Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield has taken a typically contrarian approach to the death of the music business. Instead of compressing his music into the tiniest package technically possible and distributing it for free on the Internet, Mayfield has gone in the opposite direction, releasing a collector’s item 7-CD package of music accompanied by a lavish coffee table book. And Irvin Mayfield really knows how to make a great coffee table project.
Where most artists have been cut off at the knees by the disappearance of seed money for projects, Mayfield has run his various operations like the wily executive he is, partnering with public and private industry to actualize his various ideas and promoting jazz as a viable entertainment alternative at a time when public opinion polls list jazz as the least popular genre of music in the United States. Priced at $119, this set is not out of line for a 7-CD collection, but instead of putting it in a plastic CD jewel case or LP-sized box, the seven discs are tucked into the covers of the book. Think of the book as the most luxurious set of liner notes you’ll ever encounter. The set is organized around seven days of music in Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, located on the ground floor of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Each day highlights the regularly scheduled performers at the Playhouse as well as standing for a day during the run of Mayfield’s favorite charity operation, “The Love Sessions,” an annual week-long event that culminates on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29th.
The book includes beautiful photographs by Gordon Parks and Herman Leonard, reproductions of Blue Dog paintings by George Rodrigue, who Mayfield says inspires him to play, photographs of food and drink available at the Playhouse, menus and posters from the club and from Mayfield’s career, beautiful photographs of the performers, from the sage of New Orleans jazz Ellis Marsalis to contemporary burlesque queen Trixie Minx, and much more, all on expensive paper, all suitable for framing. It is a luxury item well worth adding to the bill of every hotel guest at the Sonesta, every music lover with a Big Chief pass to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
It is also a great collection of music by an outstanding group of musicians. The New Orleans Jazz Playhouse Revue is a septet augmented by special guests over the course of the week.
There’s too much here to review in great detail but I’ll offer highlights:
Disc 1: “Angola (for Ernest Gaines).” This soulful Mayfield composition features outstanding solos from trombonist Vince Gardiner, saxophonists Jason Marshall and Derek Douget, Mayfield and pianist John Chin.
“Keep On Pushing.” This Curtis Mayfield classic is a great medium for the hypnotic groove Irvin Mayfield’s band can lay down. Vocalists Jamison Ross and Michael Watson harmonize beautifully on this track.
“Li’l Liza Jane.” Uplifting New Orleans traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs get a spirited treatment from drummer/vocalist Gerald French, who plays the Playhouse every Monday night with the Original Tuxedo jazz band.
Disc 2: “Old Wyne.” The first of several compositions by the late great drummer James Black. Mayfield’s rediscovery of Black’s catalog on this album is worth the price of admission by itself.
“Buddy Bolden’s Blues.” Mayfield closes with another party tune, this one featuring Don Vappie on banjo.
Disc 3: “St. James Infirmary Blues.” This early 20th century song, originally about the Yellow Fever plague, took on new meaning after Katrina. Sasha Masakowski really nails it and Vince Gardner contributes a hair-raising trombone solo.
“They All Ask’d for You.” Bassist/vocalist George Porter Jr. joins the fray for this joyous romp through a classic from the Meters and elsewhere.
Disc 4: “Harlis Laughing.” A mesmerizing Harold Battiste composition gives the band members another chance to lay out in superb fashion. Vince Gardiner leads off with a trombone solo of impressive power, swing and tonal grace. Mayfield plays one of his best solos on the record.
Disc 5: “Marzique Dancing.” Another great piece by Battiste with a nuanced performance from the band on a gorgeous arrangement. John Chin sounds like he’s literally dancing across the keyboards. Derek Douget’s tenor floats like high cloud formations, swept along by the rhythm section’s tradewinds. You can tell how much respect Mayfield has for Battiste by the trumpet solos he brings to these songs.
“Jasmine.” One of the most important things Mayfield does on this record is call attention to the great New Orleans drummer and composer James Black, who never got a real chance to present himself to the public. This killer tune gets an expressive vocal from Michael Watson and an absolutely devotional muted trumpet solo from Mayfield.
Disc 6: “Pretty One.” Another transcendent theme from James Black, this previously unrecorded gem unfolds magnificently in this clever arrangement. Mayfield leads off with a lengthy, statement-of-purpose solo before the band members trade variations on the theme.
Disc 7: “When My Dreamboat Comes Home.” Looking at the title, I figured this was a toss. Then I listened to it. The tune can be as cornball as they come, but this band elevates it to a level of hipness that has to be experienced to be believed, really the essence of the New Orleans experience. Mayfield says that whenever they play this people dance. I believe it.
“Magnolia Triangle.” The package finishes up with one more James Black tune, one of his best-known compositions. The band negotiates the tricky theme with merry aplomb. Everybody gets a chance to blow on this funk-drenched and pertinently polychromatic vehicle.
This band could easily do an album of Black compositions, an album of Battiste arrangements, an album of traditional jazz, an album of New Orleans R&B, an album of Mayfield’s own songwriting and a ballads album. And that’s kind of what this musical week-long session breaks down to.