdoebook.com. The K-Doe biography was selected for the Kirkus Reviews list of best nonfiction books for 2012.