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 Monday, 01 September 2014
Talking with Evan Christopher PDF Print
Written by Pamela Espeland   
Friday, 19 March 2010

Image
Evan ChristopherŠJohn Whiting

Think “clarinet” and “New Orleans” and a certain sound may come to mind: sweet, quavery, old-timey Dixieland. I once thought of the clarinet as an instrument that had seen its day in jazz, making rare appearances for color and nostalgia. And then I heard Evan Christopher play. 

During my first encounter with the Creole-style clarinetist, an impromptu set at the Dakota Jazz Club http://www.dakotacooks.com/ in Minneapolis in 2008, he stole the show from Irvin Mayfield, who usually keeps a pretty firm grasp on such things. I heard Christopher again at Chickie Wah Wah in New Orleans in March 2009, where he has a regular gig on Monday nights, and back at the Dakota in October, where he played for more than two hours to a packed house with no break. Each time I came away knowing I had heard something old and something new.  

Born in Long Beach, California, Christopher began playing clarinet at age 11. He moved to New Orleans in 1994 and left twice, the first time in 1996 to join the Jim Cullum Jazz Band http://landing.com/ in San Antonio, where he remained for two and a half years, and again in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when his Broadmoor neighborhood flooded and he became one of the city’s more than 4,000 displaced musicians.  

At the invitation of the French government, Christopher relocated to Paris, where he deepened his commitment to the music of New Orleans, solidified his claim to the title “Ambassador of the Clarinet,” and formed two groups: The Jazz Traditions Project and Django à la Crèole. He returned to New Orleans in December 2007. 

Christopher is charismatic on stage, playing with passion and joy, connecting with the audience, occasionally singing, sometimes dancing as he plays. Rooted in history and scholarship, his music is modern and fresh, sincere and full of emotion, respectful of the elders but not at all dusty or quaint. Contemporary trad? Or simply the living, breathing, right-now sound of New Orleans?  

We spoke in late 2009, when Christopher was in Minneapolis with pianist Henry Butler, and also to meet with the Minnesota Orchestra, which has commissioned him to write a new piece for orchestra that will have its world premiere on July 23, 2010.

*** 

The name of your website is “Clarinet Road” and you have two recordings called “Clarinet Road.” What is the Clarinet Road? 

Evan Christopher: When I first met Tony Scott, the great bebop clarinet player, he was living in Italy. I was on tour and he autographed a poster-size picture he used to carry copies of around, of himself backstage at Carnegie Hall in 1953 or 1954 with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. He signed it “Good luck on Clarinet Road, lots of curves.” I lost that poster in the storm but I kept the Clarinet Road thing.  

How did your music change when you moved to Paris after Katrina? 

When I went to Paris, I was very aggressively trying to move forward, trying not to cry over spilled milk. Initially I thought there was no way I was ever going to go back to New Orleans, I was so pissed off about it. I envisioned getting a project started in Paris, and I envisioned staying there. To shape that project, I had to come up with a slightly new aesthetic, because I had to find a way to represent New Orleans music outside of New Orleans with musicians who weren’t living there or from there. 

You were working with French musicians? 

On the Live at the Meridien recording, the drummer’s French. The other two musicians live in France but they’re actually Australian. 

The bass player, Sebastien Girardot, has played traditional jazz with real New Orleans-style revival bands since he was 19. [Guitarist] David Blenkhorn came up with Australian musicians in the Australian traditional jazz scene. He plays the shit out of blues. He approaches jazz in almost a more American way than a lot of American musicians do. 

What does that mean? 

He likes to swing and play blues.  

Do you find there’s a difference between working with American musicians and those who aren’t American? 

I can’t make a generalization like that. But I will say that I enjoy the spirit of these guys. It seems more American to me than a lot of the cats I work with here. 

Talk about your Jazz Traditions Project, the group with whom you recorded Live at the Meridien

It’s a tongue-in-cheek thing. A lot of avant-garde/contemporary groups use the word “project” and it’s sort of annoying. The Jazz Traditions Project is a way of saying “We’re not going to apologize for having a foot in the door of New Orleans music.”  

I met Sebastien when he was about 19 years old, at a festival in Norway. He was playing with an Australian band, good revival-style New Orleans jazz. The drummer, Guillaume [Nouaux], I met a couple years later in Paris. David Blenkhorn I met in Ascona, Switzerland. He was there at a festival with a great Australian jazz musician named Tom Baker. Who again embodies what I think is more the American spirit/aesthetic of jazz better than a lot of American musicians. 

You taught for a time. 

I was adjunct faculty at the University of New Orleans and I’m done with that. I had the distinction for three semesters of having the only performing ensemble at the University level dealing with New Orleans music. 

That is so bizarre. 

Everybody says that, and I want people to have that reaction. But maybe it’s not so bizarre. If you think about what has become the norm for modern jazz pedagogy, New Orleans strategies and schema for music-making or learning music don’t really fit in. I found ways to make them fit in, but they don’t generally. It’s not people’s experience who teach on that level. It’s not something, except in New Orleans, that students can engage in directly when they walk out their door. The fact that they choose not to is the part that I want to seem strange. 

