The New Orleans Moonshiners, Meschiya Lake’s Little Big Horns, Panorama Jazz Band, Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?—just a partial list of local groups to which Aurora Nealand claims membership. But the Royal Roses, whom Nealand will front at French Quarter Fest, are a first. “This is the first group that has my name on it, which I feel funny about,” she says.
“It’s a trad group that is derived pretty heavily from the music of Sidney Bechet,” she says of the group, which also includes Dave Boswell on trumpet, Paul Thibodeaux on drums, Matt Bell on guitar, Nathan Lambertson on bass, and either Michael Watson or Charlie Halloran on trombone. The great multi-reedist Bechet is a frequent reference point for Nealand, who like him doubles on sax and clarinet with a focus on the former. “But I don’t want to sound like I’m comparing myself to him!” she adds. She has an affinity for some of the more remote regions of the Bechet oeuvre. “He had this one album called Haitian Moods; that kind of stuff really interests me, the Afro-Creole influence. The Caribbean influence on New Orleans jazz, which is also what Panorama plays.”
It was Mardi Gras 2006 when Nealand first played with the Panorama Brass Band, the augmented, parade season-only incarnation of the Panorama Jazz Band. “I played in the Brass Band, and then after that Mardi Gras I kept going and hanging around the Jazz Band, saying, ‘You guys are really cool. Maybe I could sit in with you?’” She did, and three years later she appeared on Panorama’s 2009 album Come Out Swingin’. “Panorama’s been a really great training ground for me,” Nealand says. She adds that the Royal Roses are about “wanting to step out on your own and do the music in your own way.”
“I started [The Royal Roses] because I love to play traditional jazz and no one else is going to hire me to do it,” she says. “I play a funny instrument.” Unlike just about every other style of jazz, trad can be unwelcoming to a saxophonist. “The stock instruments are trumpet, trombone and clarinet in the front line,” she says. “And each of those has a very, very specific role. The trumpet and the soprano [sax] have very similar ranges,” she notes. “That’s why you don’t find a whole lot of Bechet recordings that have trumpet players on them.”
Nealand and her bandmates in the New Orleans Moonshiners had to figure out how the trumpet and sax can co-exist. “The saxophone is in between the ranges of the trumpet and the trombone, so you’re always in someone else’s sonic space,” she says. To get around the problem, the Moonshiners, who released their second record early last year, rely on careful arrangements in many of their tunes. That experience has helped her quite a bit in working out a sound for the Roses. “Me and [trumpeter] Dave [Boswell] are working to know who’s leading when and how to be respectful of each other’s sonic space,” she says. “The soprano is kind of a hybrid between trumpet and clarinet, in terms of tone.”
Going to school at Oberlin College in Ohio, Nealand was involved in art installation and electronic composition. An interest in experimental theatre led her to enroll at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris; at one point she was set on forming her own company and touring Europe. In the end, she decided to return to the U.S. and focus on composition and music.
Nealand is also one of a handful of trad musicians who dabbles in the local free improv scene. She can be found many Tuesday evenings at “Open Ears” upstairs at the Blue Nile alongside musicians such as Jeff Albert and Helen Gillet. “With my background as a more experimental composer, I do feel at home in that music. I’m not a purist, for better or for worse,” she says. “I don’t think that playing those two styles is in any way exclusive or that they are exclusive of each other. For me, playing at Open Ears is just a great chance to exercise a different part of your musicianship. None of us make money at it. It’s for the love of music. It’s just, ‘Let’s get together and play’.”
Nealand sees one quality in particular that unites the experimental and the traditional. “I think collective improvisation is one of the most beautiful things,” she says. “It’s people having a conversation. It’s as if two friends are really excited about something so they’re talking about it at the same time, but they’re also listening at the same time.” That emphasis on communal improvisation abounds in traditional music.
“I think it’s very good to learn about traditions, but I don’t have any interest in being a museum piece. I don’t have any interest in playing the music exactly as the old recordings are, because I don’t live in 1930.”
At French Quarter Fest: Friday, April 8, 1:30 – 2:30 p.m. Preservation Hall. Saturday, April 9, 6 – 7 p.m. Preservation Hall. Sunday, April 10, 1:15 – 3 p.m. French Market Stage.