The New Orleans jazz tradition is as strong as ever, but many of today’s rising jazz stars are not as traditional as you may think. Many aren’t following the established path from brass band to NOCCA to UNO to Lincoln Center, and are venturing into diverse arenas, from avant-garde to smooth. The artists featured in this article represent a cross section of the emerging talent shaping an increasingly vibrant and eclectic jazz scene in New Orleans.
Clarence Johnson III
This gifted young man, who won OffBeat’s 1999 “Best of the Beat” award for best saxophonist, describes his route to becoming a jazz musician as “unorthodox.” He didn’t go to NOCCA or UNO, but rather to Brother Martin high school, where he was drum major for the school band, and then on to Loyola, where he experimented with clarinet and delved into classical music. Along the way, he began playing professionally with a wide spectrum of local artists, like Henry Butler, George Porter, Jr. and Michael Ray, and formed several rock fusion groups.
“I think one of the benefits of the way I came up is that I was exposed to other types of music besides jazz,” he says. “I got an almost total worldly perspective by the intermingling of different cultures. It broadened the scope of my foundation, allowing me to be as free-minded musically as I am today.”
His debut recording, Dedicated To You, on STR Records, is a poignant showcase of his diverse influences, from funk and blues to bop and gospel. There’s also some “free” jazz, a genre which allows him to explore his desire to “go beyond the mechanics” of his sax and express the sound of other instruments and noises from daily life.
“I’m not just influenced by music, I’m influenced by sounds,” he says. “A creaking door, I hear those notes. Someone scraping their feet across the floor, I hear those notes. You hear about people transcribing Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. In addition to that, I’ll also be transcribing R2-D2. It gives you other elements to bring to the bandstand that don’t normally get there.”
Johnson appears on a forthcoming Yockamo All-Stars record (a collaboration between New Orleans musicians and Cubanismo), and there is some talk about a record date this summer with guitarist John Scofield, but right now Johnson says he is preoccupied with trying to integrate his innumerable influences and inspirations with a desire to express total spiritual conviction through music. When he gets all those elements together, look out!
Johnson performs at Jazz Fest on May 4 (Fairgrounds) and opens for Les McCann on May 6 at Praline Connection (Midnight Jazz). He’s also part of an STR Records showcase on May 3 at Storyville District.
When critics describe the New Orleans jazz scene as “conservative,” they obviously aren’t talking about Jonathan Freilich, a guitarist who is without question one of the most distinctive and adventurous musicians in town. Since moving here from California ten years ago, he’s done formative stints with Mike Ward & Reward, Kermit Ruffins, Mas Mamones and Michael Ray & The Cosmic Krewe. He’s also a founding member of The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, the groundbreaking group which makes Jewish folk sound hip and danceable in an avant-garde, jazz/funk context.
In recent years, Freilich has emerged on his own as a highly original composer and bandleader. His group, Naked on the Floor, with drummer Mark DiFlorio, bassist James Singleton and tenor player Tim Green, is one of the most uninhibited explorative outfits around. A new record, due out for Jazz Fest, captures their free-flowing music in its natural environment—live at the Mermaid Lounge.
But Freilich has also undertaken a massive project, the Naked Orchestra, which makes its Jazz Fest debut on April 30 (Fairgrounds). It’s an unprecedented collaboration between 17 local luminaries, including Michael Ray, Joe Cabral, Brent Rose, Rob Wagner, Antonio Gambrell, Doug Miller and the members of Freilich’s quartet, playing avant-garde big band music composed by both Freilich and the conductor, James “Jimbo” Walsh. Just scheduling all these artists to be on the same stage is an achievement, but the Naked Orchestra also manages to maintain a remarkably “free” sound, despite the complex charts required for big bands.
“It’s an interesting balancing act,” says Freilich. “I try to write psychological tricks into the pieces, things that make it so that the soloists and other musicians are launched into a more unusual space than where they’re usually at, which means they’ll be able to play a certain way, and also people will be able to listen in a certain way that perhaps they weren’t doing previously. That’s the dream anyway.”
Since emerging from the University of New Orleans Jazz Studies program a few years ago, this exceptional quintet has taken the local jazz scene by storm with their dynamic interplay and inventive, well-hewn compositions. Eschewing the typical leader-sideman formula, Quintology is a democratic ensemble that, following in the footsteps of local powerhouse Astral Project, draws equally from the diverse sensibilities of its members: drummer Mark DiFlorio, bassist Brady Kish, guitarist Brian Seeger, pianist Charlie Dennard and saxophonist Brent Rose.
