Meditations on Lush

Lush is one of those words that floats through the collective mental plates as a cloud of many meanings. Consulting the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (50th anniversary edition) reveals that lush can mean “covered with abundant growth,” which is evocative of New Orleans with its sprawling floribunda in green spaces and jungles that now cloak dead houses. (Look, it’s Mayor Nagin in full khaki with a butterfly net!) Lush as a noun is defined as a “habitual drinker.” Lush Life is the title of a biography of songwriter Billy Strayhorn who lived his music.

Lush has yet another connotation as the shorter version of luxuriant, which is to say “growing abundantly … florid, exuberant, lavish, opulent.” T.S. Eliot, that perennial optimist, called April “the cruelest month.” But he lived in London. Here, April is the lushest month – all that rain and the heat not yet as thick as steam – the perfect month for the new CD, Irvin Mayfield and Ellis Marsalis: Love Songs, Ballads and Standards, courtesy of Basin Street Records. This is lush music in all its splendor.

Everyone thinks of Paul McCartney singing when you hear his ballad, “Yesterday,” which puts the challenge to an instrumental version. Mayfield meets it nicely with a roaming melody and long notes that waft along like cotton wisps across a cobalt sky.
This production reeks of romance, which we expect of a CD this lush. Ten of the cuts were recorded in 2004 – the old world, before the flood; the master tapes were lost in the water but Mayfield had the original mixes on his iPod. Half of those salvaged masters – among them, “Yesterday,” “My One and Only Love,” a sinuous version of Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It On the Sun” and Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Shine” were recorded at the New Orleans Museum of Art, with acoustical space on a grand scale.

For all of Ellis Marsalis’ improvisational skills and sense of organic unity in the jazz ensemble, the quality that most deeply marks his work, in both concert and recordings, is tone – a tone of ringing clarity that in romantic ballads resonates cool elegance. On Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Marsalis walks the opening chords with unhurried resonance, the sensation of moody wandering mixed with Mayfield’s lines of sad sweetness, like love and melancholy wrapped tightly in a waltz that makes an impression upon your memory bank.

“Round Midnight” is one of four cuts recorded at Piety Street, the stellar studio in the Upper 9th Ward that, with the Music Shed, has been a catalyst in the slow recovery of the music industry. In a liner note, Mayfield singles out Steve Reynolds for credit on the mix: his “engineering and mastery of science is unmatched.” Parker Dinkins did the digital mastering work. It’s good to see these professionals, and Mark Samuels of Basin Street who produced the disc with Mayfield, back at their game. So much of the infrastructure destroyed by Katrina’s floodwaters hasn’t come back – notably, Ultrasonic Studio, which was wrecked by high spillage from the canal along Washington Avenue opposite Xavier University. So much destruction sent studio professionals scattering. People with skills in demand will land on their feet but the businesses they built or which employed them take much longer to revive.

As the Jazz and Heritage Festival approaches, the Mayfield-Marsalis collaboration signals a return to lush, long overdue.

The veteran Preservation Hall trumpeter John Brunious Jr., died in February at 67. A stalwart of New Orleans style, Brunious was the son of a traditional jazzman who did arrangement work for many artists. He lost most of his instruments in the flood, evacuated when the water drove him to and ended up in Arkansas where a sympathetic music store owner gave him a trumpet. Form New York, Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall band provided a ticket that got him to Manhattan for a telethon the week after Katrina.

Preservation Hall’s Made in New Orleans boxed set includes memorabilia and the two-CD collection subtitled The Hurricane Sessions. These include Brunious’ honeyed baritone vocals on “Apple Tree,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “Sugar Blues,” “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well” and “Last Chance to Dance.”

As this issue went to press, Dr. Michael White was working on the mix for his first CD since Katrina. At a Contemporary Arts Center concert in late February, White previewed two songs among the compositions he wrote during a December residency at Studio in the Woods. “Sunday Morning,” as sung by trumpeter Gregg Stafford, seems destined for a permanent place in the traditional repertoire, another sign of resurrection in a city searching for lushness.

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