The Music Is Always There: Reflections on New Orleans Jazz Print E-mail

new orleans jazz festival u L F4VB520(Guernica November 24/25 2014)

A Deviant Nature /

That which we call American music, whether it’s pop, show tunes, Motown, country ’n’ western, or any other mixed breed, is seldom wholly original. It is—it must be, to appeal widely—a sound and a style already known to its composer-musicians, and their audiences, before it’s written. The declamatory songs of Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, for example, owe everything to the then-familiar swagger of Woody Guthrie, talking blues, pentatonic Shaker hymns, and backwoods white gospel. These elements the troubadour kept as a foundation even as he evolved and wrote new material based on a lyric élan all his own. Pre-Dylan, Guthrie’s music binds Appalachian hillbilly tunes to topical story songs, which, themselves, owe their fluency to the broad-siders and the balladeers of eighteenth century Scotland and England. And so it goes, way on back. But there is, as always, an exception to the rule. Cultural critic Stanley Crouch argues that African-American gospel, blues, and jazz—styles that standardized the flatted third and seventh, syncopation and polyrhythms, and the chaotic, improvising soloist—are unique in music. In song, Crouch says, there had never been, with African or American music, such tap-rooted anguish as can be found in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” where the melodic genius lies not on but between the notes.

Jazz has always struck me as the most difficult of all music to learn and play because it pushes the musician to extend himself on three fronts: to know the tune, to know how the tune has evolved, and to know how to improvise a new version—in his own voice. These demands are only for the player; the jazz composer has his own epic struggle. Take “Moanin’,” written by Bobby Timmons and recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1958. After stating the tune’s call-and-response melody, the players lay down a lilting groove against which trumpet, sax, piano, and bass solo. A few years on and musicians, making new recordings, adapt the tune to their strengths. It’s vocalized as a kind of pop hymn by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Then, it appears as virtuosic swing in the propulsive hands of pianist Oscar Peterson. Enough renditions and it’s a standard.

Every jazz musician who puts “Moanin’” in his toolbox must be prepared to add another wing or color to the tune’s evolving body. Every jazz musician is asked—must ask himself—two core questions: How does he improve on, or even match, the masters of improvisation before him? How does he reinvent live—in concert, studio, corner bar—the Kamikaze flight of the soloist?

What makes jazz so winning is that it seems to resist change while changing before our eyes and ears: the music at once hones to the tradition (note the many familial pedigrees in jazz: Ellington, Brubeck, Marsalis, Batiste) and brazenly fucks with it. That’s the player’s duty and, in a sense, his paradox. Jazz, then, is whatever one folds into it (Afro-Cuban habanera, ECM minimalism, smooth, avant-garde, hard bop) all the while keeping the art of improvisation germane. It seems strange to say but the jazz musician must re-improvise the music to stay true to its deviant nature.

Nowhere else is jazz the changeable beast, bearing stripes and baring teeth, better than in New Orleans. There, because of its streetwise and nightlife milieu, jazz was born and bred and continues to be reprocessed in and by those auditory spaces where audience and player come together. To understand jazz’s interaction with its space, think of the venues, stationary and moving, in which New Orleans as place, patronage, and play shape improvisation. We can march down Basin Street a century ago: there, the funeral transport and the brass band behind plod dirge-sad to the cemetery (“A Closer Walk with Thee”) and return up-tempo raucous (“I’ll Fly Away”) to the neighborhood. Like a Trojan horse, the music is assembled by the parade rhythms (keeping people in step), by the brass blare (calling people out), and by the sonic adhesion (keeping players and marchers intimate: the closer you are to the sound, the more its pulse aligns with yours). We can strut into a carpet-walled parlor in Storyville, the sailor-cum-whorehouse district of New Orleans, one of many tangy bordellos: there, where money and Madams court musicians, the music is made to rev up the patrons’ drive for liquor and sex. Center stage is the piano and its most tenured professor, Jelly Roll Morton: the upright dominates the main room (the display cage) and seeps through the fabric-dampened walls; Morton sticks to the familiar tunes, mostly for sing-alongs, making the brothel more homey than sordid. The music rises and rags, his left hand pulsing the chords, his right chasing the melody, both in sync and moving crossways, much like coitus.

