“First person: KPLU’s Robin Lloyd tells the story of Dr. John, a 45 and ‘A Losing Battle’

I see my primary care provider once a year.  He shows up at Seattle’s Jazz Alley with his band, the Lower 9-11.  His name is Mac Rebennack, known to the world as Dr. John.

Dr. John, an expert at the kind of “feel good music” that sells out concerts and clubs, is also a deep repository of the history of New Orleans and its musical culture.  His songwriting and producing abilities made him a valuable studio asset in the early days of rhythm and blues in the Crescent City, and he’s still in demand for those skills.

Spending just a few minutes in conversation with him before or after a show is certain to make you feel connected to the entire musical universe.

Photo by Robin Lloyd

Having been at the Alley for opening night on Thursday, I decided to treat myself to a second helping of Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 on closing night.  I brought with me an antique-shop treasure:  a 45-rpm record from New Orleans label Ric Records from 1962, Johnny Adams singing two songs co-written by Mac Rebennack.  I’d fallen deeply in love the first time I heard Johnny Adams sing.  He had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard, and he knew just how to use it.  I’d been meaning to ask Mac about the song, about the co-writer and about the session in general, because the A-side (A Losing Battle) was Johnny Adams’ first appearance on the national charts (I know, I know, but radio geeks like me live for that kind of thing).

I showed the record to Mac, and he uttered an unmistakably New Orleans-style expression of amazement, which is too, um, colorful to include here.  He set me straight on the co-writer of A Losing Battle, but then confided:

“I actually wrote the song with that guy’s girlfriend.  She was showin’ me a stack of love letters that had passed between them, and that’s where I got the idea of fightin’ the losin’ battle, but havin’ so much fun tryin’ to win.”

Hmm…there’s obviously much more to that story.  You dawg, Mac.

Asked about the band on the session, the infamous AFO Studio Combo, he started to reel off names of New Orleans musical royalty, like Battiste, Boudreau, Lastie and so on.

I reminded him that this song he wrote when he was 21 years old had made it to the national charts, and he said, yes, Berry Gordy had wanted to sign Johnny Adams to the Motown label based on this very record.  But a meeting with Mr. Gordy went poorly, then Ric Records threatened legal action, and everyone back home said “there goes Johnny’s career” –and they were pretty much right.  Johnny Adams did some great recordings in Nashville after that, but didn’t really get the national recognition he deserved until Rounder Records started to showcase him in the 1980s.

Photo by Sarah Colt

Overwhelmed by this wealth of information from The Source, I said, “It’s so wonderful that you remember all of this from back in 1962!”  Mac flipped the record over to the B-side, and deadpanned, “What’s this?  I don’t remember s**t about this here song!  Did I write this?”

The good Doctor topped off my annual check-up with a booster shot from the stage, dedicating a great version of Basin Street Blues to me and my friend Sally.  I’m vaccinated and verified, inoculated and indoctrinated for another year.  Thanks, Doc!


Treme in Seattle – A Concert Review

“A Night in Treme” Featuring the Rebirth Brass Band, Donald Harrison, and Glen David Andrews at Jazz Alley in Seattle, September 1-4, 2011.

The musical New Orleans neighborhood of Treme showed up to Jazz Alley last week, featuring the likes of the Rebirth Brass Band, saxophonist Donald Harrison, and trombonist Glen David Andrews.

I attended the opening night sold-out first set at Jazz Alley, and right away it was apparent that the musicians had every intention of turning the club into a Pacific Northwest sliver of New Orleans.

I wasn’t sure how the show would be divided up for the performers ahead of time, but as it turned out the Rebirth Brass Band would be the featured performers throughout, sprinkled with guest appearances by Harrison and Andrews.

The energy that Rebirth brought was immediate and throughout. The seven member band, joking around and wearing street clothes, opened with the Fats Domino Tune I’m Walkin, which took about three seconds to get people out of their seats dancing. Rebirth followed that with three songs very different from each other – Grazin’ in the Grass, the Professor Longhair tune Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and a song they called Mexican Special.

I always find myself concerned when the initial band brings such an intense overload of energy, the special guests who join them mid-concert wont be able to keep that energy up. This was not the case.

