The year 2015 was bountiful in South Louisiana for new music; the boot runneth over with new work from dependable local favorites, inspired releases from recent transplants and intriguing new artists announcing themselves on the scene. It’s impossible to give a nod to everyone, which can be filed under “good problems to have,” but here’s a roundup of the past year’s notable releases from the region.
All that Jazz
The Recording Academy, which announced contenders for the 2016 Grammy Awards earlier this month, showed appreciation for Louisiana-connected releases in the jazz categories — best jazz vocal album for “Jamison” from drummer Jamison Ross, who earned his master’s degree at the University of New Orleans, and best jazz instrumental album for Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective’s moody, intense “Breathless,” which was inspired in part by the controversial death of Eric Garner, who died after being aggressively restrained by New York City police in 2014. The Regional Roots category nodded to rhythm-and-blues pianist Jon Cleary’s deliciously groovy “Go Go Juice” and to “Get Ready” from the Revelers, whose members have played with the Pine Leaf Boys, the Red Stick Ramblers and other stalwarts of the next-generation Cajun-country scene.
Heart and soul
Meanwhile Feufollet, a contemporary of those bands, introduced country twang and sweeping, psychedelic soul to its neo-Cajun sound on the triumphant “Two Universes,” which introduced the mountain-style fiddle and vocal harmonies of new member Kelli Jones-Savoy. Another new fiddle — Kevin Wimmer, the latest addition to Steve Riley’s Mamou Playboys — put a stamp on a fine new South Louisiana 2015 release: that band’s “Voyageurs,” which came out in the spring.
Breaking the mold
In the jazz arena, New Orleanians pushed boundaries. “Letters,” his first double album, showcased the versatile Nicholas Payton on piano and organ, with only a few moments spent on his usual trumpet. Tom McDermott joined forces with fellow musical polymath Aurora Nealand for “City of Timbres,” a typically smart and eclectic album that navigates surefootedly from country blues to Brazilian choro to Tom Waits. And trumpeter Christian Scott, a NOCCA alumnus, appears poised to join artists like Esperanza Spalding, Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper in crossing jazz over to pop audiences: his “Stretch Music,” declared “genre-agnostic” by NPR, was widely lauded.
Anything and everything
Speaking of genre-agnostic, the crafty cellist Helen Gillet scored a one-two punch with her pair of Jazz Fest-season releases. “Dusk In Wallonia” was a passionate, garrulous romp through French chanson, barroom music that is, at various times, good for dancing or weeping (whichever wine puts you in the mood for), and “Bangkok Silver” was tense, intimate and sometimes dark and weird, employing pedals, effects and experiments by the score. New-school jam-funkateers Galactic again threw a studio party, inviting a clutch of collaborators to appear on its latest, “Into The Deep.” Guests included Macy Gray, Mavis Staples and others; a standout was New Orleans’ Charm Taylor, on the tight, urgent and scratchy soul of “Right On.” Taylor, formerly of the Honorable South, stepped out on her own in 2015 as well with the sinuously funky “The Road Within.” The boutique label Sinking City, run by a pair of WWOZ DJs, put out the brilliant, fresh and electric Mardi Gras Indian LP “Fire on the Bayou,” from the 79rs Gang.
Several recent transplants to New Orleans testified, on wax, that the city is fertile ground for inspiration. Dayna Kurtz, the folk/R&B singer who put down roots in town this year after visiting frequently for close to two decades, put out the smoldering “Rise and Fall” in April, a deep-breathing and articulate tour de force that meditates knowingly and poetically on loss, love and the passage of time. The iconic Rickie Lee Jones also mined New Orleans for her summer release, “The Other Side of Desire,” fluently (and with the help of local artists like the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ Louis Michot, who co-wrote the delicate, haunted waltz “Valtz de mon Pere”) speaking in the idioms of swamp pop and Cajun string balladry. Keyboardist Nigel Hall, a jamband-circuit favorite and Jon Cleary sideman, stepped into the spotlight with the aptly named “Ladies & Gentlemen… Nigel Hall,” a smooth love letter to the ‘70s and ‘80s soul music he grew up with.
The roots, blues and folk scene in New Orleans ebbs and flows, and most agree that it’s at a high-water mark of late. 2015 offered a lot for fans of the Americana sound, from Colin Lake’s slide guitar on “One Thing That’s For Sure” to Kristin Diable’s sultry country-soul on “Create Your Own Mythology” to the fast-rising Deslondes’ tight, twining harmonies and strings on their self-titled debut for the New West label. Spencer Bohren delivered a dark and spooky guitar on “Seven Birds,” and slide blues master Sonny Landreth dropped “Bound By The Blues.” A gang of veteran guitar slingers and yarn-spinners — Bohren, Jim McCormick, Alex McMurray and Paul Sanchez — joined forces to form the Write Brothers songwriting gang, which released “First Flight.” And newcomers Renshaw Davies, a duo that deals in ethereal harmony and spare, sharp acoustic picking, introduced themselves with their first single (“Goin’ Down the Road”/“Auctioneer”). Indie-popsters Givers returned with “New Kingdom,” its first in four years, and the revved-up veteran punks Dash Rip Rock battered some guitars on “Wrongheaded.”
Up in flames
Finally, the delightfully odd and creative local label Saint Roch Recordings offered up one of the year’s most interesting releases from New Orleans, or anywhere: a limited-edition cassette recording of two live performances from the Washington state black metal band Wolves In The Throne Room, packaged in hand-pressed sagebrush paper, wrapped in jute string and stamped with a gold wax seal. The paper is intended to be burned while you listen, and, if you like, contemplate the transient nature of music and existence. Listen to that as the year 2015 goes up in smoke.