Singing Memory Lines

“Treme” and the Classic Jazz Trio

As the episodes unroll on “Treme,” the HBO series about New Orleans after the flood, music winds through the plot like a mental soundtrack to the characters’ lives. John Boutte sings his eponymous title lyric that opens each installment with a funky second-line swing. The melodies and song lines that producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer arrange through the episodes convey music-as-memory, with all the force and complexity that memory, an ever-shifting phenomenon, entails.

In the third episode, a studio scene has musicians recording a Mardi Gras Indian song with Dr. John. The gravel-throated grand master of R&B turns to the trumpeter, the son of the Big Chief who, in the course of rebuilding his place, nearly killed a guy who tried to steal his tools. We viewers know this as back-story, unknown to the musicians, when Dr. John says he wants to make sure the trumpeter’s daddy won’t get some “mentalism” about the borrowing of a street song for a reworking in the studio.

That is a keen verbal riff from Mac Rebennack, his own chief of argot: mentalism. The back half of fundamentalism. Standing on its own, in a well-lit studio, mentalism registers mentality in trouble, the potential for bad blood if the chief thinks his song, his memory, has been hijacked. No problem, says the Big Chief’s son. He has his own job to do.

“Memory was not something that overflowed or got shoehorned,” Carlos Fuentes meditates in the novel Inez. “It was something that was distilled, transformed, with each new experience.” [italics author’s own]
And so it goes with the storyline of “Treme” – characters trying to reconcile the world that was with the cruel reality faced in the months following Hurricane Katrina. Music is the bridge across trauma in the TV series. When Davis McAlary, the messy, charming, counter-cultural deejay (portrayed by Steve Zahn), gives a piano lesson to the teenage daughter of Creighton Bernette (portrayed by John Goodman) – the Tulane professor enraged at government incompetence – the song she learns is “Tipitina.” This is Professor Longhair’s classic, a song of good times past to Bernette sitting on the porch. But as McAlary leaves, big daddy scowls, letting the piano boy know that his little girl isn’t on a career track to play “Tipitina” in some band. It is a priceless moment of paternal protection and the elastic meaning of music between two guys who might otherwise have a moment of male bonding.

The beauty of music as a language to be “transformed with each new experience” is on full display in The Classic Jazz Trio, a new album featuring guitarist John Rankin and clarinetists Tommy Sancton and Tom Fischer. Rankin’s string work flows like a river loosening up the tributaries to simulate the piano in one song, the standup bass in another. On an ethereal version of “Mardi Gras Mambo,” Sancton and Fischer unspool the melody with sinuous lines that meld with Rankin’s ground beat so smoothly that the listener won’t miss the lyrics. In reworking the Carnival anthem of 1954 as an instrumental, the Classic Jazz Trio distills the memory into a sweet piece of something new.

Rankin performs a delightful rendition of “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” pumping the tempo a tad in singing of poor Henry who, “won’t eat no meat.” In taking the version composed and recorded by the dearly departed Danny Barker, Rankin is tampering with the memory of arguably the most charming ham New Orleans ever produced.

Well, at least since the town had electricity. Barker, with the comic voice of a brassy bard, used the wordless spaces when his guitar thrummed to great effect, building tension and drawing you into that ballad of a table banquet and whether Henry (a vegetarian) will ever get to eat. Rankin is focused on the flow of words, balancing his voice and strings with the harmonizing clarinets, creating a different persona for the singer. (Who would ever try to compete with Danny Barker?) If Barker came off as the satirizing cook in the kitchen, laughing at poor Henry, Rankin presents in the fashion of a sympathetic waiter, wondering if we can rustle up a plate back there so Henry gets to eat something other than the bones.

Dr. John’s “mentalism” – not wanting to offend the Big Chief by using an Injun song – finds its opposite face in the swinging reverence that Sancton, Fischer and Rankin pour into church songs “Bye and Bye” and “Just A Little While to Stay Here.” The Classic Jazz Trio is a gem. New Orleans-Style is a world of melody that makes people dance in a town where music is a continuing performance of memory.

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