On Tuesday afternoon, a dramatically re-imagined “Southern Nights” sprang to life inside the New Orleans Jazz Market.
Sixteen members of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra were arrayed on the venue’s stage for the first full day of recording for their planned Allen Toussaint tribute album. Using pianist Mike Esneault’s dynamic arrangement, they deconstructed and reassembled "Southern Nights" as a brighter, bolder and brassier, yet still evocative, version of itself.
Adonis Rose, the Jazz Orchestra’s longtime drummer and, since 2017, its artistic director, is also producing the Toussaint-themed recording. “How do we feel about that?” he asked from behind the drums, following a stab at "Southern Nights."
The general consensus was thumbs-down. Multiple discussions broke out among the musicians until Rose, politely but firmly, cut them off: “We gotta keep moving. We can talk about it after, but we got to play now. All right, let’s do it.”
With that, he jump-started a second-line beat, the full orchestra swung in, and “Southern Nights” took flight once again.
Rose is well aware that, with this record, much is at stake.
The Jazz Market, the orchestra’s sleek, multipurpose, multimillion-dollar headquarters in Central City, previously has been used to live-stream concerts, but the Toussaint project is the venue's formal debut as a recording studio.
The album-in-progress, tentatively slated for a late summer release, will be the 16-year-old Jazz Orchestra’s first since the departure of its controversial founder, Irvin Mayfield, who is under federal indictment.
And it will be the Jazz Orchestra's first album since Rose, a New Orleans native, Berklee College of Music graduate and alumnus of Harry Connick Jr.’s band, took over as the organization’s artistic director.
After a yearlong hiatus, the Jazz Orchestra revived itself in fall 2017 under the stewardship of Rose and new president and CEO Sarah Bell. Since then, the band has performed at the Jazz Market with percussionist Sheila E, pianist Robert Glasper and singers Ledisi and Eric Benet. After sitting out the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the orchestra returned to the festival this year for a well-received performance.
And now the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is making an album based on one of the greatest figures in New Orleans music. It will feature not just Toussaint compositions but new songs inspired by him and older songs associated with him. The plan is for the orchestra to go on tour in 2019 to promote it.
“We’re long overdue to have a recording out,” Rose said. “And we’re ready to go back on the road.”
Famed jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater’s long association with the Jazz Orchestra has continued under its new leadership. Last summer, when Rose spoke with her about potential recording projects, she suggested the band take on the Toussaint catalog.
The Jazz Orchestra has put its spin on the songs of Stevie Wonder, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and Queen. But Toussaint hits much closer to home. Rose’s uncle, Chris Severin, was Toussaint’s bassist for years. As a young man, Rose first visited Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios with Severin. “That’s how I got to know who Allen was, through my uncle,” Rose said.
He learned even more about the legend while doing research for the Jazz Orchestra’s recording. "Allen has so much music over so many years," Rose said. "It was hard to put a list together without leaving something great out."
That list includes such obscurities as “Electricity,” the final track on Toussaint’s 1972 album “Life, Love and Faith.” To Rose, it sounded like a Beatles song. “I was really surprised when I heard it. Out of all the other songs on that record, that one stood out. I like songs that move harmonically. It’s interesting for listeners and for musicians in the band to not feel like they’re doing the same thing over and over.”
Toussaint wrote songs specifically to suit Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and other singers. Similarly, the Jazz Orchestra’s arrangements emphasize the strengths and styles of its individual members, as when trumpeter Ashlin Parker is featured on "Java," a Toussaint instrumental that was a big hit for trumpeter Al Hirt.
“We write arrangements for who will be featured and their playing style,” Rose said. “We can orchestrate Allen’s music in a way that I haven’t heard before. This will be a fresh take on Allen’s music.”
The plan was still coming together as recording commenced this week. Jazz Orchestra trombonist Michael Watson likely will sing “Southern Nights” and “Electricity.” Trumpeter Leon Brown is slated to sing an original composition. Davell Crawford has been invited to contribute one of his Toussaint-esque songs. Phillip Manuel may do “With You In Mind” as a duet with Bridgewater.
Gerald Watkins, the Jazz Orchestra's drummer when Rose is conducting, will power some songs. Rose will handle the rest, including the tunes with distinctive second-line rhythms.
That he is especially sensitive to rhythm was evident Tuesday as he listened to Watkins' drumming on “Java.” “I like it punchy, but maybe a little lighter,” Rose said after the first take. “It feels heavy.”
During “Working In a Coal Mine,” revamped with an innovative arrangement by Jazz Orchestra saxophonist Ed Petersen, Rose offered Watkins more guidance: “You want it to feel relaxed. That’s kind of the vibe.”
Eventually, Rose took a turn on “Working In a Coal Mine” himself. He also was behind the drums when the Jazz Orchestra snapped back to attention after lunch Tuesday with the brassy opening fanfare of “Tequila,” the enduringly popular 1958 novelty hit by the Champs.
Toussaint didn’t write “Tequila,” but he recorded it for the B-side of his 1969 single “We the People.” Thus, Rose deemed it eligible for inclusion. Conveniently enough, Jazz Orchestra pianist Victor Atkins already had written an arrangement of “Tequila” for the group's 2013 appearance on the Russian version of “American Idol.”
Now that arrangement, and the Jazz Orchestra itself, are finding fresh life in a Toussaint-themed recording under Rose's direction.
“It’s all on me, pretty much every aspect,” he said. “I think we’ll represent Allen’s music correctly, with spirit and soul behind it. We have one of the best bands in the world.”