It’s hard to say what we should expect from Evan Christopher’s Clarinet Road at French Quarter Fest. His first record under that moniker is packed with trad standards (“St. James Infirmary,” “Basin Street Blues”) while the second toys with lounge-y bebop. Hearing Christopher play, I often have the feeling of being tugged in both directions at once.
Musicians with formal jazz education sometimes have difficulty with the coarser, more boisterous approach required by traditional folk styles. Christopher has overcome this hurdle quite well; this may have something to do with his choice of instrument. A few years back, he switched from the more common Boehm system clarinet to the Albert system, which has the “fuzzy” sound favored by the jazz masters of latter day New Orleans. It was part of a broader attempt by Christopher to “brand” himself (his words, not mine) as an ambassador of New Orleans music. That’s not to imply that there’s anything disingenuous about his presentation—quite the opposite. When you’ve been playing an instrument most of your life, switching to a new fingering system is a massive undertaking and it’s a testament to Christopher’s dedication to this music.
French Quarter Fest 2008 saw the debut of Christopher’s Django à la Créole album, which fused New Orleans jazz with gypsy swing. Christopher formed the group in Paris, where he was undertaking a residency at the request of the French government after Katrina. That country’s music continues to exert a strong pull on his music.
In September, Christopher made a high-profile appearance on France’s “Les Victoires du Jazz” awards, where he performed Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” It’s hard to read about Christopher without hearing a comparison to Bechet; often it’s done reflexively by folks with nothing else to say. They may both have been big in Paris, but I don’t hear Bechet’s energetic, devilmay- care abandon in Christopher’s playing. His is a more fluid, lyrical approach to the instrument, but there’s no denying his skill. Christopher has shown himself to be one of the most versatile clarinetists in New Orleans today and all accolades are well earned.