“In New Orleans, you can live after a jam session if you didn’t have a good night,” Mario Abney says with a laugh when comparing the jazz scene in his previous home base of Chicago with the Crescent City’s. The trumpeter and composer, who moved to New Orleans in 2008 and just released his distinctive sophomore disc, The Abney Effect Vol. 1—Instant Grits, brings a bit of both of these major jazz cities to his sound.
“The musicians in Chicago are pressing for a certain type of expressive aggression,” he continues. “In New Orleans music is part of the lifestyle. They both balance out. The level of music still rises up. Music works itself out that way.”
Abney, who began playing drums in church in his hometown of Harvey, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, embraces his musical influences and experiences and totally incorporates them on the album. He was encouraged in the music by his piano-playing uncle and was exposed to blues through his grandmother who dug the likes of legendary guitarist/vocalist Howlin’ Wolf. When he was still in high school, his mother would take him to jam sessions at notorious Chicago clubs such as Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge. He got hip to New Orleans brass band music when the Hot 8 played a festival in Ohio where the trumpeter attended college and then taught school.
The links between the musical styles of Chicago and New Orleans have continually filtered through his consciousness and life. “A lot of people in Chicago are from the South so you had a lot of Mississippi roots in the church, a lot of Louisiana, a lot of Alabama roots in the church I grew up in,” he explains, mentioning that there was a big, heavy gospel sound akin to that of the Southern Baptist Church.
“The church had that back beat—the two and four,” Abney offers. “That was like a calling for me.” Abney began playing trumpet in high school. “I got a late start at 16, and I had to do some research on players like Louis [Armstrong], Dizzy [Gillespie] and Miles [Davis],” says Abney, who then began hearing the connection between jazz and the blues and gospel music that had long been part of his life. “My identity started to develop, and a new circle of friends. I noticed how in hip-hop they used to sample James Brown. I heard a lot of James Brown when I was growing up. My grandmother would listen to James Brown and Ray Charles and a lot of stuff with heavy, greasy hollerin’ and yellin’ in it too—like preachers.
So while in the north, Abney was devouring these various styles including his latest discovery, the brass band music of the Hot 8. It wasn’t too long before he, drummer Julian Addison and saxophonist Clarence Slaughter, who were also on Abney’s first release, Spiritual Perception, jumped in his truck and headed to the Crescent City. The trumpeter was well prepared for the diversity of music he found here.
“In 2005, New Orleans started speaking to me,” he says. “My heart got turned on to the city by Katrina. I always wanted to go but I said, ‘Damn, that’s the birthplace of the music.’” Following a visit that included playing on Frenchmen Street, Abney’s big move came in 2008.
The interest and energy of The Abney Effect Vol. 1—Instant Grits stem from the trumpeter’s delight in diversity and insightful use of some very talented musicians, most of whom are based in New Orleans. That is immediately apparent from the first cut, “Rollin’”—a get-up tune that swings and street beats with in-the-know cats like drummer Simon Lott and keyboardist Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji. The wonderful performance by longtime Abney friend and fellow Chicagoan, Kaliq Woods, declares the clarinet alive and well in the modern jazz setting. On several tunes, including “One,” which includes the steel pan of Joseph Glenn, Woods moves to the timbales to join the rhythm section with Usauf Gaye on djembe.
“My philosophy is to bring young vibrant cats together who are looking to create a big ensemble sound and create a mental picture that makes the music celebratory,” Abney declares. “I want to reach the crowd on a human level and on an intellectual level—dance and listen.”
The street-wise title cut, “Instant Grits,” references Abney’s brass band experiences. He presently plays weekly with the Treme Brass Band and has been a member of the Lagniappe and Young Fellaz ensembles.
He acknowledges that his tone differs from that of New Orleans brass band trumpeters. “I’m still coming from Chicago, straight-ahead, small combo jazz,” Abney says, adding that he maintains the style’s core elements by primarily copying riffs from trombone players.
The exciting final cut, “Can You Feel Music,” which was recorded live at Neo Jazz School of Music studios, opens with a “drum conversation” based on the rhythms Abney heard while performing in Ecuador. The song’s strong, repeated melody is at once inviting and hypnotic. At the end, Abney’s trumpet fades out as if expressing a long goodbye or at least farewell to a satisfying session.