I have a vivid memory of Aurora Nealand from three Jazz Fests ago. She and her band, the Royal Roses, were playing the Economy Hall stage, where they fit in perfectly as one of relatively few young bands who’d really internalized traditional jazz. The band seemed transported from another time, especially since Nealand had traded her usual punkish attire for a vintage turquoise cocktail dress. A few minutes after the set Nealand came running past us, still wearing the turquoise cocktail dress, and straight through the Gentilly Stage mudbath—just to get up close for Patti Smith’s set.
Soprano saxophonist, clarinetist, singer and musical conceptualist Nealand has always been a bit of an enigma—a thoroughly modern artist who works in a traditional vein, at least some of the time. The rest of the time she does things that seem a million miles away, and she seems to inhabit a different persona with every project—quite literally in the case of Rory Danger, the leather-jacketed outlaw who leads a band of rockabilly marauders (officially, Aurora Nealand and Rory Danger are different people who’ve never met). As a jazzwoman, she plays with Tom McDermott in a keyboard/sax duo; as a free improviser she plays in the multidirectional band Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? She was part of the Cajun/Celtic mashup that the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Spider Stacy did at Jazz Fest. And her about-to-launch solo project the Monocle is none of the above, a progressive and personal take on electronic pop.
“I would say that sound is sound,” she explains. “So they blend into each other. Projects are different on purpose because I don’t think any one project can be all encompassing; it’s not about any one framework—each one gives you a place to focus the sound. Certainly, playing traditional music only enhances or informs my own compositions. And when I think about improvising I think a lot about texture. A lot of the older music, from that original traditional framework of jazz, is about having the melody in the head and improvising over those chord changes. So when I’m improvising I hear melodies over textural gestures—that’s more of a compositional aesthetic that came in later in the 1950s, where you have Morton Subotnick and Stravinsky.”
As for her adopting different personae… Well, she’s a David Bowie and Laurie Anderson fan. More to the point, she thinks a lot about performance and what it means: “Performance is a funny thing. Ideally you’re always yourself. The singers I love to listen to and admire are singers that always sound like themselves; they sound like they’re talking to you in their voice. But I always think about what serves the music, what does it need from me? So in one sense that is a different persona—but they’re all within us. Everyone is a beautiful complexity of mechanisms and feelings are desires and fears. They’re all in this little universe inside your body. They’re all about what the music needs and how you can channel that inside the music. So you can tap into yourself. ‘Aha, you’re coming out of the box today.’ But it doesn’t mean that the rest of you isn’t there too.”
It was a long road that brought Nealand to New Orleans in 2004. She grew up in Moss Beach, California (population: 3,213), where there wasn’t a huge music/arts circuit to plug into. Yet music was in her life for as long as she can remember. “There was never any epiphany moment, there just wasn’t a time when music didn’t seem like something I wanted to do; it was just part of the fabric of being alive. My mother was very shy so she never performed, but she was a very good pianist. And my father loved Stravinsky while my brother had all the Pixies and Rage Against the Machine albums. I played oboe and flute in the middle school band, and took some piano lessons in senior year. I do recall having a moment when I saw Preservation Hall Jazz Band in San Francisco. I would have been 10 or 11, and I do remember thinking ‘That’s amazing.’”
Formal training had to wait until she got to college; she studied electronic music and composition at Oberlin, then stuck around in Ohio and saved up money to send herself to L’Ecole Internationale in Paris, the school founded by actor and mime Jacques Lecoq. “A lot of people I’d looked up to as a young arts maker had gone there, people like Julie Taymor, and there was a connection with people in the ’80s New York scene—Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson. So I thought that by my going there, the other door would open and I’d meet all these different people from Europe and South America that I was going to form a theater company and make weird art with. But the school was in transition [Lecoq died in 1999], so it didn’t work out that way, and going to Paris didn’t point me to the next step. It was that point in your life when you wind up moving every year.”
And in some ways, the Paris training shaped her philosophy as a musician. “One thing you study there is how the different elements live in your body—like, how does your body channel fire or wind, and how does that affect the way you move? To me, the different projects are like that, taking these elements and putting them into the music. Some are better at expressing fragility and humanity, others at fire and spontaneity. There are different channels for different expressions. Like, Marilyn Manson is genuinely expressing something, and Rage Against the Machine. That’s no less a powerful expression of a genuine feeling than, say, Paul Simon doing a solo set.”