That’s the tradition—or trad, as it’s called. We can also land in a more recent tableaux. We’re in New Orleans’ Fairview Baptist Church in 1970. There, we hear a loud rumble from an after-school youth program. Danny Barker, a thirteen-year-old banjoist, is reorganizing the church’s band on the retrograde tradition of an old-time brass band. But he adds a twist. The style he develops captures the reverberation of the church walls, unseats the congregation with funk, and stamps the choruses with rap, a young man’s rhyming bravura. Barker and his wild bucks bring along a canny eight-year-old trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, and reflect in their lyrics a mix of art and politics, building on the protest-savvy civil-rights movement and the anxiety-ridden struggle of black men and incarceration. The group will, in a few short years, become the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, funk founders of an all-new trad.

Such is the constant re-invention, over a century and more, of musical spacetime in southern Louisiana. Every year the vessel lands at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held in late April and early May. I attended this year’s seven-day, beer-food-dance-music party, the forty-fifth. The show decamps at the city’s fairgrounds/racecourse, its tent enclosures and open-air stages enticing minions both tourist and local. With daily attendance at 60,000, the fest spreads out in its twelve venues, some small and intimate, others sunbaked and picnicky, featuring New Orleans jazz, blues, rock and roll, gospel, funk, and Cajun. In the hotspots where local players reign, you hear the dialogue that trad music has with a shrewd new generation of improvisers. Granted, the fest offers stages for the performance of jazz and other styles, which removes the music from its street, club, studio, and home venues. Much is showcased in outdoor spectacles vaster than the locals ever play. I did hear Springsteen, Clapton, Aguilera, and Arcade Fire, who ranged from medium rare to sizzling. But I paid much less attention to their record-mimicking safety. Instead, I devoted my “work” time to talking with players and scholars who describe the exchange of space, artist, and audience which nurtures and fuels that rapturous fire New Orleans improvisers are justly famous for.

“You Have to Know What’s Going to Happen” /

Negotiating outdoor spaces, indoor venues, musicians, and a mutable jazz tradition is the ken of Tulane University’s ethnomusicologist Matt Sakakeeny and his bedrock book of reportage and analysis, Roll with It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans. At the heart of it are musicians who roll out the riffs and pulses, shuffles and shouts, not only of their forebears but also of the crowds whose streets and clubs and houses have much to say about how and what bands play. The New Orleans sound communicates the auditory spaces and the mobile societies those spaces enclose—corner bar, graveyard, freeway underpass. “The sound,” Sakakeeny stresses, “is intended to communicate to the living and to the dead without recourse to language.”

Highest on Sakakeeny’s list of living subjects is the Rebirth Brass Band. In his opinion, Rebirth is the most evolved of contemporary local bands, mixing the parade style with progressive, mike-loud, pop, soul, and hip-hop instrumental and vocal music. At this year’s Jazz Fest, the group’s rhythm section—Derrick Tabb, drums; Keith Frazier, bass drum, and Phil Frazier, sousaphone, the two brothers who founded Rebirth in 1983—held an off-stage interview to discuss how the eight-member band develops its repertoire.

To be a member, says Keith, one’s personality must fit the band. This, plus talent, plus exhibiting a “passion for what you’re doing,” plus “Can you hang with the band till three in the morning?” The musicianship of Rebirth’s members is symbiotic: you have to know your instrument, which requires a disciplined ego to learn, and you have to let go of or, at least, re-position, that ego during performance. Can you solo and, when necessary, locate your place in the group’s live exchanges? It’s not about practicing your part before the gig, Keith says. It’s about keeping the ensemble sound loose, improvising as soloists, as section players, as rappers. It’s about developing the sense, after years together, of what Keith calls “mental telepathy.”

The most intriguing element of Rebirth is their “not practicing… not rehearsing.” The band creates grooves by trying things out during sound-check with their bodies and horns, hearing tunes (on CDs or the radio) while traveling to shows in vans, and, most commonly, writhing cheek-to-jowl with participants during a second line parade. As Sakakeeny writes, in the street is where the band best “assesses the crowd’s response and modifies their performance—including fluctuations in tempo, beat, and choice of repertoire—to maximize crowd participation.” There’s no rehearsing a parade. It’s spontaneous.

