With the foreknowledge of June’s hard heat bearing down, I write on a gray day several weeks earlier with rain in mind – lots of rain, El Nino’s revenge in the booming thunderstorms unloosed across the southern parishes which made the last Jazz Fest weekend a mud fest out of which stand epiphanies, dry and sweet.
On the second Friday of the festival, with the task of interviewing John Boutté in the pavilion at the Heritage stage, I reached the talent tent with minutes to spare and sat in wonder at Boutté’s falsetto embracing “Southern Nights,” the Allen Toussaint composition.
He sang it with guitarist Todd Duke, just the two of them, strings and his magic voice wafting along like a cloudless day. Toussaint the performer slowly grew into his memory-of-boyhood song after Glen Campbell made it a country pop hit. In later years Allen warmed to the lyrics – “Free as a breeze/ Not to mention the trees/Whistling tunes that you know and love so” – leaning to improvisational stories about the old Creole country folk his parents took him as a boy to visit upriver, inspiring the simple beauty of the song lines.
Boutté finished with a wistful look, murmuring, “I never sang that song before. Not sure why.” In the swoon of a moment, I suggested he and Todd do it as part of the question-and-answer for our set. He nodded. When he sang it again, the applause was contagious.
Boutté Does Toussaint would make a great CD …
That weekend, driving through sunlight pools between the deluge, between the downfall, I played the new CD Comeback Children by Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses. This is about the hottest band in town today, playing Monday nights at the Maison on Frenchmen Street. Nealand’s ranging performance as a singer and instrumentalist is caught in a lush romance with music of the 1920s and ’30s. Her version of “Flee As A Bird,” a song rarely heard outside of churches or the more traditional jazz funerals, is worth the price of the ticket.
The second cut on Comeback Children is a swinging version of the spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” with so much heart as to ignite dancing even by people who usually watch other people’s feet. Across 17 cuts, Nealand leads an 11-piece orchestra, alternating between soprano saxophone, clarinet, piano and vocals. The album includes a spirited French dancehall song, “Toploulou,” with the band in a backup chorus.
Nealand’s romance with the music of Sidney Bechet is impressive for the tenacity, and talent, it takes to play the New Orleans master, as she and the band did in a 2010 live recording.
Le Grand Bechet (as the French called him) played soprano sax and clarinet with equal parts poetry and fire. Little known beyond jazz circles when he decamped from New York to Paris in 1950, he became such a celebrity as to receive a state funeral in ’59. Nealand’s “Petite Fleur” on The Royal Roses: A Tribute to Sidney Bechet has the pining for one’s “little flower of love,” all of a piece with Tom McDermott’s piano. The song summons to mind George Lewis’s “Burgundy Street Blues” in the clarinetist’s fusion of sorrow and sweetness, love and loss.
Michael White had a different take on “‘Tite Fleur” in a mid-April set with visiting Cuban pianist Ernán López-Nussa at the Prime Example on N. Broad Street. White played the melody like a cat creeping toward its desire and López-Nussa, in understated syncopations, kept feeding the cat space for an improvisational swirl.
To see artists like Nealand, White, Boutté and López-Nussa at top form, imbuing the old songs with fresh silver, is to realize how this blue city, an oasis in a beef-red state, regenerates itself through music. As Nealand and White rework the language of New Orleans-Style, the traditional idiom, Boutté’s first-blush intoning of Toussaint’s autobiographical song follows the bridge to rhythm-and-blues.
All this natural wealth, and no nationally syndicated TV program on New Orleans music.