Rightly or wrongly, the names Neville and Marsalis have loomed larger than most others in the New Orleans music scene for at least the last decade. Now, though, that situation is changing. Aaron Neville's home in eastern New Orleans flooded, so he has moved to Nashville, as has Art and a number of other members of the family. Ivan and Cyril are in Austin, leaving the city virtually a Neville-free zone. Neither Branford nor Wynton Marsalis have had a significant local presence for a while, though Wynton is a member of Mayor Ray Nagin's committee to develop a plan for rebuilding the city. He has, however, attended those meetings via speaker phone. In the past few years, it has been Jason, Delfeayo and father Ellis Marsalis who have flown the family flag in New Orleans. On Friday, Nov. 11, Ellis returned to work, playing his traditional Friday-night show at Snug Harbor, helping the music scene take one step closer to normalcy.
With his usual quartet still in evacuation, he was scheduled to play with Jason Stewart on bass and Herman Lebeau on drums, but a dog attacked Lebeau the day of the gig, so Marsalis tapped Troy Davis for the drum chair. He had played with both Stewart and Davis before, Marsalis says, but not with the two of them together.
When the set started, that was fairly obvious as Stewart and Davis watched Marsalis for cues. His patient, gentle right hand rolled out extended lines of melody, and though they supported him admirably, Stewart and Davis had little to add at that point. It wasn't until partway through the set that the rhythm section found its relationship to Marsalis and the musical conversation onstage became more complex, nuanced and equal.
Marsalis played little after the hurricane, with the exception of a few gigs that he had already contracted out of town. "When you're away from your instrument, it's like being out of shape," Marsalis says. "I remember years and years ago when Archie Manning was quarterbacking the Saints, I heard him make a statement after (coming back from) an injury. He was asked how he felt and he said he felt good, but he had to get his game legs. I have to get my gig chops back again." For Marsalis, that means that there's a gap between what he imagines and what he can execute. For the band, he says, "it's like conversation on a topic we're kind of rusty on, so some parts of the vocabulary you stay away from."
While many musicians talk about how they looked forward to playing because it was therapeutic, Marsalis saw it more pragmatically. His house Uptown lost the roof on the back of the house, and because of that, a washer, dryer and refrigerator -- "In the scheme of things, we don't have any problems," he says. "It's more like a minor inconvenience." -- so he had other things to attend to.
"It's not like everything else was the same and for some reason I couldn't play," he says. "Then you'd be eager to get back in the fray. In some way, [Hurricane Katrina] makes playing superfluous, not that it really is, but it puts a lot of things into perspective."
Nearing the end of his set at Snug Harbor, Marsalis returned to the standards he started with, this time taking a solo turn at "People," made famous by Barbra Streisand. His attack wasn't as patient or lyrical as it was when he played "All the Things You Are." This time, he reminded the audience of his gift for bop, returning to the ascending line, "Just be a person who needs people," before launching into another complex, sometimes sour fraying of the melody. "A loose rumination," he called it, but it was more of a vigorous interrogation of the song and its sentimentality. From that point on, the set was on solid footing, and it was very clear that one more staple of New Orleans' club life was back in more ways than one.
Each holiday seems to mark a major milestone in the city's recovery. Halloween weekend saw unprecedented post-Katrina club activity, and the Thanksgiving weekend has even more going on. Among the highlights are World Leader Pretend, which will perform on Wednesday at Tipitina's. The band's set at Voodoo Fest highlighted the daring and dynamics that it's CD Punches hints at. On Thanksgiving night, Jimmy Anselmo is staging an unusual benefit for Children's Hospital at Southport Hall, hosting a reunion for the clubs he has operated in New Orleans.
During his career, he ran Coeds in the late 1960s, Quasimodo's in the mid '70s, and Jimmy's from 1978-2000. DJs will spin tunes from '60s and '70s to commemorate the first two clubs, and a jam with a host of surprise musical guests will commemorate Jimmy's. On Friday night, Astral Project makes its first appearance in New Orleans since the hurricane at Snug Harbor for two shows.
- "When you're away from your instrument, it's like being out of shape," says jazz patriarch and pianist Ellis Marsalis, who recently returned to his regular Saturday-night spot at Snug Harbor.