“Play some bossa nova,” hollers a belligerent man from his barstool. His tawdry female companion adds to the racket just as the band on stage descends onto the closing bar of its set’s second song. In the moment that follows, a tense air fills the room. For the French Quarter crowd, it isn’t the outburst that takes them by surprise, it’s the scene: Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, the city’s swankiest jazz joint.
The fresh-faced five on stage smells the vibe, but they aren’t sweating it. “We’re playing all originals,” retorts the drummer in a tone that baffles the buffoons. Then, as the band’s eyes meet, the audience’s finds the grin of the man holding the sticks. “This one’s kind of bossa nova,” he quips before counting off. The crowd can’t tell if he’s serious, and the drunkards abandon their outpost never considering as much, clumsily chasing the cascading tail of subtle samba that leads them to the dance floor before the rest of the room can pick up the beat.
Disaster diverted, burgeoning jazz ensemble the Session eases back into the sophisticated bop and luminous textures from where their sojourn previously left off. By the show’s close, the Session has delivered every cut from its superb debut This Is Who We Are. Individually, drummer Darrian Douglas, trumpeter Stephen Lands, pianist Andrew McGowan, saxophonist James Partridge and bassist Jasen Weaver comprise the Session. Who the Session is sonically, however, reveals itself in the story of how these musicians came together.
Three years ago, Weaver invited Douglas and pianist Austin Johnson to a late-night practice session on the University of New Orleans’ campus. Weekly, these musicians reconvened. Soon, Douglas brought Partridge into the fold. Though initially none of the musicians approached these rehearsals with the intent of forming a band, from the onset, a high level of intensity fueled them. “I don’t know if we were serious about being a band,” says Douglas, “but we were serious because we were serious about getting better.”
After rehearsing for six months, the Session stepped onto the stage for the first time. Following Johnson’s departure, McGowan assumed the keys, and upon relocating to New Orleans, longtime pal Lands added his horn. With a solid lineup, the Session got serious about booking more gigs and refining its tunes. But the Session’s first studio session failed to produce a set that any of its members found fit for release. Trashing its tunes, the Session hit the practice room in search of new ideas. Six months later, the Session had a brand new songbook, and following a successful Kickstarter campaign, a second shot in the studio. This go-round, the Session rendered This Is Who We Are, one of the strongest contemporary jazz debuts the city has ever seen, bar none.