Over the last five years or so, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) has been through a lot of turmoil [see Jennifer Odell’s story in JazzTimes], but it’s come out on the other side as an active and dynamic organization dedicated to spreading the music of New Orleans to the world. Despite all its recent legal and financial issues, NOJO now has a real home in New Orleans: the New Orleans Jazz Market, a 500-seat venue in the Central City neighborhood. The $10 million building was designed and built just for the orchestra. There they hold concerts (about 8-10 per year), host community programs, and provide educational opportunities for the local jazz and music scene. It was also there that they recorded their most recent album—Songs: The Music of Allen Toussaint on Storyville Records—whose focus is self-evident.
Last year Adonis Rose, Irvin Mayfield’s successor as NOJO artistic director, was trying to decide on the theme for the orchestra’s next recording, which would be his first at the helm. He consulted with his friend and former employer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was a major part of the orchestra’s previous release, Dee Dee’s Feathers, back in 2012. “I was thinking about doing a combination of things by different artists to commemorate New Orleans for its tricentennial, which was last year,” Rose explains. “I thought of the record to chronologically go through the history of New Orleans music.”
However, Ms. Bridgewater, who has been immersed in New Orleans music and culture for the last few years, had a different take. She told Rose that he really had to do the music of Allen Toussaint. “Toussaint’s music is universally appreciated and understood,” Bridgewater told JazzTimes via email. “His songs have been recorded by a wide variety of artists which confirms his mass appeal, in my humble opinion. I think he was a brilliant songwriter. And I believe he would be proud to know that a New Orleans big band covered his material and in such a soulful and heartfelt manner.”
It was not a hard sell, in part because Toussaint’s legacy looms so large in New Orleans and in part because Toussaint had played with the orchestra a few times—but also because of Rose’s personal connection to the pianist, composer, and bandleader. His uncle Chris Severin was Toussaint’s bassist for the last 20 years or so, and Rose had gotten to know the pianist through that connection. In the end, Toussaint’s influence on the city and its music became the principal factor. “I wanted to honor his legacy, because of what we represent—really we’re the only jazz orchestra that is an institution and has a facility in New Orleans,” Rose says. “It just made sense to me.”
The challenge was how to present material that was so well-known in an original and resonant way. “I knew that [Toussaint] did big-band arrangements of his charts, but to do original arrangements of his music, where you’re just changing up the whole thing?” he asks. “I had never heard his music done like that before.” For several of the arrangements Rose called on three of the orchestra’s longtime members: pianist Victor Atkins, trombonist Emily Frederickson, and saxophonist Ed Petersen. In addition, Mike Esnault did “Southern Nights” and the bassist Grayson Hackelman arranged “Java.”
The album also features two originals that pay homage to Toussaint, “Zimple Street” by trumpeter Leon Brown and “Gert Town” by percussionist/vocalist Gerald French. On the latter, which uses the musical language of the Mardi Gras Indians, French does a multitrack recording of himself singing, accompanied by Rose on bass drum and Alexey Marti on congas.
Rose wanted to make sure the songs reflected the composer and the city. “I wanted to make the CD very diverse musically, with a lot of different styles of music—not five songs that are straight swinging and five songs that are second-line,” he explains. “I wanted to split it up, like the city itself. And like Allen’s music. He wrote for Fats Domino, the Meters, Irma Thomas, Al Hirt …he did so many things stylistically.”
The large majority of Toussaint’s music was composed for singers, and therefore Rose needed to match at least some of the songs with vocalists. NOJO features several instrumentalists who double as singers, so that helped. “I tried to think about vocalists that would naturally be good fits for certain songs,” Rose says. “It took a long time for me to figure out who would do what songs and also how those songs would be done. For instance, ‘Southern Nights’ is a straight funk kind of tune and I thought it would be great to do as a New Orleans second-line. The tune ‘Gert Town’ had to have the sound of the Mardi Gras Indians. All of those things were my idea.”
