These musicians have spent most of their careers as sidemen in New Orleans bands, and all of them have released solo projects at roughly the same time. Taken together, they make a strong argument for the creative depth of the local music scene.
Crescent City Serenade is a slyly seductive set of New Orleans standards from a musician firmly entrenched in the ancient ways of the city’s society gigs. Most of Vic Shepherd’s career has been spent playing traditional New Orleans music in hotels and restaurants, but he’s an accomplished guitarist and harmonica player who takes virtuoso turns on both instruments here. True to the jazz brunch tradition, his approach is understated, almost diffident, but he ingeniously strips this material down to its essential elements and finds the emotional core of every song. His acknowledged influence is Danny Barker, who never let his fascination with history interfere with the musical task at hand. Shepherd caresses the melodies of “Tin Roof Blues” and “Canal Street Blues,” but the most impressive piece on the record is his version of the original Mardi Gras anthem, “If Ever I Cease to Love.” He finds something in this tune that has eluded other interpreters for a century and a half.
Brint Anderson is best known for his high energy electric guitar work as a sideman with Earl King, George Porter, Jr. and currently the Joe Krown Organ Combo. His acoustic playing is even more impressive, as anyone who’s caught his regular solo gigs at Margaritaville can attest. This disc is a companion to those gigs, a self-produced mixture of crowd pleasers and well-crafted blues originals including “I’m Curious” and “(She’s a) Mess and a Half.” He plays his gleaming National Steel dobro with a relaxed rhythmic confidence that makes his technical prowess all the more effective as he delivers multiple parts simultaneously, plucking out a pronounced beat with his right hand and framing the melodies with emotive vocals. He also demonstrates beautifully expressive fingerpicking technique on “Buckdancer’s Choice” and “Little Martha.” Most blues guitar players find it hard to avoid cliché or blatant imitation, but the sound of Anderson’s fingers on the strings is so personal that he makes even the most familiar material sound like it was written for him.
Jimmy Carpenter, a veteran saxophonist in Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s band, steps out for an impressive debut as a leader with Toiling in Obscurity. Carpenter has all the tools, lacking only a successful front man’s charisma, but his songwriting more than makes up the difference on this very good recording. His band includes John Fohl, Cassandra Faulconer, John Gros and Wayne Maureau with guest horns, singers, percussionists and guitarists including Wolfman and June Yamagishi. Carpenter’s creative arrangements make full use of the colors these players bring to his palette, from the Afro-Caribbean groove of “Screeching Halt” to the funk strut of “Don’t Believe It,” but he doesn’t get lost in the process. He gives himself the final statement, a rousing finale on the sizzling jump blues tenor showpiece, “Upswing.”