Even by the standards of New Orleans musicians, pianist/singer Matt Lemmler is wide-ranging. I first became aware of him for his work with the Dukes of Dixieland and Pete Fountain. Not long after that he produced a very well-regarded album of Stevie Wonder tunes. And three years ago, he arranged the music of Kevin Clark in a beautifully nuanced new-age (I can think of no other title) CD, The Awakening of Calm. He spends a lot of time directing ensembles for jazz masses…you get the point.
Stride piano in New York City means the blazing pyrotechnics of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum and others. New Orleans Stride is a slower cousin, a loping rhythm, akin to rag but with an underlying triple-meter feel most associated with James Booker (think “Sunny Side of the Street”) and Pittsburgh’s Erroll Garner.
This medium tempo beat is important here, because after Katrina Matt took up singing. In a city of great pianists, he’s about the only one jazzing the Great American Songbook as a solo pianist/vocalist. He’s got an expressive voice, sometimes straight, often wise-guyish. And his piano playing is always interesting: bluesy, offbeat filigree that is never predictable. I wasn’t surprised to see pianist/singer Dave Frishberg lauding Matt in the liner notes, for they are birds of a feather.
There are lots of standards in this two-CD set; many of them with excavated verses that are rarely heard, always a plus. There’s a clever medley with the ever-dependable Don Vappie of like-sounding tunes: “House of the Rising Sun/ Amazing Grace (in minor)/ I Want Jesus to Walk With Me/ St James Infirmary Blues,” ending in a Brazilian jam—also a version of “If I Only Had a Brain” that incorporates the chords of “Giant Steps” (therefore, “If I Only Had a Trane.”)
And true to his wide-ranging character, there are pop songs: “Desperado”, Randy Newman’s “Same Girl,” “Blackbird,” “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” This is the album I’ve given the most airplay this summer, and I highly recommend it.