When you are bringing the music forward, making the music contemporary, how are you doing that? What’s going through your mind as you’re preparing and performing? 

During my preparation with the band, I have some rules in my head, to intentionally avoid repertory. The idea behind Django à la Crèole was if we do these Django tunes, we have to find a new way to do them. We have to find elements in them that say that they want to be something else. We have to find rhythmic elements, harmonic things, that make them actually want to not be the same thing that they’ve been for years and years, that everybody else is doing. 

[See and hear Django à la Crèole perform “Fantasie” and “Riverboat Shuffle.”]  

Image
Even ChristopherŠJohn Whiting
With the Jazz Traditions Project, it’s the same thing. You have to take vehicles that lend themselves to using the vocabulary that’s rooted in tradition. A song like John Coltrane’s “After the Rain” is a beautiful waltz. You imagine, well, what if Elvin Jones is playing in a brass band, what if George Lewis is playing the melody? And it’s not to make anachronisms. It’s like a postmodern strategy, where you’re blurring the lines between genre, where you’re blurring the lines between tradition. At the same time, it still has to be musical, to have what I would call narrative.  

[See and hear the Jazz Traditions Project perform Coltrane’s “After the Rain.”]

You also play an Ornette Coleman tune, “Lonely Woman.” 

Ornette is one of the pioneers of modern jazz. To be anchored firmly in the earliest New Orleans traditions and yet find a way to make an homage to one of the pioneers of the avant-garde was more symbolic for me than anything. 

Is it difficult? 

It’s hard finding things. I’ve been looking for other Ornette tunes, and I’ve hung out with him. He’s a lovely cat. He appreciates things that sound good. His whole thing has always been about being free of all of those trappings—what’s traditional, what’s modern, freedom from tonality, even more abstractly, freedom from what he calls our “classness,” or even gender. He’d rather be free of all of that. 

What were you doing before you started playing in the New Orleans style?  

When I was in college, I was playing a lot of saxophone. When I first started university, I was playing a lot more saxophone. I thought I was being groomed to be a New York musician, someone who was going to wait in line to audition to be one of Art Blakey’s last alto players. 

Doesn’t everybody have that Art Blakey dream? 

I don’t know if it was specifically Art Blakey. I was kind of making a joke. Those kinds of stories resonate with one’s imagination when you’re out there in California. A couple of my mentors were more modern musicians. I think that’s what I envisioned myself being. I still know a lot of that music, even though I never get to play it. 

So now you are known as a New Orleans-style, Creole-style clarinetist. That’s how everyone talks about you and how you present yourself. Does it ever feel like a trap? 

No, because in 2006 I intentionally branded myself that way. I started to do that even before the storm, but I was more aggressive about it starting in 2006.  

I want to make sure people are aware that what I’m doing is related and relevant to New Orleans. I’m trying to be an advocate for that language. I had to find a way to explain it better so that my identity was more explicable.  

Most people’s understanding of New Orleans traditional jazz is so narrow that I wanted to find a new way to make sure that I got different gigs, or that other musicians didn’t make presumptions about what I did. So part of it was a strategy to make me not look like I was in some kind of box.  

I also I had to find a way to get around the fact that for traditional music, you find a demographic that’s not as much fun to hang out with. So part of the Jazz Traditions Project was simply trying to find an aesthetic that would lead us out of only playing for old people.  

It wasn’t some kind of artistic decision. It was more of a survival technique, like switching from saxophone back to clarinet was a survival technique. One day in university, I realized that there’s way too many freaking saxophone players out there. I started getting calls to do clarinet things, and it was my first instrument, so once I started taking it more seriously, I thought, well, I’ve just eliminated so much competition that I may just stick with this. 

Talk about your own composing. What are you trying to do with your compositions?  

Finding new ways to frame the music has to go beyond jazz clubs and concerts. I started writing a little bit for chamber orchestra for a project in California, and that got me excited.  

There’s a group called the Seahawk Modern Jazz Orchestra out of Idyllwild [California], put together by one of my teachers, Marshall Hawkins, the bass player. [Hawkins leads the jazz department at Idyllwild Arts Academy, which Christopher attended.] Every summer they have a music festival with a chamber orchestra concert that blends jazz and classical in different ways, or uses the orchestra to frame certain aspects of improvised music. So every time I’m able, I try to write something for them.  

I’m gradually getting more into the idea that there’s vocabulary in New Orleans music that can be used in those forums, and I feel I’m onto something new. It’s been done in the past by composers like William Grant Still, people like that. But nobody today is doing too much with it. 

I’m trying to find ways to have elements of that vocabulary present. Even if it seems kind of hidden. For example, I’ve been cataloging the way that the modern brass bands use harmony, meaning the way three trombone players improvise something in the modern [New Orleans] brass band. I’m trying to catalog the way they harmonize with each other. 

What do you mean by “catalog”? 

I’m literally transcribing the way they harmonize with each other, trying to figure out new systems, trying to figure out how to build that into an orchestration so it becomes a gesture of New Orleans music. In the same way that Mozart used certain rhythms to make gestures that represent aristocracy, or gestures that represent folk. 

