The Beat Goes On
The irrepressible New Orleans rhythm continues to surface in new ways
By Michael McCall
FEBRUARY 7, 2000: Think of New Orleans, and an exuberant sound fills the mind. Jaunty and syncopated, the music of the Crescent City is as distinctive as the city's cuisine. Experts trace the sound to two interlocking origins: Dixieland jazz and the parade bands that have strutted down the city's streets for more than a century.
The street bands especially convey the city's identity as a center of joy and rhythm, and it's from these freewheeling players that the term "second line" is derived. A particular kind of off-beat rhythm that instantly makes the backbone slip, second line originated from the mass of hometown folks who would gather behind the parade bands, banging on sticks, garbage-can lids, tambourines, or any percussive instrument they could find to add extra emphasis to the Dixieland jive of the brass-heavy instrumentalists.
The impromptu percussionists who strutted behind the parade band earned the name "second line" because of their position in the procession. Eventually, though, the second-line players started to precede the brass-and-drum section, so that listeners heard and felt the syncopated bounce of the rhythm before the horns added their accents.
As jazz, R&B, and rock 'n' roll emerged from New Orleans, groundbreaking drummers like Earl Palmer and Charles Williams, as well as pianists like Professor Longhair, Huey Smith, and Fats Domino brought the second-line rhythm to more formally structured songs. In the delightful biography Backbeat: The Earl Palmer Story, the musician explained to writer Tony Scherman how he added an extra beat to conventional R&B drum patterns to create the distinctly funky, New Orleans rhythm.
Today, it's that off-step rhythm that defines Crescent City music. But what's amazing is how many ways the rhythm can be used. For instance, the young rock-funk band Galactic and 91-year-old jazz-swing fiddler Claude Williams would seem to have little in common. Listen closely, however, and what drives the latest albums by these two diverse performers is a substantial New Orleans influence.
Galactic consists of six young New Orleans musicians--drummer Stanton Moore, bassist Robert Mercurio, saxophonists Ben Ellman and Jason Mingledorff, guitarist Jeff Raines, and organist Rich Vogel--along with veteran R&B singer Theryl deClouet. Though loosely described as a "jam band," Galactic is crisper and funkier than most of the groups who fall under that banner. Not only have they gathered a large following among frat boys and young Deadheads, they've also gained a convincing following in their hometown, where whitewashed funk and lazy, formless jamming won't be tolerated for long.
The band's new album, due in April, finds the musicians collaborating with producer Nick Sansano, who has worked with Public Enemy and Sonic Youth. In other words, they'll be pushing into new territory, something that should be evident when they perform Thursday at 328 Performance Hall. Live, they'll also likely be serving up the greasy grooves that powered their 1998 album, Crazyhorse Mongoose. On occasion, the band stretches out into a prolonged jam, usually with keyboardist Vogel taking the extensive solos. But most of the music keeps a tight focus, with the horns, guitar, and organ stepping out for brief leads while the rest of the band keeps the tempo lean and simmering.
In other words, Galactic plays a muscular, playful funk that builds on the work of such New Orleans legends as The Meters and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The prominence of the organ also betrays other influences, including the groove-powered jazz of Jimmy Smith and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Galactic doesn't own the proficiency of those masterful players, but the group's brash compositions and crisp taste make them more musically solid than Gran Torino, All That, and other young, funk-driven combos.
Fiddler Claude Williams is just the opposite of Galactic. Not only is he decades older than the members of this relatively youthful septet, he plays a loose, sweet 'n' easy style of swing music. He isn't even from New Orleans--his relaxed rhythm and full-toned melodies reflect his coming of age in his hometown of Kansas City at the height of the swing era. But part of what makes his new Swingin' the Blues album so enjoyable is the support he receives from a small combo of New Orleans jazz musicians.
The session includes the remarkable pianist Henry Butler, whose deft touch provides the album with its hint of second-line flavor. Meanwhile, the musical director is bassist Keter Betts, a New Orleans veteran who backed vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington for many years. Jazz fans also might recognize Betts as the bassist who helped put the groove in a couple of landmark Bossa Nova albums, Stan Getz's Jazz Samba and the Getz/Gilberto collection. He also played with Brazilian musician Antonio Carlos Jobim on the classic "The Girl From Ipanema."
Williams' fiddle playing no longer owns the rich intonation it once carried. But his distinctive musical style, which combines the gruff Southern flair of Snuff Smith and the full-toned beauty of Stephane Grappelli, shines throughout this series of standards, which include "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "These Foolish Things," "Moten Swing," "I'm Just a Lucky So and So," and a swing version of Horace Silver's funk masterpiece, "The Preacher." The album's highlight is a sumptuous take of Benny Goodman's "A Smooth One," with Bobby Watson providing Benny Carter-styled alto sax on the tune.
Williams' story has a poignant human element: He played violin and guitar in such classic Kansas City swing bands as Oscar Pettiford's group and Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy. In 1934, he joined an early version of the famed Count Basie Orchestra. He followed Basie to New York and recorded with him from 1934 to 1936. He was dismissed from the ensemble, however, when record producer John Hammond persuaded Basie to replace the fiddler with a guitarist, Freddie Green.
Williams worked in relative obscurity for decades, largely in Kansas City. He can be heard on some recordings by Roy Milton in the 1950s, but he didn't earn any recognition until the 1970s, when his work shined on some acclaimed Jay McShann albums. Since then, Williams has occasionally recorded his own albums, the best of which is his 1994 release, Swingtime in New York. He also appeared with Ruth Brown and other R&B and jazz stars in the successful Broadway musical Black and Blue.
At his advanced age, Williams' touch isn't as graceful as it once was. Still, on Swingin' the Blues, his authoritative musicality inspires the other musicians to rise to his level of taste. It makes for a document of distinctively American music that's well worth hearing.
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