The music we play," says clarinetist Evan Christopher of the quartet Danza, "It's a world of syncopations that are related." The music of Danza, the group started by Christopher and pianist Tom McDermott, ranges all over the Caribbean from Brazil to New Orleans with stops in Martinique, Cuba and other musically rich cultures. Whether playing as a duet with interplay that approaches Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines' classic "Weatherbird" or working in a quintet that includes bassist/tuba player Matt Perrine, drummer Shannon Powell and percussionist Michael Skinkus, Danza's music takes these far-flung styles and illuminates their common rhythms and harmonies while never losing their distinctiveness or emotion, whether it's joyous or mournful.
McDermott calls what they play "traditional music of the Americas, for the most part. It's traditional jazz and American ragtime and Brazilian choro and French West Indian beguine and even a French musette that we've worked up." Christopher agrees and adds, "It's music that is the intersection of cultures descended from Europe and cultures descended from slavery. In Rio de Janeiro, it's choros, and in New Orleans it's traditional jazz and ragtime." The two of them make a great pair in playing this music, says Christopher. "The challenge for me is to isolate the language of each style to use appropriately, depending on the genre. Tom is less concerned with the genres being distinct and more engaged by the hybrids that we can make by combining choros and ragtime, for example."
This may make the music sound academic, on the bandstand, however, it is anything but. The trio of Skinkus, Perrine and Powell that rounds out the quintet also are fellow travelers in the world of Caribbean and African Diaspora music, and the tunes jump off the stage when the band gets cooking. "We have a great love for this music," says McDermott. "People tell us that we make the music come alive. They tell us that we make the music sound like it's a living art form and capture the excitement of what it sounded like 80 or 90 years ago."
The Danza project started with an album of duets that Christopher and McDermott recorded in late 2001, but they had met several years before that. Both had discovered a love of New Orleans music in their respective cities of Long Beach, Calif., and St. Louis, Mo., before coming to the Big Easy. They met when Christopher sat in as a substitute in a Dukes of Dixieland gig for several weeks when McDermott was the pianist. Christopher then moved to San Antonio, but came back and played on several tracks of McDermott's Louisianthology recording. Both musicians realized that they were, in the words of McDermott, "pretty sympatico musically speaking," and recorded the Danza duet record. Then there was an open night at Donna's where they ended up playing for three years, as well as taking the group on tours to a high profile list of cities including Berlin, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Chicago and Salzburg. They also were the first musicians to participate in the New Orleans/France exchange program sponsored by FACE (French American Cultural Exchange) in 2006. The two spent more than two months in France where, Christopher remembers, "We did some master classes and some recording. I formed a band over there. It was very rewarding."
One goal for this band, says McDermott, "is to bring more attention to the composers of this music, such as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Ernestor Nazareth from Brazil. Traditional jazz doesn't get the attention in New Orleans that it should, given it is the birthplace of it." At the Fair Grounds, the group will be playing tunes from those composers as well as featuring some compositions from Perrine's new record. As an added bonus, violinist Matt Rhody of the Hot Club of New Orleans will sit in on several songs. The way these virtuosos play can work on several levels simultaneously, both in the head and the feet. Says Christopher, "You can come in wanting to learn about this music, but it is all related to dance." Danza: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5, Economy Hall Tent presented by Peoples Health