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New Orleans Piano Giants Past and Present

by Tom McDermott

Ask someone what instrument is most readily associated with New Orleans music and, thanks to the massive contributions of Louis Armstrong, "trumpet" will be the likely answer. But without denying the importance of hornmen like Satchmo, Sidney Bechet or Buddy Bolden, one can easily claim the piano as the prime choice for innovators in New Orleans music. New Orleans' -- and America's -- first great composer, Gottschalk, was a pianist, as is the city's most famous musician today, Harry Connick Jr. In between these two talents are a half-dozen or so greats that any American music lover will want to explore at some point.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69) led a fascinating life. As a child, he absorbed both the music of the slaves and the European art music available in New Orleans before being sent to Paris for further musical training at age twelve. By his twenties, he had composed piano music that reflected his New Orleans upbringing; the Latinate rhythms and rolling right-hand figures one associates with later New Orleans keyboardmen are present in his music a century before Professor Longhair. He also composed some proto-ragtime that predates Scott Joplin by fifty years.

Gottschalk spent the rest of his short life touring Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas, composing and living the life of the matinee idol. In his day he was greatly admired as a pianist and composer by Chopin, Berlioz and much of Europe and America's musical cognoscenti; today he's largely a cult figure. The truth is, he wrote a lot of kitsch, but his top dozen pieces are wonderful, worth going out of your way to hear. The best Gottschalk recording is Great American Piano I, Vol. 7 (Angel Records) by the virtuoso Leonard Pennario; if you can't find it, look for recordings by Alan Mandel.

The Creole Ferdinand Joseph La Mothe, a.k.a. Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), was the pre-eminent composer of the New Orleans classic jazz era. As a pianist, he was one of the finest in the history of jazz, as good a link as any between ragtime and early jazz; with his band the Red Hot Peppers, he recorded classics in the idiom that stand alongside the best of Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven sides. The best current Peppers' collection on CD is "The Pearls" (Bluebird/RCA); for Morton's fascinating solo piano music, seek out the Library of Congress sessions recorded by Alan Lomax and reissued recently on Rounder on four CDs.

antoine 'fats' domino by michael p. smithEveryone reading this article has heard recordings by Antoine "Fats" Domino; with sixty million of his records out there, you can't escape (nor should you want to escape!) his music. There is a lot of Fats in the stores for those who can't get enough of his honeyed vocals, but do try and hear the early stuff (like "The Fat Man") and his rare piano instrumentals (like "Swanee River Hop").

professor longhair by michael p. smithFats made the money, but his contemporary Professor Longhair got the glory, at least in New Orleans. 'Fess (Henry Roeland Byrd) mixed blues and boogie-woogie with Cuban rhumba and New Orleans parade rhythms to create music that has influenced a huge number of Crescent City players. The early '40s and '50s recordings are raw and have a wild, anything-goes feel (check out the "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" compilation on the Nighthawk label). Around 1972 he came back into the New Orleans limelight and began re-recording his old tunes; "Crawfish Fiesta" (Alligator), his finest album, was waxed just before he died, in 1980, at age 62. For an overview of his entire career, Rhino Records' two-CD set, "'Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology", is excellent.

One of Longhair's pre-eminent disciples is the prolifically talented pianist/composer Allen Toussaint. Toussaint is best known for the dozens of hit songs he crafted in the '60s and '70s for local talent (Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Aaron Neville) and national stars (Glen Campbell, Robert Palmer, Patti Labelle and many others). He's recorded sparingly as a leader, but this may change with the formation of his new record label, NYNO. "Connected", his first release for the label, is a fair representation of his talents as songwriter and pianist.

dr. john by tom mcdermottAnother close son of 'Fess is the pianist/composer/rock star/shaman Malcolm Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John. Like Toussaint, Mac is prolific, with hundreds of sides as producer, singer, guitarist or pianist since the late '50s. Unlike Toussaint, his skills as a pianist have always been in the forefront, and he's long been regarded as a master player, worshipped by R&B lovers, respected by the jazz and rock crowds. Rebennack has put out many good albums, but three are essential listening: "Dr. John's Gumbo" (Atlantic), a '70s homage to his R&B ancestors; "Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack" (Clean Cuts), which single-handedly launched a solo-piano phase of his career; and "Goin' Back to New Orleans" (Warner Bros.), an ambitious romp through the Louisiana legacy with a cast of thousands.

Ask Dr. John or Harry Connick Jr. who is the greatest player covered in this article, and they'd tell you, "James Booker." There is something about Booker's music and troubled life that breeds obsession. His absolutely unique style is a polyglot mix of gospel, boogie-woogie, blues, R&B and jazz, all executed with a thrilling viruosity; on top of this, he often sang spectacularly well. In his lifetime (he died in 1983 at age 43), Booker released only five albums as a leader. The two best, which rank among the greatest New Orleans albums ever recorded, are "Piano Wizard: Live!" (Rounder) and "Junco Partner" (Hannibal).

The pianist who more than any other is expanding the frontiers of New Orleans piano in surprising directions is the volcanic talent Henry Butler. Butler divides his musical interests between McCoy Tuner-inflected modern jazz and hypercharged versions of New Orleans R&B material. He sings with a lusty bravado and writes beautiful tunes as well. For Butler's jazz side, check out "For All Seasons" (Atlantic), though his best all-around CD is the handsomely recorded solo effort "Blues and More" (Dancing Cat).

Harry Connick, Jr. is playing so little piano these days that listeners who've just stumbled onto him in the last five years or so might wonder what he's even doing in this article. The unconverted should check out Connick's first two albums, "Harry Connick Jr." and "20" (both on Columbia), which contain splendid examples of his innovative, Booker-imprinted stride playing, and show how different a musician he was before the Thelonious Monk influence and Sinatraesque vocals took over.

And if all this ain't enough for you, there's always Wynton and Branford's father, Ellis Marsalis (with many albums on Columbia), Jon Cleary, a strong British-born pianist/guitarist/singer with one CD ("Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice" on Ace) and the fiery, eclectic David Torkanowsky ("Steppin' Out" on Rounder).

Tom McDermott is a pianist, composer/arranger, illustrator and writer based in New Orleans. In his spare time he draws embarassing cartoons of his friends and conducts clandestine marketing surveys in bars and nightclubs for his own fiendish enjoyment.

Sketches by Tom McDermott; photos by Michael P. Smith

This article originally appeared at ikoiko.com in 1997.

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