Derrick Tabb tells a story about how the band reinvented a James Brown tune, “Talking Loud, Saying Nothing,” the day of a show. While driving to a gig in Portland, Oregon, Tabb and others heard this song on the radio. At the venue, he and another band member were told someone, a rival, had been trash-talking Rebirth: “I guess they were trying to put us down,” Tabb says, “because we at the top.” That night they launched a new groove-grinding version of Brown’s song. The crowd went wild. Not unexpected. But Tabb was dissatisfied. He found their rendition “boring.”

The next day, another band member, trombonist Stafford Agee, told Tabb that if he was bored with the change-up they’d made, then he should invent a new pattern no one had played before. So Tabb took the snare part and “extended the roll,” creating a mid-phrase tremolo of fifteen strokes. When Tabb offered this military-style pattern the next night for the band, live, and Phil Frazier laid down a calming bottom of whole notes, the band retooled James Brown’s song into something incandescently their own.

Because their personalities are so attuned to each other, Tabb says, at times he and Keith “make Phil go the way we want him to go. We say, ‘Phil, this where we at right now,’ and he say, ‘OK, I’m right here.’ Before you know it, [the improv] gels into something unique. There is no right way to put it: there is no, ‘You have to play like this or you have to play like that.’ It’s just us feeling each other.”

Any touring musician who plays night after night a list of hits or requests has to change it up. At the Jazz Fest, with Rebirth on the outdoor Congo Square stage before 5,000 people, their rhythmic recalculations push the crowd until the gyrating mass tells the band where they, maybe the front half of the 5,000, want to go. It’s a subtle call-and-response—a sudden altered riff by Tabb on the snare, in the middle of a sax solo, takes the group a new direction because Tabb has deduced it from the throng. That’s the feeling. In Sakakeeny’s study, Keith notes, “We never talk, there’s no communication—you just have to know what’s going to happen. That’s why I say New Orleans brass band music is one of the most improvisational type musics you have.”

Amazing: You have to know what’s going to happen. Alongside the predictable tropes of speed, dynamics, and a litany of brass riffs (often changed-up live), each band member must know what will happen collectively. One player changes direction and the others follow at once like a turning school of fish. Yet another reason why musicians, no matter the music, sound better when they have improvised together, say, a thousand gigs. To begin in one place and then move on a dime—when an audience leans into a new beat or a player gets bored—captures the symbiotic serendipity of the New Orleans style.

Mobilizing Music and Space /

On a mid-fest off-day, I meet with Matt Sakakeeny, who quickly settles in a wooden wingback chair in his light-filled office at Tulane. Youthful, even boyish, Dr. Sakakeeny seems a perpetual grad student, way past normative time, who bifurcates his points, his mind as quick as a hawk on the hunt. A musicologist and musician, he came to New Orleans in 1996 and bumped one night into Rebirth, playing in a club on Freret Street, near the college. He was wowed by a clutch of mostly white college kids dancing and singing to Rebirth’s music. The wiry-haired prof, who knew what traditional brass band music was “supposed to sound like,” says the tunes he heard that night were “completely changed-up.” He was transfixed. “If you can sit still [through that beat], there’s something wrong with you.”

He tells me that “the freedom to improvise something new in the old is built into New Orleans music.” How far can a young player get from the tried-and-true? Brass bands today, he says, garner attention not because they refashion the tradition. Rather, they are valued for their hip-hop orbits, their ability, so to speak, to crowd-source the music live. (Recordings and club venues make electronically-amplified vocals de rigueur; rap lyrics dominate message-oriented hip-hop.) But tradition persists: older players insist that their unblemished counterparts learn, say, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” if for no other reason than employment opportunities. They need to play dirges and trad tunes to get funeral, parade, and tourist gigs. Sakakeeny says this is so for two reasons.

“One is so they have a respectful place in the tradition, maintain it and keep it alive. And [the other is] the older songs are different. The tuba, back then, had a different role. It had to lay down the root of the chord changes,” because the bands did tunes based on chord changes. “Today’s music,” he continues, “is much more riff-based. You have a tuba with a little melody that’s repeated over and over. It’s very funky, and the audience loves that, but the older musicians don’t respect it—it means you don’t understand harmony.”