But Quintology, which makes its Jazz Fest debut on April 28, is also unique in that it relies exclusively upon challenging original material. “The premise is to not cater to the public, but to play as a representation of who we are and let the people come to us,” says Rose. “We draw from a list of 35 to 40 tunes that we all wrote, that we’ve all been playing on for a while, and it takes it to a whole other level.”
The band’s new record, Blues by Five, the follow up to their eponymous debut (which was picked by OffBeat as one of the top 50 records of 1999), displays a new level of maturity, confidence and versatility. They engagingly explore a wide range of styles and moods, from spacey, atmospheric sojourns to hard groovin’ burners, without resorting to covers.
“There’s been talk that maybe we should do a couple standards,” says Rose. “Or if we go out of town, we should play some kind of New Orleans thing, something that the audience knows. But we decided that we just need to write stuff like that. If we want to play a street beat tune, then I’ll write a street beat tune. There’s enough creative writing ability and playing ability that we can just do original music. And I think that’s appealing to people.”
New Orleans is more famously associated with instrumentalists than jazz singers, even though the city has given birth to some greats, such as Johnny Adams, Lillian Boutté, and Germaine Bazzle—and it’s doubtful that Harry Connick, Jr. would have gotten over without his crooning ability.
But Phillip Manuel seems poised to alter this perception. He has just been signed to the Maxjazz label, joining acclaimed singers like Grammy nominated Carla Cook, Christine Hitt and Laverne Butler.
Manuel possesses a captivating voice—robust, warm and versatile. He cites the influence of Andy Williams, Donny Hathaway and Ella Fitzgerald, and he has been compared to Bobby McFerrin and Billy Eckstine. No less impressive are his credentials. He’s toured in support of Terence Blanchard’s Grammy nominated Brazilian CD The Heart Speaks and he’s part of Nicholas Payton’s fusion ensemble, The Time Machine. In addition, he’s performed in local theater and sings regularly with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra. His recent Nat King Cole tribute show at Le Chat Noir was a smashing success, and his Christmas CD Swingin’ in the Holidays truly lit up this past holiday season.
“I feel like I’m matured and seasoned as a jazz vocalist,” says Manuel. “You have to realize that I sang pop music ‘til I was 30, even though it always had some scatting and jazz inflection. It wasn’t until I moved back home in 1986 from Washington D.C. that I really began to concentrate on singing jazz. So I’m a late bloomer I guess.”
Manuel performs at Jazz Fest on May 5, and will also appear at Sweet Lorraine’s on April 29. After the Fest, he heads for the studio to record his Maxjazz debut, due out this fall, with a stellar local cast: Nicholas Payton, Adonis Rose, Peter Martin, Steve Masakowski, Bill Summers, Bill Huntington, Roland Guerin, Donald Harrison, Aaron Fletcher and Brice Winston.
When saxophonist Lance Ellis decided to leave his day job at the post office and pursue a solo music career, he had a lot of stylistic options to choose from. After all, he graduated from NOCCA in the same class as Donald Harrison, Jr., and was a well-respected sideman, playing R&B and funk with Irma Thomas, George Porter, Jr. and the original members of War; blues with Mem Shannon and Adams/Griffin Project; and even zydeco with Chubby Carrier and Sunpie.
So why, then, did he choose to focus on smooth jazz? “Because of my mentor, Grover Washington,” he says. “It’s the style of music that actually moves me and makes me feel more soulful. I’m not a hardcore player. I can play bebop, but if you’re coming from New Orleans, there is an abundance of jazz and different influences, so I said to myself, keep it simple, keep it radio friendly, so people can actually dance to it and feel the simplicity and yet also how difficult the music is, because it moves the soul.”
On his debut recording, Just Curious, Ellis plays tenor, alto, soprano and flute in a fluid, romantic style that would have made Mr. Magic proud. The overall feel is soothing melodic jazz, but there are also interesting variations, such as the more overt R&B on “Taking a Chance on Love” (with vocals by Yadonna Wise), a touch of earthy funk on “Lance’s Groove” and “Millennium Bus Stop,” and even a gospel song, “Your Grace and Mercy” (a moving dedication to Ellis’ mother, who passed away recently).
“Everybody has a problem with defining that word jazz,” says Ellis. “They call it smooth, straight ahead, bebop, a whole bunch of different things, but the bottom line is that it’s nonsense, because it’s what you feel inside that gives you the soul.”
At Jazz Fest, Ellis will perform with SOB (Same Ole Band–original War members) on April 29 and at Mid City Rock ‘n’ Bowl on April 28.