She made it to New Orleans a couple moves later, in 2004, in time to evacuate to Baltimore for Katrina and move on once more, this time to Austin where she enrolled in grad school and lasted three weeks. But she’d already made her first musical connection with the Panorama Jazz Band, with whom she marched for Mardi Gras the next year. “Nothing went wrong in Austin, I had just gotten the bug and started playing live music in New Orleans. It was a pretty exciting time in terms of what I wanted to do as an artist. I’d go down to Frenchmen Street to see the Jazz Vipers and the Hot Club of New Orleans, and I’d go to Preservation Hall when I could afford it.” Her first real gig was a little-noticed, five-hour slot playing at the French Market.
The real watershed was a concert of Sidney Bechet’s music that she put on at Preservation Hall, for which the Royal Roses were formed. For a young, more-or-less unknown artist who’s still new in town, playing Bechet’s music at Preservation Hall is a jump into the deep end—which is why she did it. “It was a pretty ostentatious thing for a young white woman who’s not from New Orleans to do. But you learn to do it and you give yourself the deadlines—and I wanted to force myself to really be immersed in that sound. Learning to play just like Sidney Bechet would be a lifelong pursuit, and that’s not necessarily what I’m trying to do. It’s more like learning a language and when you do that, you create your own punctuation.
“The other part of it is that I felt very encouraged by the musicians when I came to town. People like Ben Jaffe at Preservation Hall; we never worked together musically but I felt like they were a welcoming presence. But playing the Sidney Bechet show was really about giving myself a challenge, it wasn’t me saying ‘I’m next in the legacy.’” The show went well enough that it became her first album and the Royal Roses a permanent band, which now includes David Boswell (trumpet), Matt Bell (vocals/guitar), Bill Machow (piano), Josh Gouzy (bass), Nathan Lambertson (bass) and Paul Thibodeaux (drums).
Of course there’s a feminist element to this, a young woman crashing the gates of traditional jazz. This had to be part of her mission at the time, right? “No. [Laughs.] Not really, and that’s something I get asked, not un-often. Sound, ideally, isn’t gendered. And for me it’s not about being a woman, but trying to be a good musician.”
The new Royal Roses album Comeback Children—a 76-minute epic, no less—expands the musical palette somewhat. There’s a burst of free playing on the opening “Jump for Joy,” which throws a wild spin on the original Ellington arrangement and gets additional color from guest Mike Dillon on vibes. The Eastern European sound of the Panorama Jazz Band spills into “Toploulou,” and there’s a novel arrangement (without piano) of Zez Confrey’s old piano rag “Poor Buttermilk.” But the album’s most haunting piece, which they save for last, isn’t a traditional jazz tune at all: It’s the Tom Waits song “Day After Tomorrow,” a soldier’s testimony that the band takes at a fitting funereal pace. And though she doesn’t think of herself as one, Nealand’s vocal here shows what an expressive singer she’s become.
“I think of myself as an instrumentalist who happens to sing, not as a singer first. Everyone is a singer because it’s an instrument everyone has; everyone can make sounds with their vocal cords. I can handle melodies but I can’t do gymnastics with my voice—I’m not Erica Falls, or someone like Betty Davis. I’m more like someone who can carry through.”
Still, the upcoming Monocle project, KindHumanKind, hinges strongly on the vocals, and finds her weaving all her musical threads into something quite unique. The two songs I’ve heard, which come with a pair of artfully abstract videos, are layered with rhythm and melody, falling into a grey area—make that a brightly multicolored area—between rock, jazz and experimental music. Though she plays everything on the album she’s formed a band to be the Monocle, and it debuted at Chaz Fest last month.
“To me it’s like a birdcage project—you know, that little thing inside your heart area. You let it out to say something very personal to the world, and then it gets scared and flies back in again. I guess it was inspired by those performance artists who use their music to express their worldview, for lack of a better word. But it comes from a very personal place. Lately I’ve been interested in the intersection of mental health and sound, so this comes from a point in me that’s been viewing how those things relate and how they affect us.”
All these projects will be continuing over the next year, and then some. She’s also a part of the Dosti Music Project, which last year brought ten musicians from Pakistan, India and the U.S. together for a month-long collaboration and tour; it’s expected to come through New Orleans in the fall. She and curator Lisa Giordano are also the brains behind SONO, a performance space in the Bywater. Their first event was a crawfish boil during Jazz Fest, which featured the eclectic Naked Orchestra performing songs from Canadian songwriter Zoe Boekbinder’s Prison Music Project, a writing collaboration with Folsom inmates.
The bottom line is that Aurora Nealand will be playing a key role in bringing new experimental music into New Orleans, while still playing in one of its leading traditional bands.
“For me, the past 12 years of living in New Orleans have been an education about digging deeper into a living tradition. When you play traditional jazz, you can feel the vertical connection to the place, and also a horizontal connection to all the bands over time. Playing with musicians from Brazil, or what Panorama does with music from Serbia and the Balkans—all of that falls under the umbrella of living traditions. There are so many lessons you can learn.”