These gestures become symbols that tell the listener, “Oh, now we’re dealing with the South,” or “Now we’re dealing with the European tradition, or the blues tradition.” We’re dealing with certain traditions just by sticking those little gestures in the music somewhere. They can be ornaments, chords, the way something is voiced, they can be harmonic.  

You spent almost three years with the Jim Cullum jazz band in your late 20s. Would you like to talk about that? 

That was when I switched to the Albert System [of clarinet fingering], so it was great…. It was an interesting time. I had been in New Orleans for a couple years and was actually dissatisfied. I felt like I had run out of things to do. I hadn’t taken responsibility for having my own projects. The phone would ring, I would do things, I got to do a variety of things, but I got bored pretty quickly…. I couldn’t do the Cullum band more than two and a half years. I got very accustomed to what was going to happen next. When there’s not new information, I have to move on.  

I found an old web page from when you were in the band, and even then you had ideas about the music. Here’s what you said: “My goal is to maintain the integrity of early jazz styles, its structure, but move forward so that it's speaking to an audience of today instead of being something bottled and preserved." 

I think I’ve been saying that from the very beginning. It’s not like one day I wanted to do repertory and one day I didn’t. As soon as I became interested in this music, I knew I didn’t want to play in bands that were trying to re-create something. 

Talk about [drummer] Shannon Powell. You’ve mentioned his name so often that I get the sense he’s important to you and to the music. 

He’s one of the best drummers in New Orleans, and a perfect example of someone who has a deep passion for the tradition but doesn’t feel an obligation to be in a box in the way that he uses it. He’ll use it when it’s appropriate, but if he’s just making music creatively, you’ll hear the history of New Orleans drumming in his playing. You’ll hear everybody from Baby Dodds to Ed Blackwell. It’s all in there. He strongly represents his own neighborhood, his own community of the Tremé, in his drumming style.  

New Orleans is a fascinating place for that reason. Neighborhoods have their own musical accents, like a linguistic accent… The difference between Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell is a distinction that’s very much rooted in the neighborhoods. The distinction of the 6th ward versus the 9th ward. 

How did you figure that out? 

You notice the difference and then you ask them about it. And when you’re trying to play with it, you have to ask those questions as well. What am I supposed to be doing with this? This is the way we do things in the Tremé versus the way we do things in the 9th ward. 

Scholarship and research are important to you.  

I didn’t have what Shannon had when he grew up. He sat behind Cie Fraser. He knew these musicians. When I got to New Orleans, there were no living clarinet players playing in the New Orleans style. The last one would have been Willie Humphrey, who died months before I got there. After that, there wasn’t anybody performing in New Orleans that I was terribly interested in.  

So you went into the archives at Tulane University. You’ve said that was like “taking lessons from ghosts.” 

Sometimes in those oral histories they’re actually performing on their instruments, they’re describing the way they did things, the jobs they had, how they got to them or why they did them. Those are the things I would have loved to have asked musicians I knew personally, but there weren’t any.  

You’ve said that a lot of your mentors died when you were in Paris. 

Kenny Davern at 72. Ahmet Ertegun at 80 fell down at a Rolling Stones concert. Tony Scott at 84, 85.  

Are you feeling that you’re taking on some of that role? 

I had to look at it that way because I was too old to feel sorry for myself. Like, I’m the abandoned kid…. It’s not that way. The circle’s turning. 

So now you’re it. 

There’s a trumpet player friend of mine, we’re in kind of a similar situation. We’re both 40 and we’re trying to figure out why there aren’t a bunch of young cats in their twenties wanting to do what we’re doing, or trying to get a handle on it. Why aren’t they asking us for the recordings that we got from musicians and friends who are now maybe 10 or 20 years older than us?  

One of the obvious answers is because there’s not a demand for it. But there must be something else, too. I’m not thinking there was ever a huge demand for it, just that it suited my personal aesthetic. The development of a personal aesthetic is not something that our culture is promoting or encouraging or nurturing.  

You’re a seeker. Do you think the path you’re on will hold your interest? 

Figuring out how to play the clarinet in a New Orleans way and have it get gradually farther and farther away from instantly having the associations of being traditional…and yet, at the same time, have it be understood as being from that—that’s a really fun challenge. There’s irony, and there’s a degree of subversion. I find myself trying to thumb my nose at what’s a more dominating aesthetic in the jazz community. 

Which is…? 

I wouldn’t know how to describe it exactly, but it’s a little bit more of the stare at your shoes mentality, the I-don’t-care-if-you-have-a-good-time-listening-to-your-music mentality. New Orleans insists that on some level you have a good time. 

*** 

Hear a complete concert by the Evan Christopher/Tom McDermott Danza Quartet, broadcast live from Donna’s Bar and Grill in the French Quarter on New Year’s Eve 2009.  

*** 

Pamela Espeland writes about jazz for Jazz Police, MinnPost, mnartists.org, and other websites including her blog, Bebopified. This article first appeared on Willard Jenkins's blog, The Independent Ear. We recommend her calendar of live jazz in the Twin Cities.



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