Except for 2001’s much-acclaimed Portraits of Wonder, New Orleans pianist Matt Lemmler was known mostly in pre-storm days as one of the city’s upper echelon sidemen. After Katrina, Lemmler landed in Houston, where he has just released the terrific Music of New Orleans.
The tunes covered—the hoariest of New Orleans trad jazz standards—might make the cognoscenti roll their eyes. Fortunately, Lemmler reaches deep into his formidable arranger’s bag to produce one delight after another. “Avalon,” “Hello Dolly,” “Saint James Infirmary” and “I Can’t Believe You’re in Love With Me”—receive a bossa-nova treatment that washes the dust off and makes them sparkle. The last of these has as a bonus the vocals of New Orleans native Kim Prevost, who sounds a little like Sarah Vaughan here, only taller.
With the excellent support of New Orleans bassist Mark Brooks and Houston drummer Joe Ferreira, Lemmler is consistently inventive with form and harmony. He applies, for example, modal touches and tasteful dollops of Erroll Garneresque bluesiness to several of these archaic tunes. It’s hard to make “Saint James” interesting for 10 minutes, but he does so here by bringing in and reharmonizing Chopin’s famous “Funeral March” coda as part of the form.
The album concludes with Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans”: an intro, two choruses and a coda stretched over almost eight minutes. Some Brazilian saudade leaked over from the other tracks to inform this heartfelt, elegiac cut. In fact, the whole production, with each track dedicated to New Orleans musicians from Louis Armstrong to George French to Ervin Charles, is very moving.