Enter trad musicians, like Dr. Michael White, who teach young Turks harmony and how to solo collectively. In one case, White schooled a club favorite, the New Orleans Hot 8 Brass Band. By their own admission, the eight wanted to learn the basics to secure gigs in Europe, where crowds cotton to the old style. As Sakakeeny writes, the band sought to be “more fluent in traditional repertoire and performance practices.” The immersion deepens one horizontally, he says. A player becomes “socialized” into the vast catalogue of New Orleans brass band music, which he carries for his benefit and that of mentors, club owners, and worldwide audiences.

Call this musical literacy: not the ability to read music, because some New Orleans musicians remain oral learners, especially with today’s hip-hop records, a library via earbuds. Sakakeeny insists that the vast brass band registry is “people’s music,” a style that “remains vital because it adapts to each generation,” musicians and participants. Either a band appeals to an audience or its listeners walk away. The audience pushes the renditions as much as the venue does. An example. Playing a parade, Rebirth typically pauses to retool “under the bridge,” the dozens of I-10 overpasses, which, by design, snake through the poorer parts of the Crescent City. These natural amphitheaters are rallying points where their brassy peal is loudest and the crowd collects into a congregation.

Here’s a pure instance in New Orleans jazz of how auditory space as well as “sound facilitates relations between people.” Sakakeeny tells of a Rebirth funeral procession and second-line parade he followed in 2007. The parade stops outside a boarded-up bar and Rebirth abruptly switches to a slow dirge. The tempo and volume drop dramatically. The Steppers [the social club who’ve hired the musicians] huddle together near the band. Tears stream down some of the men’s faces. They call the band closer and the crowd encircles them, hushed by a change in the atmosphere initiated by musical dynamics.

It’s a powerful moment: such hallowed places deserve respect. Perhaps a club member wants the spot and the moment memorialized: such respect manifests via musical introspection. “Musicians continually assess their surroundings,” Sakakeeny writes, “and work to regulate the movement of the parade as they mobilize us [the participants] across space.” Here the negotiation is between band and crowd and place, a complex tangle of musical and cultural improv, which, Sakakeeny admits, no one knows when or how it happens. It’s definitely not the result of musicians performing for an audience on any given stage. One very old custom still rules: the ritual, born of the African diaspora, is one in which a community enacts its improvisational identity through music and, thus, values itself.

The Music Is Always There /

During Jazz Fest’s two weekends, one hears on the three or four stages devoted to New Orleans music that redoubtable party spirit Rebirth is famous for. But don’t believe such revelry cinches the elastic waistband of New Orleans’ musical trousers. Yes, jazz fans cherish the groove. But local musicians, especially those who’ve left, have built mini-mansions on top of the old familiar styles. I think of native-born singers/players as diverse as the Boswell Sisters, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Lil Wayne, and others who have re-Latinized or re-Africanized the sound and, where necessary, tow the audience along with them. That’s trad too.

Mid-afternoon of the second Jazz Fest Friday, I’m ringed round a hotel lobby table with Steven Bernstein and Henry Butler, the eponymous core of the new New Orleans-New York meld, the Butler-Bernstein Hot 9. Bernstein, composer-arranger-trumpeter-bandleader, has been in the music biz four decades, most notably for eight years with Levon Helm. Bernstein arranged the horns and reeds on Helm’s Grammy-winning Electric Dirt. On it, Bernstein’s quick and broad accents bristle with swagger and funk. Blind since birth, Butler is fluent in ragtime, stride, and boogie piano, and just as adept with soul-jazz, hard bop, or a Schubert or Prokofiev sonata—and he holds a master’s degree in music from the University of Michigan. In the halcyon days of 1950s R&B, Butler, his feet not touching the pedals, had lessons with Professor Longhair, the dean of New Orleans pianists. Sadly, Bernstein and Butler are all but unknown outside the NY/NO city-states.

Their collaboration, which can be heard in the spaciously recorded studio CD Viper’s Drag, on the re-resurrected Impulse! label, is deliciously original. To get it going, Bernstein taped or transcribed Butler’s piano riffs, improvised idiosyncrasies Bernstein calls “Henryisms.” He then wrote horn and reed lines based on Butler’s phrasing for tunes like “Henry’s Boogie” and “Dixie Walker.” When Henry recognized his patterns, he had, as he tells me, “to reinvent myself, think of something new to play.” In a sense, he was forced to uncork (again, the jazz player’s negotiation with “what’s going to happen”) an undiscovered part of himself, on the spot/in the studio, a challenge many musicians avoid.

