James Evans, First Encounter (GHB)

New Orleans has served as a Mecca for European jazz musicians for close to 60 years now, just as Paris once played the same role for aspiring American artists. In both cases, the reasons for the pilgrimage have been much the same; to study, to work, and to soak up the local atmosphere.

These two CDs are the result of visits last year by musicians from France and England. They were here around the time of the French Quarter Festival, which has become a traditional season for European fans and musicians to join us. Both the musicians, in the Fred Dupin band from Bordeaux and James Evans, a Welsh-born clarinetist and tenor saxman, said they were delighted at the opportunity not only to be in New Orleans but to meet and record with some of our top notch local jazzmen.

In the case of the Fred Dupin group, this was their first visit to New Orleans. They had, however, some very specific ideas about who they wanted to play with. They are joined on this CD by clarinetist Tim Laughlin, trumpeter Duke Heitger, and Jacques Gauthier, the French born clarinet and soprano sax man who has been a regular on the New Orleans scene for more than 20 years. From the very first cut it is clear that the visitors chose well. Stylistically the French and New Orleans musicians are just about a perfect match. The French group also includes a female vocalist, Laurence “Lo” Jay, whose accent makes it difficult to believe she is not American.

The CD starts off with a really swinging version of “Riverboat Shuffle” with a vocal by “Lo” that establishes her immediately as an important addition to the session. Dupin plays with a nice Bixian lilt on this opening number. Rather than doing the usual European take on the older New Orleans trad style, this band seems to favor a sound closer to the white Chicago groups of the 1920s. There’s a nice sampling of well known traditional tunes such as “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Mama’s Gone Goodbye,” and “Beale Street Blues” and the band sounds together and comfortable on all of these numbers. But what is especially noteworthy on this disc are four songs that were composed by Tim Laughlin and which he had previously recorded on his own CD, Isle Of Orleans. This is the first recording of the lyrics of one of these songs, “Crescent City Moon,” with another nice performance by “Lo” Jay.

There is some other interesting original material on this disc including two songs written by the drummer, Guillaume Nouaux, with lyrics by Ms. Jay; the title tune “Trip to New Orleans,” and a march called “Harbor Street Parade.” There is also a contribution from Jacques Gauthier entitled “Cassoulet Stomp.” All in all it’s a good mix of familiar and original material that works well together.

English reedman James Evans chose quite a different group of musicians for his debut recording in New Orleans, but they are certainly well known on our local scene. The band includes Kermit Ruffins, trumpet, Fred Lonzo, trombone, Emile Vinette, piano, Kerry Lewis, bass, and Shannon Powell on drums.

Like the musicians in his chosen ensemble, Evans is at home with rhythm and blues as well as traditional jazz, although the material on this disc is strictly traditional. The recording session was the first time he and the rest of the band had played together and in the liner notes he describes the performance as “one of the formative experiences of my musical life.” Under these circumstances it is not surprising to find the music just a bit uneven here, although there is a clear progression as the session moves along. The first cut “Margie,” is a rather lackluster version of an uninspiring standard, but it’s saved by a Kermit Ruffins vocal. By the time we get to “Dinah” and “When Your Smiling,” which are about midway through the CD, everyone is getting along much better together. Evans himself sings on “Dinah” and several other tunes. In addition to a few more songs done by Kermit, there is a really rousing version of “Lord, Lord, Lord” that features Shannon Powell both on drums and vocal.

My favorite on the disc is “Pee Wee’s Blues,” a clarinet solo based on the work of Pee Wee Russell, a very original reedman whose style of playing is rarely heard in New Orleans. It also includes two well wrought piano choruses by Emile Vinette, a veteran New Orleans pianist who currently works regularly with Kermit. He’s a musician we could stand to hear more of. The final cut on the disc, “Mood Indigo” with Evans featured on tenor, is another triumph and a suitable climax for the session.

These two CDs are an example of what might be called a tradition within the New Orleans tradition. These are the latest in the long line of European musicians who’ve been here not only to learn but also to contribute, many of whom have become a regular part of our local community. You can bet there are plenty more like them, dreaming of a chance to play in New Orleans with real New Orleanians.