Let us start with the glorious evidence.
That’s the opening track of Benny’s new CD, and when the band shifts into tempo after Benny’s interlude I find myself in tears of joy.
Benny Amón is one of my heroes And hero Benny can also write.
Often I’ve felt complete awe and incredulity for my experiences playing music in the city of New Orleans. I have been incredibly fortunate to gain mentors, many of whom are featured on this recording session, who have taught me to play New Orleans traditional music with the right feeling and spirit while also encouraging me to find my own voice as a musician.
This recording session is snapshot of that journey after spending most of my 20’s living in this beautiful city. The session is comprised of some of the most treasured musicians to come from this city and some of the greatest to have moved here. This exchange of generations, of cultures, of perspectives of music and life is what has helped make this recording session so successful.
My most important mentor and collaborator over the past several years, Steve Pistorius is featured prominently on this record whether it be ragtime duets, trios with horn players, or in the 7 piece ensemble. As Wendell Brunious likes to say, Steve is the #1 interpreter of the Jelly Roll Morton style of piano. Steve contributed much by writing out good melodies and chords as well.
Speaking of Wendell Brunious, we have worked together often at Preservation Hall over the past few years. Wendell is one of the best trumpet players and entertainers in the whole world and comes from one of the most important musical families of New Orleans. He is a gem that we cannot take for granted.
Freddie Lonzo is another of the New Orleans born and raised musicians who I have been working with over the past years at Preservation Hall and also at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. He is one of the few trombone players left who understands how to play New Orleans style tailgate trombone. His positive energy and humor is infectious, as is his singing.
Tom Fischer has been in New Orleans for longer than I have been alive and his dedication to excellence on both clarinet and alto saxophone is evident on this record.
New Orleans’ own clarinetist Tim Laughlin recorded two songs on this cd that turned out beautifully. He is one of the my first and most important mentors in New Orleans.
Tyler Thomson also known as “Twerk” by many, is absolutely on fire on this record. Bringing incredible power and solidity to the bands he plays with. He would make Pops Foster, Chester Zardis, and Alcide Louis “Slow Drag” Pavageau proud.
Alex Belhaj is a dear friend of mine who moved to New Orleans a few years ago and he is a frequent collaborator with the Riverside Jazz Collective. His fine banjo and guitar playing is featured in the 7 piece band.
Joe Goldberg is another transplant to New Orleans who has earned the respect of all the top players in both the traditional and modern jazz scenes. His clarinet and soprano saxophone playing as well as his singing is featured on a couple of songs.
As a final note I would like to add a reflection on the actual site of the recording session. George Blackmon, an old friend and excellent studio engineer moved his entire set up to the Scandinavian Jazz Church (Formerly known as the Norwegian Seamen’s Church) to record the bands. The sound he got in that beautiful old church is reminiscent of old New Orleans dance halls where the New Orleans Jazz Revival bands led by such luminaries as Bunk Johnson and George Lewis used to play and record. The Jazz Church unfortunately was sold and since has been closed down after over a 100 years of service to the New Orleans community. The Church hosted jazz concerts and jazz prayer services for decades. The Church generously allowed us to record and use their facilities free of charge. This recording, and the accompanying videos produced, will stand as a last testament to this beautiful and historically important New Orleans institution.
Most importantly, the music on this record is an authentic and timeless account of the New Orleans Jazz scene as I experienced it at this time of my life; full of life, and joy. I am proud to release this music and hope that you enjoy it!
You might think that Benny has said everything that needs to be said, but I want to add some perceptions he might be too modest to write himself. Although he turns 30 this year, he is a mature artist with large heartfelt visions and sensitivity. He is a spectacularly fine drummer. He makes beautiful sounds, he plays for “the comfort of the band,” he knows dynamics and timbres, and he swings no matter what the tempo. But he’s more than a wonderful percussionist.
Much of what is marketed as jazz these days — although it says it is inclusive — is a matter of boundaries and barriers, enacted in terms of repertoire and colleagues. “Ourselves alone,” as the Irish used to say. Benny understands the music as spacious, its boundaries easy and flexible. That doesn’t mean the new CD takes an iconoclastic approach for novelty’s sake, but it does mean that his vision of New Orleans jazz is easy and loose. There are echoes on this disc of Bunk Johnson, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Blythe, and Zutty Singleton — but also Eddie Condon, Billie Holiday, James P. Johnson. Sidney Bechet is in town, but it is the later rhapsodic French Bechet; the Bunk echoes are of the “Last Testament” session. I am tempted to write a track-by-track guided tour, but why spoil your surprises?
Benny’s gracious understanding also extends to the musicians he chose for this disc. He has opened his musical house to friends who can really play and sing, people who are individualists. And the welcome includes Elders and Youngbloods, which makes the session particularly earthy, fresh, and sweetly -surprising — it has some of the feel of a cross-generational down-home jam session where everyone is grinning their faces off at what they are hearing and what they are part of creatively. It isn’t trad-by-the-numbers; it isn’t busker-stomp; it isn’t formulaic in any way. And the repertoire is splendidly unhackneyed without being consciously esoteric.
Many CDs offer a huge plateful of The Same Thing, the musical equivalent of an eight-pound plateful of shrimp with lobster sauce. But I have played this disc half a dozen times from first to last, enraptured. There are full-ensemble pieces, one-horn, piano-drums trios, a gorgeous drum solo (BENNY FACE, as melodic as any orchestral piece), piano and drums, a few vocals (Goldberg on MY BABY; Brunious on BACKYARD; Lonzo on CALIFORNIA) — and speaking of BACKYARD . . .
How fresh and heartfelt that is!
Now I must explain the “GFP Award.” I’d asked Benny to send me a copy of the disc when it was ready (handsome art direction there, too) and when I got it in the mail, drawn by whatever magnetism, I played it that night and wrote him immediately that it was, and I quote, a GIANT FUCKING PLEASURE (I use the vernacular when possible) and he asked me to please use that language in my blog. I am too restrained to make it the heading . . . but the disc makes me happy. You can buy the physical disc or a digital download here. Don’t miss an opportunity to be uplifted.
Bless Benny and his friends. They bring such joy.
May your happiness increase!