Bernstein’s speaking voice is oaky, and infectiously enthusiastic like a collector in a record store. I notice his lower lip, trumpet-pursed puffy, and his three hoop earrings glinting a nearby light. A self-described “music historian,” Bernstein says that though he’s not the first to write parts for a player’s sensibility (Duke Ellington is unmatched in that department), he knows of only one precedent for showcasing Butler’s largesse: Earl “Fatha” Hines. Along with Art Tatum, Hines was the king of the fearlessly swinging keyboard improvisers. He created a big band where brass and reeds went on the back-burner while his piano grabbed the central role. This colorist technique, worshipfully clear with modern recording, is the driving engine of the Hot 9, one that elevates Butler’s orchestral style—the effect not incomparable to, say, Mozart’s piano concerti. The piano is raised acoustically to a soloist against and a partner with the orchestra or band.

My glance falls from Butler’s wraparound shades to his splayed fingers, worn yet fine like wooden-handled chisels. I ask him about his life, post-Katrina. The story is that he took eight feet of water, lost a prized piano and all his stuff, the house moldy and uninhabitable. He moved to Colorado, then New York. How does a forced-out New Orleans musician stay in touch with his New Orleans-ness?

The no-drama master says it’s true: he once felt secure here. “My own home, my own studio, my own gym, tons of recordings and scores. In a sense I haven’t recovered from all that.” And yet, he’s been strengthened by the blow. “You give up a lot,” he offers, “so you gain a lot. The doors open—and you go through them.” Case in point, Louis Armstrong. “When he left New Orleans,” Butler says, “he gained a lot more confidence, a lot more savvy,” traits Satchmo would have had to “manifest differently if he’d stayed behind.”

Suddenly animated, Bernstein leaps in, identifying New Orleans as the taproot of American music. “You know, all of it—everything—comes from this place.” Every jazz lover knows that enslaved and later freed Africans voicing their woe in Congo Square took up European musical instruments and forms and birthed the blues, gospel, and jazz (as well as the ego of one Jelly Roll Morton, who bragged that the majority of the then-new music was his invention). Butler agrees, calling the Hot 9’s music, “New Orleans and beyond.” An out-loud culture, in the wards and the French Quarter, persists in his imagination. He recalls hearing a tune like “Down by the Riverside” in church, club, parade, or concert if, for instance, Mahalia Jackson came to town. This orality extended to the music he heard on radio when radio programs were live.

The next day, a thousand of us in the Blues Tent rumble at our seats and in the aisles as Bernstein directs the Hot 9 (actually numbering 10) in a sixty-minute set of shoulder-shaking grooves. During Bernstein’s roomy arrangements, he barks directions to Butler or conducts his six-member horn/reed section. Most of the time they’re reading parts (transcribed Butler riffs). On occasion, Bernstein attempts what he calls “spontaneous arranging”: he cues players to solo or teases out a bit of sectional funk, provoking pairs and trios. His gestures encompass finger-counting, arm-swooping, and palm-halting; he’ll even shush the audience if they get too loud. When Butler hears something unexpected, he adapts to the style at hand, ripping something fresh.

On stage, each tune——from the boisterous “Viper’s Drag” to Billy Preston’s funk classic “Will It Go Round in Circles” to Professor Longhair’s anthem “Goin to the Mardi Gras”—opens up to Butler’s inventiveness, spotlighting his wild sheets of blue-noted arpeggios, suddenly the double-time double-timed. On occasion, Bernstein takes the reins with a devilish slide-trumpet or euphonium solo. The pulse underneath each number, mesmerizingly supple, is laid down by Herlin Riley, an extraordinarily solid, New Orleans-bred behind-the-beat drummer. When the sassy Butleresque horn gusts start to pop, Butler widens his stride, the space between his hands opening in simultaneous boogie riffs. That widening of the piano’s midrange, with Butler’s hands playing octaves further and further apart, reminds me of Rachmaninoff’s writing, had Sergey found the funk in his trunk.

