In addition to being an advanced conceptualist and historian, pianist Tom McDermott is a musician’s musician, one of the most adept accompanists in New Orleans. His ability to bring out the best in his collaborators has been proven over and over again, but even that history didn’t prepare me for the extraordinary musical conversation with multi-instrumentalist Aurora Nealand represented on this album.
McDermott’s musical imagination is matched here by a player of such virtuosity in Nealand that even his most outside-the-box thinking is instantly realized. The pieces cover a wide range of McDermott’s ideas, and Nealand brings fresh, often startling perspective to all of it. “Alemán Remixeada,” a slow tango from The Crave reimagined as a hyperkinetic disklavier track with a new melody inspires mysterious, otherworldly harmonization from Nealand, a truly unique vocalist.
McDermott has a knack for waltz time, and we get a couple of good ones here. “Opulence,” the aptly titled French waltz last heard on Bamboula, reappears as a vehicle for Aurora’s delicate side. The introspective “A Valsa Entre Quartos,” a piano solo based on McDermott’s conception of a Brazilian waltz, is followed by Nealand’s hypnotic, ethereal “Memory Made and Mistook,” which rides an extraordinary accordion pulse to its dramatic climax. Tom Waits’ “Picture In a Frame” gets a nuanced vocal from Nealand cushioned by antique piano accompaniment from McDermott.
Nealand is a masterful interpreter of Sidney Bechet material and she brings a spirited version of his “Tropical Moon” to this session with Michael Skinkus adding percussion. Skinkus also plays Brazilian pandeiro on “Casa Denise,” a piece from McDermott’s Choro De Norte album. McDermott plays a low down blues piano part behind Nealand’s expressive vocal on “Moanin’ Low” before bringing his own inimitable style to the solo section. Nealand follows with a brilliant soprano sax solo.
The pair mix it up with a piano/clarinet exchange on the gutbucket “Make me a Pallet on the Floor.” On “Four Hands are Louder Than Two,” Nealand plays the theme on piano and McDermott joins in for the four-handed boogie. “Mississippi Dreamboat,” another idea from Nealand, has McDermott interpolating Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata as the piano accompaniment. Nealand’s irrepressible talents take on additional contours with “La Ultima Noche Que Pasé Contigo, a Cuban bolero which features her accompanying McDermott’s vocal en espanol.
McDermott’s overriding vision involves the way New Orleans music interacts with other aspects of the Afro-Caribbean musical diaspora, and the final track, “Visions of Saint Lucia,” explores the connection between McDermott’s French West Indian mazurka composition and Nealand’s New Orleans clarinet style.
McDermott added a bonus track 20 seconds after the final fade, a 10 second glimpse of his mother playing part of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in 1944. She passed away in February, but her spirit clearly flourishes in her son’s work.