Donald Harrison joined Rebirth after four songs, showing exactly why he is Big Chief Donald Harrison. While he went on stage with his sax, he spent the majority of the time on vocals, starting with an emotional and intense Mardi Gras Indian chant before the band joined in with song. When he did play his sax, we were all reminded why he is both a New Orleans musician and a national recording artist, blowing the roof off of the alley with exploding improvisation.

Harrison was followed by Glen David Andrews, who is not only a good New Orleans trombone player, but at 6 foot 4 inches tall, a massive stage presence and performer. Starting his performance from his dressing room, Andrews performed Down in the Treme (written by John Boutte, the theme song for the HBO television show Treme), everywhere from on stage, up the stairway, on the second floor, on tables, and everywhere in between.

With a show featuring as much talent and excitement as this, I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that Glen David Andrews stole the show, but the endless line of people wanting to meet him following the show might suggest that he did.

Seattle needed to have this neighborhood of New Orleans brought to it. It wouldn’t have been right if waiters and waitresses had open walkways to deliver food. Instead the staff fought through the sold out crowd on the first floor, all of which was up on their feet dancing and waving their napkins, needing little encouragement to do so. Seattle not only got a slice of true New Orleans culture, but were given an opportunity to get up, dance, and smile. No doubt many audience members left wondering how soon they could make their next trip to NOLA for more dancing and smiling.

A Tour of Treme with Donald Harrison and Glen David Andrews

Concert Review: Joshua Redman at Jazz Alley 4/9/09

redmanI often make mention that I find tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman the coolest man holding a saxophone these days. Each time our paths cross, I am not only reminded why, but his “coolness” factor only seems to grow exponentially.

Redman was in the same setting as the last time I saw him…just him, bass, and drums. Gregory Hutchinson joined him this time on drums, while Matt Penman played bass.

The band crept on stage behind me while I introduced them, and then Joshua Redman pretended to count off the first tune while I was still talking. I looked over at him, as he smiled wryly as if to suggest humor, but also  quite possibly a reminder that perhaps the audience was there to listen to him play, not to hear me talk. Mixing that thought with my my lack of comfort with standing in front of large crowds, I shortened my introduction and let the audience hear what they payed for.

There is not much debate going into a Joshua Redman concert that it is going to be good. But what surprised me, to a degree, was how artistic not only his playing was, but his new compositions as well.

Redman’s new album is titled Compass, which is worthy of a wonderful review on its own, and many of the songs performed that night were off the new release.

This is not to say that Joshua was not previously artistic, because he was, both live and on recordings. However his performance this time around just seemed to have an additional level of artistry and emotion that I had not previously heard from Redman. Three tunes in particular (Identity Thief, Ghost, and Insomnomaniac) were highlights of this artistry. The trio was in perfect sync, and drummer Hutchinson put it best as he addressed the crowd at the end of a drum solo by saying: “This isn’t exactly what you thought you would hear when you showed up tonight, is it?”

It was, and it wasn’t, but it was all good. It is always wonderful to see one of your favorite artists playing well, but even more exciting to see that they haven’t come close to hitting their ceiling.

Between shows I stuck my head in the dressing room, unsure if I would be bothering the Harvard graduate by saying hello, or if he would even remember me from the other times we had met outside of tonight. He did, asked how I was doing, what I was up to these days, and told me to say hello to my Program Director, who he mentioned by name. That, combined with his performance, completely added to his cool factor. Frankly I hate the word “cool”, but it most certainly should be used to describe someone who defines it.

Concert Review: Branford Marsalis 3/19/09 at Jazz Alley

branford-marsalis1It is rare that I take a vacation, especially a vacation that lasts longer than just a long weekend. For me to have a full week off is virtually unheard of. That being said, I decided that since I was going to take a week of, but was not going to leave town, I needed to make the most of it and fill my days to the brim with local entertainment.

What I began to realize is that sometimes the best form of entertainment during a much needed break can be going to bed early and waking up late. Hosting a midnight to 4 AM radio program combined with a variety of other work responsibilities doesn’t always allow for a normal sleep schedule, so I decided to take more time to find out what that was all about and less time seeking out things to do in the community.

