Treme does such a wonderful job representing New Orleans music I find it odd when the music story line hits a clam, but there were bum notes all through last night’s episode (titled “Don’t Leave Me Here”). Going back to season one, I thought the storyline pitting New Orleans jazz against New York jazz was corny and unconvincing. This is 2008 we’re talking about, and serious musicians have long since stopped making jazz critic-type distinctions between genres. Jazz musicians go back and forth between New Orleans and New York like cardinals flying from yard to yard and they all know what makes New Orleans jazz matter. For teleplay writer Tom Piazza of all people to be penning an episode about Antoine Batiste desperately trying to play like J.J. Johnson is a cruel joke. First of all, the distinction later made in the episode by Delmond Lambreaux between New Orleans jazz as something you twirl your umbrella to and something called “modern jazz” that is more serious is a red herring to begin with. “Modern jazz,” as represented in this episode by Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy, is about as “modern” as a ’57 Chevy. In fact by virtue of both timeline considerations and the acoustic nature of the music, “modern” jazz and traditional New Orleans jazz are far more closely related than anything young jazz players are doing today.
There are plenty of traditional jazz musicians in New Orleans who play just that because it’s the music they want to play. There are just as many who can do a trad jazz gig one night, a bop gig the next and a session of new improvisational music the night after. I’ve been watching Treme at Buffa’s, a really great experience which I highly recommend. Before each show local musicians featured in Treme perform. Last night it was pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist Aurora Nealand. Nealand is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. She is a superb traditional New Orleans jazz player who’s recorded a tribute to one of the masters of that genre, Sidney Bechet, but I’ve seen her in duets with new music cellist Helen Gillet where she plays inspired post-Ornette Coleman abstractions, unfettered by any critical niche. So this storyline is bogus, I’m sorry to say.
As usual the music itself is on magnificent display. Annie Tee, whom I have issues with as a singer and bandleader, is superb playing violin on a session with Sonny Landreth. And it’s becoming clear what’s going to go wrong with her too-good-to-be-true manager, played by Michael Cerveris. He wants her to take credit for songs she didn’t write. And then he’ll go after her publishing.
The storyline I do find riveting in season three is the relationship between Chief Lambreaux and LaDonna, two apparently doomed characters who in their own lives represent the fragile soul of a city under siege. Albert, who literally plays the guardian of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in the Treme storyline, is puking his guts out from his cancer chemotherapy; LaDonna, the free spirit whose tough independence and flirtatious beauty represent the part of New Orleans that always whistled past the graveyard, is being psychologically tortured by her rapists. We know the outcome of these stories without spoilers. Chief’s life, if he survives, will never be the same. LaDonna will be forced to live with the terror being inflicted on her no matter the outcome of her court case. Somehow their star-crossed circumstances pull these unlikely lovers together and they light up the night with their smoldering passion, all the more brilliant for its slow, unrequited burn. And even though they’ve never even kissed they are clearly involved in the kind of platonic romance that makes great fiction. He’s too old for her, of course, but that doesn’t stop her from being drawn to him. And he is no crowing Professor from der blaue Engel; he gets Bogart-level lines of stoic acceptance and wisdom. Earlier this year my favorite was when he told her, “You’re all woman…” pausing to add, “but you’re no Indian.” This time he says something right out of Casablanca. They’re sitting at the table when she gets the menacing call from the rapist. She tries to shake it off but he knows her soul by looking at her. And he gives her the advice about bullies that has been handed out since civilization began:
“You’ve got to show ’em you’re not afraid.”
LaDonna, of course, has a quick retort:
“That’s easy for you to say.”
And that’s when Chief gets the Bogart line, the three words that carry a lifetime of meaning:
“No, it isn’t.”
— John Swenson