At this year’s James Booker tribute during the Best of the Beat awards, Tom McDermott turned in what I thought was the most convincing performance of all the talented pianists. Rather than stress his mastery of Booker’s prodigious technique, McDermott personalized his section of the tribute, offering listeners a sense of what drew him to New Orleans music in the first place.
McDermott’s performance was an act of modest love, not an attention grabbing device. His self-effacing nature is striking in a town of noted musical extroverts, and that diffident approach is exactly the reason why his latest album, Duets, is so effective. In 21 exchanges with New Orleans musicians from Louis Armstrong to John Boutte, McDermott covers the waterfront and then some in an orgy of styles, an act that would seem gluttonous in the hands of a more boastful musical personality. But through it all, McDermott refuses to call attention to himself, using his encyclopedic talents in service of the myriad of musical genres presented, a waiter at his own banquet.
And while several of McDermott’s partners on this project are obvious choices, most of them aren’t, creating an atmosphere of constant surprise as the record spins along with the pace of a theatrical revue. Most of the compositions are McDermott’s, ranging from the Brazilian choro of “Irresistival,” with clarinetist Evan Christopher, to the stately classical pieces “Opulence” with Aurora Nealand and “Leyla’s Lullaby” with cellist Helen Gillet. McDermott can write an adept piece of social criticism, a quality represented by both the sports-is-war song “Sportsman’s Paradise,” delivered perfectly by Anders Osborne, and the deceptively simple “I Don’t Want Nuthin’ for Christmas,” with John Fohl singing and playing guitar.
McDermott is a great accompanist to vocalists, a talent much in evidence on the beautifully straightforward reading of “These Foolish Things” with Judith Owen, “Our Love Rolls On” with Topsy Chapman, and his own compositions “That’s What I Saw at the Mardi Gras” with Debbie Davis and “To Kill Our Brothers Now” with Cindy Scott. The greatest of these moments, though, is the duet with John Boutte on Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.” I’ve often felt Cooke’s spirit in the room while listening to Boutte, and here McDermott captures that genie in a bottle.
McDermott has explored the connections between different branches of the African diaspora, work that is reflected in the amazing reconfiguration of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Manchega” with percussionist Michael Skinkus and another experiment in Brazilian music, “Conversa De Botequim,” with drummer/vocalist Eduardo Tozzatto.
There seems to be no limits to McDermott’s musical imagination. His duet with sousaphonist Matt Perrine on “The Stars and Stripes Forever” adds qualities of humor and variation to revive a composition that has been wrung dry over the years. Similarly, his deconstruction of “Blueberry Hill” with African percussionist Seguenon Kone transforms a familiar tune into something novel, but still essentially New Orleans. Accompanying Jelly Roll Morton’s a cappella track from the Library of Congress sessions, “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ No More,” is a clever idea, but the mash-up of trumpet and vocal riffs from Louis Armstrong’s 1920s recordings, “Some Satchmo Sampling,” is the kind of discovery that wins Nobel prizes. Armstrong in this setting is completely contemporary; after hearing this track, it’s easy to imagine him featured on a future Lil Wayne release.