The Isle of Orleans
I wanted to record this album for many reasons, but three pop into mind. The first, was timing. This year(2003) marks my 20th year as a professional musician and my 40th birthday, so I had to do something special, at least for myself.
Second, I wanted to separate my self from the crowd. Musicians are always trying to find ways to stand out or to scream, "Look at me." Instead of playing faster, louder and higher, I began writing new songs and I noticed people enjoying hearing them. I think people would remember a tune more than any solo I played. After all, if it's new, there is nothing to compare it to. These songs I've written are in no way groundbreaking, but I'd like to think of them as part of New Orleans jazz for the twenty-first century.
Third, and most important was to start a movement. If we want to see this music move forward, we have to have new songs. New songs mean new ideas. Traveling has helped me accomplish this and I don't think yet another version of "Muskrat Ramble" is going to help the popularity of New Orleans jazz, even though I still enjoy playing those chestnuts. I'd like to see musicians more talented than myself writing new songs. They're doing it in Nashville, New York and L.A. Why shouldn't we do it in New Orleans?
If you live in New Orleans and make your living playing traditional jazz, you have some choices as to what music you're going to play.
You can cave in completely to tourist demand and blare out nothing but the Dixieland Top 40 ("Saints", "Muskrat Ramble", etc.), then complain about how little you're working.
Or you can excavate the mustiest regions of the repertoire, perform (rightfully?) neglected works by the l923 "Hog Jowls" Jackson band, brag that nobody else ever plays this stuff, then complain about how little you're working.
With 20 years' experience in the music wars, New Orleans native Tim Laughlin has done some of both. He's played a thousand "Saints" as well as lesser-known pieces by Jelly Roll, James P. Johnson and King Oliver.
Fortunately he also, around 10 years ago, started writing and performing his own tunes. "If I'm going to play obscure music, it might as well be my own," he jokes: a self-deprecating remark and an important statement. For if music like traditional jazz is to survive, it not only needs fresh performers and audiences, but new melodies to keep things from getting stale.
Some of the songs ("Suburban Street Parade", "March of the Uncle Bubbies") are simple Paul Barbarin-like struts that clearly reveal Tim's good-natured New Orleans temperament. Other pieces "Crescent City Moon", "It's My Love Song to You") are a little trickier, perhaps reflecting his interest in the music of Bob Wilber, the great swing clarinetist and composer. Trickier still is "Blues For Faz" (for the brilliant 1930s New Orleans reedman Irving Fazola); the opening and closing choruses create a veritable labyrinth of surprising but satisfying harmony.
Maybe most "New Orleans" of all is "The Isle of Orleans." It's got that Spanish Tinge, that New Orleans Rhumba, that Half-Clave: the latin thang that has for a century made New Orleans jazz sound different from trad jazz played in other parts of the world.
The band is a mix of long-time running pardners and fresh faces. The superb drummer Hal Smith, a veteran of many of Tim's ensembles, was flown in from California. Another long-time collaborator, the ever-lyrical cornetist Connie Jones, contributes the sharpest solos of the session.
The newer faces include Jason Marsalis, raising the groove quotient with some of his first recorded vibraphone solos, and the boisterously swinging trombones of Rick Trolsen and Lucien Barbarin. Sharing the vocal chair are avuncular Preservation Hall veteran Neil Unterseher and one of the Crescent City's outstanding stylists, Philip Manuel.
Soaring over it all is the beautiful tone of Tim's clarinet. It's not at all surprising that someone whose improvising is so tuneful would eventually put out an album of his own fine melodies.
Satchmo and Jelly Roll - not to mention Hog Jowls Jackson - are just going to have to wait until next time.
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