The trumpet has a long and honorable history of festive melodies in standard holiday fare. Embroidering that tradition in a jazz mode is Leroy Jones’ Wonderful Christmas: A Brass Salute to the King of Kings. This CD is a distinctive one-man show. The jazz trumpeter lays out 21 standards with mellifluous grace, backed by himself on the rhythm tracks. This is sentimental music in the best sense, warm with feelings of the finale of a year, songs brimming with joy for the celebrations at hand. There is no vocalist; Jones does a fine job of distilling the melodic essences. Only five songs exceed two minutes, and the longest, “O Holy Night,” at a lean 2:22, has a slowly ascending style of incantation with the tenderness appropriate to a hymn.
Jones’ brevity gives “Good King Wenceslas” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” a nice stamp of portraiture. He gives the tunes a purity that is often lost with the lush horns and syrupy violins that invade radio play lists during the last month of the year. All that repetition on radio. Bah, sheer purgatory.
Jones, who got his start in the concert band at St. Leo the Great and advanced through St. Augustine High School, came of age in the early 1970s as leader of the Hurricane Brass Band, a breakaway group from the Fairview Church band, which was organized by the late Danny Barker. Jones found his chops early.
Jones is one of the more successful jazzmen in New Orleans. He has been a mainstay in Harry Connick Jr.’s big band, performing on “Oprah” and NBC and PBS specials with Connick, as well as “Late Night with David Letterman.” Jones appears on the CD Harry for the Holidays. He also keeps a steady pace of club and concert dates in Europe and many American cities. His Web site (www.satchmo.com, then follow the links to Leroy Jones) reports that Jones and his own band played at the 1996 wedding of “Today” show host Matt Lauer, a nice gig in celebrity world.
Leroy Jones’ Wonderful Christmas is a sterling example of his inventive designs on traditional music. He is one of a handful of local artists who treat New Orleans style as something malleable, a core of material to be extended beyond the standards played in Preservation Hall. With the notable exception of Michael White, not many jazz traditionalists compose new works or engage in experimentation with a tradition by building upon it. The Christmas songs come alive with a poetic sensibility of Jones speaking to himself, trumpet rhythms responding to the trumpet in melody via the magic of overdubbing. He also plays the bells and drums.
In City of Sounds, a 1996 release on Louisiana Red Hot Records, Jones plays with a group of Scandinavian traditionalists in one of the finest recordings of “traditional modern” (I use the term with apologies to detectives of the oxymoron). On that CD, the cut “Waltz for Willie/Dedicated to Willie Humphrey” is a beautiful pearl, the lazy tempo suggesting all the sweetness of an afternoon dance on a riverboat riding the currents in slow-mo toward who knows where. It was written and arranged by Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen, Denmark’s gift to the jazz trombone. The interplay between the composer’s ’bone harmonies, Jones’ dancing melodies and the sweet clarinet lines of Jorgen Svare, also Danish, achieve a masterpiece in miniature.
That said, I have never heard “Waltz for Willie” performed in public. The musicians who came together behind Jones on that recording do not perform with him regularly. As Art Blakey said, once you put a musical idea into the world, the world owns it. Why don’t other groups play “Waltz for Willie”?
Jones released his own homage in a 2002 CD entitled Back to My Roots.
Half of the 12 compositions are the trumpeter’s original pieces. With strong work in the upper register and a bouncing lyricism, Jones roams from a repertoire of standards favored by big band trumpeters, such as “Pennies from Heaven” and “Georgia on my Mind,” to his own impressions on how jazz styles change.
“Rebirth Shuffle” is Jones’ tribute to the most successful of the younger brass bands. ReBirth Brass Band came of age in the late 1980s, by which time Jones was well established. ReBirth’s heavy reliance on section-riffing – horns in hypnotic, circular rhythms, leaving melody an afterthought – would be easy for an artist of Jones’ sophistication to parody. But with Alonzo Bowens on tenor sax and Jeffrey Hills on sousaphone, Jones arranges the tune with a deft touch, using Kerry Hunter on snare and Cayetano Hingle on bass in replicating the ReBirth sound. Jones then goes to work in full, drawing melodic lines that dance around rhythms of the ReBirth sound that many people will recognize. Leroy Jones’ trumpet makes it new.
This article appears in the December 2004 issue of New Orleans Magazine