Crescent City snapshots

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A recent trip to New Orleans provided me the opportunity to bask in several facets of jazz. When possible, I took video footage to preserve a few choice moments.

My first night in the Big Easy, I stopped in at the legendary Preservation Hall. With its intentionally rough-hewn interior, stepping inside was like visiting a living history farm. The Hall has been a tourist destination for half a century, but don’t let that keep you away. Sure, this may be the only live jazz most people will hear for the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth experiencing. The setlist stuck to pre-war standards, but they were delivered with plenty of fun and energy. The venue’s name is apt. The arrangements aren’t groundbreaking, but the Preservation Hall band is keeping a sound alive that may otherwise have been forgotten. Unfortunately, no audio or video is allowed.

Located on Bourbon Street a few blocks from Preservation Hall (and near Skully’s, a great record store), Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub draws on the same era, but from a different perspective. If Preservation Hall celebrates the Sidney Bechet of New Orleans, Fritzel’s commemorates the European Bechet. In fact, thanks to an audience request, the band leader treated the crowd to a great version of Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” The 1959 hit isn’t the easiest song to master, but the clarinet player blew effortlessly. I was able to take a little video to capture the atmosphere in Fritzel’s.

After two days in the French Quarter, I had had enough. The tourist trap may be fine for less-seasoned travelers, but I quickly discovered Frenchmen Street was where the locals partied, The corridor featured many fine clubs within the space of a few blocks, including Snug Harbor, the Apple Barrel and my destination for the next two nights, the Blue Nile and d.b.a.

Kermit Ruffins has enough of a following that he can play nearly every night of the week. Locals now have to share Ruffins with tourists (like me) thanks to his appearances on “Treme.” The two-hour set was filled with standards like “What a Wonderful World” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which Ruffins managed to freshen up without offending purists. An entertainer and trumpet player from the Satchmo school, Ruffins was determined to make everyone in room smile and get on their feet. The best moment arrived after an intermission, when the house PA’s version of Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Ya” faded into a live version, with Ruffin’s delivering a blistering post-Katrina rhyme. Here is some footage I shot of Ruffin infusing the Black Eyed Peas with some much-needed zydeco.

On my final night in NOLA, I returned to Frenchmen Street to witness Rebirth Brass Band at d.b.a. There are a myriad of great brass bands in the Crescent City, but Rebirth may be the only one that can boast a parental advisory rating in its catalog. The eight-piece unit mixes funk and hip hop into the traditional brass band sound. The stifling heat in the small room couldn’t keep the crowd from dancing, and the band seemed to be having the most fun. Here’s a bit of Rebirth’s tribute to another native son, Fats Domino.

Keep reading:

On the Streets of Philadelphia

A Capitol Fourth

A tour of KC’s Women in Jazz


Six Songs of Spring

(Above: “April In Paris” brought spring to many parts of the world whenever it was played. Few did it finer than the Count Basie Orchestra.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Spring arrived on the calendar several weeks ago, but Mother Nature didn’t get the memo until recently. The half dozen songs that follow don’t explicitly mention chirping birds, budding flowers, sun dresses and deck parties, but they certainly conjure the feeling.

“Starting a New Life” – Van Morrison

Van the Man throws off the shackles of winter in the jubilant first verse of this song:

“When I hear that robin sing,
Well I know it’s coming on spring,
Ooo-we, and we’re starting a new life.”

In a little more than two minutes, Morrison and his buoyant country/folk melody captures the romance of the season and the essence of why so many couples get married in the spring.

“Starting a New Life” was one of the first songs Morrison wrote after relocating from Woodstock, N.Y. to just north of San Francisco. Although the move wasn’t his idea, he was clearly relishing his new surroundings.

“Satchel Paige Said” – The Baseball Project

For many fans of the nation’s pastime, spring doesn’t arrive until Opening Day. Wind chill and even snow are mentally eliminated once the boys of summer line up along the base paths.

Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey of the Minus Five and Young Fresh Fellows teamed up in 2008 under the name “The Baseball Project” and cut 13 tributes to their favorite sport.

“Satchel Paige Said” sounds like an outtake from Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever.” McCaughey’s lyrics draw on elements of Paige’s biography and his famous advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

“Radio Head” – Talking Heads

Generation X is littered with great bands that take themselves too seriously. Perhaps the only common element shared by Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins is that neither band wants to provide its audience with the opportunity to laugh.

But the biggest and most serious of all Gen X bands is Radiohead. Which makes it even more delightful that they titled their first album after a Jerky Boys gag and named themselves after this supremely silly Talking Heads track.

But even if the English quintet had chosen another moniker, “Radio Head” would deserve a footnote in music history. David Byrne’s song about a man who can pick up radio transmissions with his noggin is set to a poppy zydeco rhythm that makes it the perfect song for that first spring car ride with the windows rolled all the way down and the stereo turned all the way up.

“Bowtie” – Outkast

Once the temperature swells, the unshapely layers of winter clothing are shed. And when the flimsy summer apparel is donned, it’s time to strut. Urban radio stations bank on this transition, building their warm-weather playlists around the singles designed maximize swagger.

The funky horns on this cut from Big Boi’s half of “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” will make any stroll seem like a parade. The hip hop equivalent of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” this track exudes more than enough confidence to turn a timid Romeo into a pimp daddy for one night.

“April, Come She Will” – Simon and Garfunkel

Ah, the fickle fancy of spring flings. On “April, Come She Will,” Paul Simon uses the changing seasons as a metaphor for a girl’s elusive affection following a brief affair. Thematically, the romantic longing of “April” was echoed on “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.” Both songs hover around the two minute mark. The economy of Simon’s lyrics and arrangements and the power of Art Garfunkel’s vocals make both songs potent vignettes.

Although it was written three years before the film, “April, Come She Will” is used to great effect in “The Graduate” as Benjamin Braddock chases the heart of Elaine Robinson.

“Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers”

You don’t have to be an English major to see the metaphor in the title song from Bialystock and Bloom’s failed musical. As chorus girls parade around in beer stein bustiers, and pretzel tassels, the faux fuhrer solemnly intones: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Autumn for Poland and France.” Any remaining sensibilities are purged when storm troopers in a Busby Berkeley-style dance form a swirling swastika.

The coup de tat that saves the song from being an anti-Semitic nightmare comes from the fact that Mel Brooks, a Jew who fought the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, gleefully wrote all the lyrics to this brilliant satire. (That’s his overdubbed voice delivering the line “don’t be stupid, be a smarty/come and join the Nazi party.”)

Buckwheat Brings It Back Home

Buckwheat Zydeco

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

After a 20-year estrangement, Stanley Dural Jr. is returning to his first love: the Hammond B-3 organ.
But fans of the man otherwise known as Buckwheat Zydeco needn’t worry. He has found a way to reconcile the differences between his main squeeze, the accordion, and the B3.
“When I was playing the accordion originally I had the organ onstage with me,” Dural said. “I had the tendency to run from the accordion to the organ, but it was cutting into my time with the accordion, so I took it off the stage.”
Dural will bring a road-size version of the B3 with him at Knucklehead’s Saloon on Wednesday, continuing a reunion that began when he used it on some tracks for his first studio album in eight years, “Jackpot!”
“If I was going to use it in the studio, it wouldn’t be fair to if people didn’t hear it on stage,” Dural said. “I’ve always had a keyboard but it was a simple one. I couldn’t fully express myself on it. Now I Can, and the fans are loving it.”
Dural’s B3 playing is featured on the album’s 18-minute trilogy, “Encore: Featuring Organic Buckwheat,” which includes a slow blues and a jazz tribute to Jimmy Smith. This might seem like a stretch from zydeco’s traditional territory, but from a man who has stretched the genre to include country, gospel, children’s music and rock, it’s just bringing it back home.
“I’m taking it to another level,” said Dural, who counts Eric Clapton, Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson and members of Los Lobos among his recorded collaborators. “I love rasta and Bob Marley so there’s a song called ‘Love and Happiness’ that’s all about unity that has a Jamaican reggae feel.”
Listeners may have to wait awhile to hear that song at home, though – it’s one of dozens of Dural’s new tracks that didn’t make it on the album.
“We cut near 30 songs, and I caught the blues trying to figure out what to put on and what to leave off (the album),” Dural said. “It was my worst nightmare.”
No one will have to wait 8 years for the next Buckwheat Zydeco studio album, though.
“I’m going to give this one a chance,” Dural said, “but please believe me there’s another one coming right behind it.”
Dural’s re-embrace of the B3 is a sort of homecoming. It’s the instrument he played as the founder of Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers, a 15-piece funk band that backed artists like Joe Tex, Solomon Burke and Bobby Bland in the early ‘70s and also precipitated his friendship with Eric Clapton in the mid-‘80s.
A jam session broke out after Buckwheat Zydeco’s set at the 25th anniversary party ofr Island Records, Dural’s label at the time. Spying a vacant B3, Dural’s manager asked if he wanted to play.
“I said not ‘yeah,’ but ‘hell yeah,’” Dural said. “There was an army of guitars and Eric was at the front of the stage, but somehow we got to trading licks. We kept going back and forth, and when we got done he walked to the back of the stage, put out his hand and said, ‘I’m Eric, who are you?’ I took his hand and said, ‘I’m Buckwheat.’ We hit it off.”
Clapton played the guitar solo on Buckwheat Zydeco’s 1987 remake of “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” and invited the band to open his 12-night stand at Royal Albert Hall in 1988.
“That was like a dream come true,” Dural said. “It was frightening, but it went over big time.”
If the concept of a zydeco band opening for a rock legend in one of London’s most hallowed music halls seems incongruous, consider Buckwheat Zydeco opening for U2 around the same time.
“If you think about U2 and Buckwheat, they don’t match. That’s a different audience,” Dural said. “But it worked.”
The major-label shakeups 10 years ago led Dural to start his own label, Tomorrow Recordings, which also handles younger talents. If he misses rubbing shoulders with other legends and playing large venues, Dural isn’t letting on.
“I feel like I’m in a place now where I’m opening a lot of doors,” Dural said. “It doesn’t matter where I perform as long as I see a smile on people’s faces.”