One plan that I wasn’t about to give up in exchange for an early bedtime was emceeing opening night for Branford Marsalis at Jazz Alley in Seattle last Thursday. The only other time that I have seen him live was the last time he performed at the Alley, with his father Ellis playing piano as part of his quartet. While it was nice to see dad join the group, it was rumored that Branford had to hold his playing back a little bit with Ellis, and I definitely wanted to see Branford cut loose with his regular group.

His regular group has not changed over the last ten years, at least on his album recordings. Branford heads up the gang on saxes, while Joey Calderazzo plays piano, Eric Revis is on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. Tain was not present for the concert, but in his place was a baby-faced eighteen year old by the name of Justin Faulkner. In fact it was his eighteenth birthday that night.

If it appeared that Marsalis was picking on Faulkner that night (be it yelling direction in his ear, or making fun of how Faulkner couldn’t play the next song two years ago and we would “see if he could get it right this time”), I didn’t translate it as so. In fact to me it appeared that Branford just wanted to make sure that, in a roundabout way, he was recognized and noticed. It certainly wasn’t needed. While Faulkner wasn’t the best musician in the band, he was certainly a highlight, offering colorful solos and entertaining playing overall.

Marsalis, Revis, and Calderazzo, as you might expect after ten years together, were in perfect sync, and the quartet as a whole kept the room energized for the entire show. Marsalis was articulate and artistic with his solos, but with the exception of directing traffic on stage, he didn’t overshadow any of his quartet members. One could be totally entertained simply watching Joey Calderazzo’s body language on stage, if it weren’t for his overwhelming playing ability. It is also apparent that Calderazzo has taken an active interest in studying classical music, as some of his beautiful ballad writing (take The Blossom of Parting for example) might suggest.

Even without “Tain” Watts, the quartet was evidence of what spending such a considerable amount of time together could produce. The ability to have such a clear understanding of where each musician is headed and how to best support them through sometimes complicated songs, while producing such a wonderful, “together” sound is reason why this quartet might be the best around.

Concert Review: Kenny Garrett Quartet 1/13/08

kenny-garrettI needed to get out. It had been way too long since I had made time for a concert, and truthfully my decision to head to Seattle’s Jazz Alley on Tuesday to see Kenny Garrett was a last-minute decision. Quite often hosting a radio program that airs from midnight until 4 AM can throw a wrench in what can loosely be described as a social life (although I wouldn’t give it up for anything).  That being said, sneaking out to a show on a Tuesday night can typically be out of the question.

But I needed to get out, and I’m glad I did.

I want to say that its been eight or so years since I’ve seen Kenny Garrett live, and eight years ago I still found little appreciation for anyone that wasn’t either a trumpet player or Michael Brecker. As I’ve “matured”, at least musically, one of the things that has become important to me when hearling a modern day jazz musician perform live is that they offer a nice blend of creativity, talent, and something I will refer to as a hypnotic build of intensity.  That doesn’t mean that the music has to be “in-your-face”, or even intense in the general meaning of the word. I just mean that if you are going to tell me a story, have that story build to a point that it is so interesting that I lose track of what else is going on around me.

That is exactly what alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett brought Tuesday night to the Alley. While many jazz musicians feel that they can get away with playing six songs at fifteen minutes each in a ninety minute set, featuring themselves for 85 of those minutes, it often leads to a certain repetitiveness. It’s as if they end up telling the same story over and over, and leaves listeners squirming in their seat forty minutes into the show.

The story was quite contrary on Tuesday. Garrett did indeed fill his set with long songs, but he kept each song so interesting that the set didn’t even warrant the listeners a bathroom break. Each song, no matter how it started, would build…and build…and build…where you felt that if you were to get up at any time, you would certainly be missing the most interesting part of the story.

What made it more interesting was that Garrett’s solos would begin rather intense, making you wonder where he might go from there. But not only did he manage to build off of where he started, but it was as if he wasn’t even trying, which made it more impressive. Its no wonder why Garrett has to rank in the top three living alto players. His band (consisting of Kona Khasu (bass) Corey Henry (organ) and Justin Brown (drums)) not only had no issues keeping up with Garrett, but truly completed the concert. They were totally in sync, with Brown on drums especially impressive.

I needed to get out, and I’m glad I did. I need to do it more often, and I need to buy a new Kenny Garrett CD.

Watch a video below of Kenny Garrett live in Paris with Miles Davis: