On Nov. 26, 2010, a young musician of experimental designs unpacked her soprano saxophone for a recording at Preservation Hall. Her band had six other instrumentalists and two guest artists for one song. With a sound engineer, she culled 16 tracks into A Tribute to Sidney Bechet: Live in New Orleans by Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses.
Nealand grew up in the 1980s in the California town of Half Moon Bay, listening to her parents’ Preservation Hall recordings. Dad was an archivist, Mom a gardener who played piano. The youngest of five, Aurora had no music lessons until high school, “but we always had a few instruments to bang on. Piano was my first instrument. Then I played flute and oboe. It was a small town – only one marching band.
My brother played guitar in a rock band. I hung around him a lot.”
Bechet, a totemic force of early jazz, traveled far from his New Orleans roots, settling in Paris in 1951 where he became so lionized that the French gave him a state funeral in ’59. A burly man, primarily self-taught, Bechet was one of the great New Orleans-Style progenitors of soprano sax and clarinet.
“Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” the sixth cut on this grand album, is a slow-tempo song of tenderness that could double as a lullaby. One challenge of playing an upper-register saxophone is that the high notes, if you miss the mark, can easily screech. Nealand issues a flowing stream to reach the right places. As the folk singer Spencer Bohren, with whom she has performed, opines: “The soprano sax is difficult for many people to listen to because it tends not to be warm and inviting; Aurora makes one powerless to resist hearing it. She’s such a hot player, when you add her to a band it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. Moreover, she’s humble, which I love. She has no idea how good she is. She’s filled with a certain grace that a lot of musicians don’t have.”
Nealand calls the soprano “kind of a hybrid between trumpet and clarinet in terms of tone.” She handles the bluesy waltz “Petite Fleur” with enough of a rasp to convey the sorrow sough of a lover-wanting-lover (the heart is unfair) undergirded by the superb piano work synonymous with Tom McDermott. Aubrey Freeman on stand-up bass gives Nealand ample room to roam.
Covering the music of Bechet, whether his compositions or those of others on which he put his peerless stamp, is demanding because his instrumental attack was overpowering. Bechet had a raw locomotive energy on the up-tempo pieces, and an intensity so nimble that he could shift from the hot swings to the sweetest lyrical streams – as on “Petite Fleur.” He had range like you read about. To call Nealand audacious for taking on Bechet may be a stretch, as any number of reed players have paid homage to le grand Sidney; I don’t know if she is the first female jazz artist to do so. Aurora Nealand does a stand-up job on the The Royal Roses with a band that swings in all the right places. Although the vocal tracks could have been better amplified, a live-at-Preservation Hall (or anywhere) album runs the risk of any in situ recording.
Nealand’s journey to a live record on Sidney Bechet was years in coming.
At Oberlin College she studied anthropology and music composition, though not in the fabled college conservatory. “I did a lot of playwriting in college,” she says, “and really got interested in multimedia. I did a big piece my final year, working four hours every night, writing music.”
After graduation in 2002 she headed to Paris, and L‘École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. Perhaps the most famous recent graduate is Julie Taymor, who did the puppeteer work on the Broadway play The Lion King. Although Nealand found a milieu rich in collaborators, Paris was no longer a thriving culture of the avant-garde. “It felt like Paris was kind of dated. I thought school would push me forward and get me into Europe. Instead I came back to the U.S., a little lost lamb, and bicycled cross-country.” She arrived in New Orleans in late 2004, working on a portfolio in music composition, but after a week in graduate school at University of Texas in ’06 she high-tailed it back to New Orleans, which, she realized, had the avant-garde culture she wanted. She soon was immersed in Bechet.
Nealand also works on clarinet and accordion. She plays with the Panorama Jazz Band, often sits in with Bohren and is a fixture at the Blue Nile Tuesday night experimental musicians’ jam, whose ranks include Jeff Albert, Helen Gillet, Simon Lott and Justin Peate.
She paid $1,300 to produce A Tribute to Sidney Bechet: Live in New Orleans by Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses. There is only one Bechet; he belongs to the universe. There is only one Aurora Nealand – universe, watch out.
“I can remember when I was young. I didn’t have toys like others. I never had a toy to play with. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a toy if you gave me one. … That boy, he had this song about being lonely, and as soon as he had the song, he wasn’t lonely any more. He was lucky. He was real well off; he had this thing he could trust, and so he could trust himself.”
– Sidney Bechet, Treat It Gentle
A shout-out for the band in the recording. Along with the aforementioned McDermott and Freeman, Nealand has David Boswell doing stellar trumpet work; Charlie Halloran on trombone; guitarist Matthew Bell; drummer Mike Voelker; and on the final cut – a medley, “Darkness on the Delta” and “Really the Blues” – the guest artists are Mikey Hart on guitar and vocals and Don Godwin on tuba.