Back in the hotel lobby, I quote a line Miles Davis used to whisper to his bandmates in the early 1970s, when he pushed his all-electric ensemble into fusion, or jazz-rock. That experimental era typifies what Ted Gioia calls in his book, The Imperfect Art, jazz’s “perpetual romanticism,” the “manic quality in which the music’s inherent vitality threatened to run away with itself.” Which it did—in stadium venues and on Davis’s mad locomotive. Davis said, apropos of the group’s total free improvisation (no common tune among them), “You listen, you play; you listen, you play.” My reading of this, I tell Butler, is that Davis wanted to slow the musicians down so they would be more in the moment.

Butler says he thought Davis was as much slowing the musicians down as trying to get them “to catch up to the music. If you [as a player] slow down enough, then you can tap into more of it. That’s true. But that music is always there—whether you are or not.”

What I think Butler means—the interview had to end so I got to muse on his line—resonates with Plato’s theory of forms. Improvised music already exists because its form is always going to happen, not read like a score but created on the spot, hinged to each arriving moment. A musician finds his way to the music that’s always already there—in his head, in his hands, passing among players. It’s in the tradition, and in the breaking away from tradition. The music that’s already there is what’s going to happen to the music. Jazz is ever ready, ever willing, to occupy these unending, just-now-arriving and just-as-quickly-passing alreadys.

“Just Like Democracy”

So here’s another spacetime exchange blown in by the musical trade winds, a post-Katrina re-crossing of Bernstein’s New York with Butler’s New Orleans. This amalgam of regional styles—America is a big, messy poly-vocal country and musicians naturally want to mix with a geographical other to reseed their own turf—is also what jazz musicians are negotiating. In the final episode of Ken Burns’ ten-part series, Jazz, Wynton Marsalis defines the genre with a common, but apt, simile:

“In American life, you have all these different agendas. You have conflict all the time. And we [jazz musicians] are attempting to achieve harmony through conflict. It seems strange to say that. But it’s like an argument you have with the intent to work something out—not an argument you have with the intent to argue. And that’s what jazz music is. You have musicians, and they’re all standing on the bandstand. Each one has their personality, their agenda. Invariably, they’re going to play something that you would not play. So you have to learn when to say a little something, when to get out of the way. So you have the question of the integrity, the intent, the will to play together. That’s what jazz music is. You have yourself, your individual expression, and you have how you negotiate that expression in the context of that group. It’s exactly like democracy.”

Any music—its restlessness in and freedom from each moment it occupies—runs afoul of my urge to represent it in a realm (words) in which the music is not heard. Writing (about) New Orleans jazz is a futile translation. (Reader, I hear you: no one ever claimed it was anything but.) The sense that the writer can never quite get to the music is also, in Butler’s parlance, always there. It’s one I feel powerless to unpack, facing more than 120 years of New Orleans music, which, again, occupies the fingers of every musician who falls under its spell. That spacetime is so vast the city cannot hold it in its clubs or street parades, nor can any one player. It’s imperial reach stretches into rhythm and blues and rock and roll, world-conquering exports like tea from India. The music needs this annual twelve-stage, eight-hour-a-day, seven-day festival so the returning admirals of its fleet can decompress. It’s no wonder that Bruce Springsteen, on a sun-puckered day, in front of 30,000 arm-pumping fans, sounds for the length of his three-hour set (he ends with a meditative version of “The Saints”) as if most of what the New Jersey native has written first docked at this southern port of call.

One variety of the New Orleans musician is the player who breaks free of his jazz hometown, and becomes, ironically, his staying true to its tradition. That’s what I hear in 26-year-old Nick Sanders, a Phenom and native, who got away to the New England Conservatory and has returned to play his first Fest. Post-set, backstage, I sit in awe of his Adonic charm; he’s fussed over by a proud father, “an ex-musician myself,” who marveled at his son’s insistence during adolescence (“even then”), of practicing four to six hours a day.

