Several months ago at writer Michael Tisserand’s invitation, I parked myself at a table of Buffa’s Bar on Esplanade Avenue, a gateway to the Marigny, and watched a silent movie starring Buster Keaton and a train. Music was provided on the spot by the keyboard magician Tom McDermott and his musical sidekick, Aurora Nealand, who plays soprano sax among other instruments.
The evening was a throwback to simpler times (before my birth and most of yours’) when films were silent and musicians played in orchestra pits as part of the show, or in Buffa’s case, on a side corner of the stage. After the screen went dark, McDermott and Nealand played on.
“We sometimes make $300 a night from CD sales at Buffa’s,” McDermott reflected in late May, with Nealand off for a residency. They reunite July 1 at Lincoln Center in New York City for a swing dance with Nealand’s band, the Royal Roses. There will be no Buffa’s gigs until September.
Watching two musicians of such talent for no cover (Buffa’s also serves food) is an anchoring reminder that despite crime, rising rents and real estate prices in this town that keeps reinventing itself, a bohemian culture is still pretty strong. If we ever lose that Bohemia the city will veer toward being antiseptic. The outside-of-time milieu that drew Tennessee Williams to these parts has had a magnetic pull on McDermott, Nealand and others in the flourishing community of musicians steeped in traditional music, like Helen Gilet, a Belgian, and locals such as Harry Hardin. This resurgent movement of New Orleans-Style jazz has its innovators adding new improvisational layers. Many of these musicians are drawn to traditional jazz as a root sound, something to build on, from outposts beyond the local brass band culture.
Nealand grew up in California; McDermott in St. Louis. His range as a pianist and collector of rhythms, from ragtime, boogie-woogie and tango to Brazilian and Afro-Cubano, occupies a rare level of artistry and puts McDermott in the line of New Orleans piano players that stretches back from Allen Toussaint to James Booker, Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton.
Nealand has her own way of redefining a “skill set.” I am not aware of anyone else in New Orleans as immersed in the music of Sidney Bechet. Her CD A Tribute to Sidney Bechet showcases the Royal Roses; she plays soprano sax and clarinet with all the swinging fire that makes Bechet so special – and difficult to play.
Nealand stretched out beautifully on a follow-up CD, The Lookback Transmission, with an opening song, “Ferry Man” about a ride across the river to “golden fields.” One could put a song like this in a canon of New Orleans traditional jazz, but it fits just as neatly as a work of popular music, too. The challenge is getting what we used to call airplay by generating impact via the Internet, hoping to hit into a radio dial, finding a distribution mechanism to beat Thursday night sales at Buffa’s.
City of Timbres, the new Nealand-McDermott CD, is a gem. McDermott is fluent on the blues standard, “Make Me A Pallet on the Floor,” which Nealand endows with a voice equal parts sultry and sweet. Her take on “Moanin’ Low,” the cry of a lady mistreated, is full of exuberance. Every time I hear Aurora sing I remind myself that this same woman channels Bechet on soprano sax.
This disc includes vocalist Sarah Quintana in French on a rendition of “La Nouvelle Orleans,” a Hoagy Carmichael composition about the city no longer stamped with its French name of origin. Quintana does a beautiful job of massaging the melody with Nealand on the accordion. In McDermott’s enchantment with choro music of Brazil and Cuban Habañera, he moves easily into “La Ultima Noche Que Pasé Contigo” (Last Night Spent with You),
a sweet duet with Nealand.
Why some enterprising hotelier doesn’t hire these two for a showcase of mutual benefit is beyond me, but they’ll always have Buffa’s.