At a late-90s edition of Piano Night, Tom McDermott was in the middle of a typically eclectic and stirring set, when he quietly announced that he was going to play Jelly Roll Morton's "Fingerbreaker." The title's no joke; it's a complex composition that requires immense hand strength, a light touch to navigate some brutal changes, and almost monk-like concentration. McDermott proceeded to sail through "Fingerbreaker" with style and confidence in a bravura performance. After the show, I asked him how long it took him to master the song.
"Oh, about a year," he said.
McDermott's reply is indicative of his unwavering commitment to his craft. He's perhaps best known for his trad jazz chops, through his work with the Dukes of Dixieland and peers like trumpeter Kevin Clark and clarinetist Tim Laughlin. But McDermott's tastes and talent also cover the modern spectrum; he co-founded the New Orleans Nightcrawlers Brass Band, and regularly concocts diverse side projects like his frequent Beatles tributes. He's also recorded a handful of diverse and challenging albums, ranging from his 1996 original suite All the Keys and Then Some, to last year's solo piano showcase, The Crave. That album started a deep exploration of the Latin tinge (or "Spanish tinge," as Jelly Roll Morton dubbed it) that McDermott explores even further on his new CD, Danza.
One of the hallmarks of McDermott's musical personality is that when a musical notion or idea takes hold of him, he becomes obsessed with learning and absorbing every available resource. After developing a love for Brazil's choro music -- syncopated Brazilian piano pieces akin to ragtime -- he made a pilgrimage to Brazil in 2001 for first-hand dialogue and education from choro players. That experience, and his anthropologist's knack for unearthing treasures, leads to one of the most intriguing pieces on Danza: a choro by early Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth. McDermott breathes new life in Nazareth's 1916 composition "Garoto," playing with a gusto that shows that revisiting the past doesn't have to be a dry history lesson. In light of the recent renaissance of Cuban and Brazilian music, it's particularly illuminating to hear McDermott honor the indigenous roots of contemporary luminaries like Chucho Valdes and Antonio Carlos Jobim -- and McDermott makes his own artistic statement with the spry "Estatico," a choro of his own.
Elsewhere, McDermott travels far and wide to pay homage to his inspirations, tapping legendary 19th century New Orleans pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "Creole Eyes"; French accordionist Guy Viseur's "Flambee Montalbanaise," and Paraguayan guitarist Agustin Barrios' "Valse #4."
Barrios' composition is arguably the album's highlight, and provides a representative audio snapshot of McDermott's playing throughout Danza. He begins with a delicate, melodic prelude, introduces the central waltz theme at a brisk clip, pulls off a deft hesitation move in the first chorus for a bit of Chopin- or Booker-esque stutter-step genius, sneaks in some ragtime licks near the 90-second mark, speeds up the left-hand bass tempo further before lighting it up with a dazzling rainbow run on the upper 88s, and then gently lowers the dynamics to wrap up the song with two quick, almost humorous punctuation notes. It's dazzling -- and hurts my fingers just writing about it.
McDermott's always had superb taste in collaborators, and on Danza he's found another simpatico partner in Evan Christopher, a young clarinetist rooted in trad styles, but who shares McDermott's love for exotic genres. Christopher favors the playing style of early New Orleans pioneers, and in this setting, it's a bit like imagining Johnny Dodds on a whirlwind tour of various genres. On the 1933 Vincent Youman song "The Carioca," Christopher's solo hits some high notes that pack the roadhouse swagger of a Texas tenor sax, while his joyous stroll through Jelly Roll Morton's "Mamanita" is a showcase in relaxed virtuosity. Christopher's reintroducing himself to New Orleans audiences -- he left town in 1996 to play with Jim Cullum's acclaimed jazz band in San Antonio and just moved back in 2001 -- and local jazz fans can expect to be hear a lot from Christopher in the future.
As for McDermott, there's no telling what direction he'll head next. For the moment, Danza is the crown jewel in his growing body of work, and a testament to the possibilities of dedication, scholarship, and connecting all the dots that lead to New Orleans music.
CORRECTION: Due to incorrect credits on Henry Butler's CD The Game Has Just Begun, I praised June Yamagishi for the guitar solo on the song "Mac Daddy Henry," but the props belong to Shane Theriot.
- Pianist Tom McDermott's new CD, Danza, travels around the world in a brilliant showcase of diverse -- and connected -- genres.