All sorts of precursors pour through Sanders’ fingers during his live set and in his adventuresome 2013 debut album, Nameless Neighbors: the pointillist touches of the Second Viennese school, the polytonal counterpoint of Darius Milhaud, the hard swing of Horace Silver, the watery texture of Bill Evans, the quartal harmonies of Herbie Hancock, the wide-handed chordal palette of Brad Mehldau, the atonal flights of Cecil Taylor, the stylistic collisions of Charles Ives. (Sanders was no doubt the only musician at the Fest to play a tune by the avant-garde composer, Anthony Braxton.) The kid does have his own tack, however. His compositions state a complex motivic figure that he shifts suddenly and rhythmically, so its melodic mark drains from memory. The idea, bolstered by his trio, freshly graduated bassist and drummer from NEC as well, feels like endless invention. And yet he’s not afraid to stay with an elegant riff, its sentiment modally mysterious, and then move out from it—doggedly, introspectively, atonally—as he does on the album-title tune, “Nameless Neighbors,” or the mercurial “Calliope.”

After the set, Sanders is still vibrating with the music. His hands seem to tingle, as does his voice, with surprise, almost, that I’d be interested in interviewing him. Sanders explains his upbringing, one that, as his dad says, was run by his desire. He began playing at 7, had classical music chops (lots of Mozart) by 12, and started improvising at 17. For high school, he went to NOCA, the now-famed New Orleans Creative Arts charter, and found his calling in the jazz department. He was home-schooled, too, because, he says, “You can’t” want to practice “five, six hours a day in America”—and be a teenager. Prescient, he “knew how much work it would take” to be a jazz pianist. To learn to improvise, he listened to hundreds of records, studied a method book, and played most Fridays at NOCA with a trio. One man he studied with, the great clarinetist and teacher of generations of New Orleans musicians, was Alvin Batiste. Sanders played with Batiste at Snug Harbor, a club which borders the French Quarter, before Batiste passed away.

So how’s he connected to New Orleans music? He is among the furthest out of the city’s players who remains, if distantly, in its orbit. “I can play the traditional tune,” he says, “but it’s not what I want to do.” I ask him to talk about his harmonic language, which, to my ear, sounds as much like 20th-century composers, Gunther Schuller, for example, as it does jazz stalwarts like Monk or Gil Evans. He stumbles at the question, in part, I suspect, because his thinking with his hands is so fluid, so changeable: “I can’t pin down an exact harmonic system.” Perhaps he hesitates because, like Jungians with a dream, pinning it down might deplete it of its magic. Though he thinks about chord structures and harmonic off-ramps, it’s “all very intuitive.” One element I hear in some contemporary players is their self-surprise at landing on a fresh theme while improvising and then returning to it, to structure a chorus or two around that serendipity.

Sanders’ trio’s closing number, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” captures his harmonic slant. Right off, Sanders topsy-turvies the G minor tune to G major, the familiar swing melody re-voiced and lifted enigmatically. Such a twist slaps the tune awake. Sanders reconstitutes a standard that’s rarely been “improved” on in the many times, times a million, it’s been played. This is what he’s very, very good at—and, barring too many of life’s potholes, will continue to roll with as composer and pianist.

One Last Chorus

Everywhere you go in New Orleans people say that the city and its culture (heat, floods, parades, gumbo, Catholicism, voodoo, Creole, Cajun) is unique in America. To which the music attests. New Orleans jazz closes the gap between virtuosi and audience; it’s audience-reliant, not audience-transcendent. New Orleans jazz stays local, despite its global range. New Orleans jazz holds fast to companionable improvisation in spaces where musicians hear, create, and negotiate individual identity. New Orleans jazz favors live over recorded, the outdoor noise of a jazz fest over the intimacy of a concert hall, but can be found, especially if the paycheck’s decent, at both. New Orleans jazz stacks its effusive tradition (1890 to 2014) into old and young players alike. One in-betweener, Kermit Ruffins, says with a rakish smile in the HBO show Treme that he’s content to play his trumpet and barbecue every Thursday night at Vaughan’s bar, leaving for a gig only when the bills have piled up. Another in-betweener, Gregory Davis, founding member of the Dirty Dozen, introduces his band by saying, “Wherever you live, we either been there or we comin’ there.”

New Orleans does what no other music city can: send out and call back its players, with round-trip tickets. Having an inextinguishable ebb and flow of improvisational talent, the hometown audience remains as hungry as they are full.