He knew from the start that Bridgewater would sing “It’s Rainin’,” most closely associated with New Orleans legend Irma Thomas. In addition, in a duet with Phillip Manuel, she sang “With You in Mind,” a Toussaint tune popularized by another local legend, Aaron Neville, who had a semi-hit with it back in 1991. The orchestra’s house vocalist Nayo Jones performed “Ruler of My Heart,” another Toussaint-Thomas staple. Leon Brown and trombonist Michael Watson handled the vocal duties on “Zimple Street” and “Southern Nights,” respectively. The only instrumental songs on the album are “Coal Mine,” “Java,” and “Tequila.”
Recording a big band is hard enough. Recording a big band with vocalists presents even more challenges. “When you have people playing in sections and someone makes a mistake, you have to record the whole thing over again,” Rose explains. “We recorded it all live and then I went back and did the fixing. You have to play it as many times right as possible.”
Then there were all those vocals, which Rose recorded separately after capturing the band’s tracks. Rose’s own experience performing and recording with vocalists such as Bridgewater, Betty Carter, Nnenna Freelon, René Marie, and Kurt Elling helped when it came to working out the arrangements of these often iconic tunes. “We just flipped them around with original arrangements,” he comments, “but it’s very radio-friendly. The thing that I love about his music is that his audience is so broad. He touched a lot of different genres of music by his writing and the artists he produced. He wrote rock & roll songs, and he always had an element of church music in his writing. Those are the things that never got away from his music, no matter what he was writing. Every song we did on the record to me feels that way, even if it’s not written into the music. It just has the spirit of blues and gospel. He also represents the heritage of New Orleans piano playing, going back to Professor Longhair and James Booker—coming from that lineage and playing the piano that way.”
Rose is struck by how Toussaint could find inspiration in anything, anywhere, and refers to a scene in The Allen Toussaint Touch, the BBC documentary on the pianist done right after Katrina, in which he talks about New York City traffic, which he called “This New York Street Philharmonic.” Always with composing in mind, Toussaint says: “It might be considered noisy to some, but to me it sounds like a concert. I tapped the lamp post out there because I knew it was hollow. I knew that would give out a signal, a nice ring, and I didn’t know what note it would be. As I tapped it with my knuckles, a yellow cab was blowing and it was making a minor third [with] this post that I was knocking on. And it was so beautiful.”
In contrast to that urban scene, Rose notes that “Southern Nights” was one of the pianist’s own favorite tunes because of what it captured about nature, New Orleans, and Louisiana. His inspiration indeed came from a lot of different places. “Music is my company my whole life,” he says in the BBC film. “It’s what I wake up and go to immediately. Music is everything to me, short of breathing.”
Out of deep respect for Toussaint’s legacy, Rose felt it was incumbent upon him to contact Toussaint’s family—his daughter Alison and son Reginald—to get their blessing on the project. “If the family wouldn’t have been cool with it, then I wouldn’t have done the record,” he explains. “They approved of it and they loved the idea. I got their stamp of approval.”
If everything that Rose and NOJO has been doing sounds similar to what Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center have accomplished in the last few decades, that’s because the latter provided a blueprint for the former. “I think what Wynton does at Jazz at Lincoln Center and what he’s trying to do there proves that that model can work anywhere,” says Rose, a former member of the JLCO. “Which is probably a big reason he supported us so much. He made a lot of things happen for us when we needed them to happen.” Marsalis’ help was particularly important in the aftermath of Katrina, which had the whole community reeling.
NOJO hasn’t toured in recent years but has plans to resume performing worldwide in 2020. In addition, Rose is talking with another New Orleans native, the R&B singer Ledisi, about collaborating on the orchestra’s next album. But there’s plenty to do before that happens; NOJO and Rose will celebrate the release of Songs with a concert at the Jazz Market on Mar. 29, the actual release date of the album. In addition, Rose and the group in various configurations are scheduled to perform at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, N.J., on Apr. 13, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Apr. 28, the St. Lucia Jazz Festival on May 8-10 (with guest vocalist Ledisi), the Ascona Jazz Festival in Switzerland on June 18-30, and the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend (with guest vocalist Bridgewater). Later in the year, NOJO will head to New York for a two-night stand at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Dec. 13-14, with guest vocalist René Marie. Learn more here.
Top photo: Adonis Rose and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Photo by Katie Sikora.