New Orleans is alive and well these days. Want proof? Then it would be a treat to beat your feet near the Missouri mud and march on down to the Holland Center on November 14. There y’ll’ can partake of “A Night in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans” as the Big Easy’s Soul Rebels Brass Band struts its stuff on stage and blends sounds with other Crescent City artists: alto sax legend Donald Harrison Jr., trumpet star James Andrews (sometimes called “Satchmo of the Ghetto”) and funk guitarist Leo Nocentelli, a rocking foundation of The Meters.
This intense manifestation is designed to vivify the feel of life along the streets and in the bars and halls of New Orleans’ Treme, one of the city’s most famed and oldest neighborhoods, an enduring center of African-American and Creole culture.
At the end of the 19th century, Treme was home to the bawdy houses of Storyville with early jazz players such as Jelly Roll Morton earning their keep, keeping on inventing a new kind of music and where, in Congo Square, slaves had the freedom to dance in public on Sundays. That’s where hearts were turning ever far from the old folks at home and where brass and symphonic bands gave concerts whose improvisations provided other foundations of what got labeled Jazz.
“You have to go back to New Orleans’ past and understand that it was the only city in the Northern Hemisphere where people of African descent were allowed to keep their culture alive and play music from Africa,” Harrison told readers of Missouri’s Columbia Daily Tribune. “I draw back upon that history.”
Harrison has often performed as a TV actor, portraying a resident of that neighborhood in the HBO four- season series “Treme.” David Simon and Eric Overmeyer are the creators; their accomplishments, among others, include the HBO phenomenon “The Wire.”
James Andrews has been in many episodes too. His recent appearances there, according to his website, “sparked a fire that rekindled the hearts of many and kept the spirit of New Orleans alive throughout the world over with his own rendition of ‘Ooh- poopah- Doo’.”
Plus The Soul Rebels turned up in the Season One finale performing “Drink A Little Poison (4 U Die).”
Thus do they reunite, the TV series a previous link. It’s also a link to how this whole musical experience came about. “A Night in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans” is part of an ongoing four- year project created by concert producer Danny Melnick. A self-described “jazz freak,” his heart and soul have been in creating such as this, especially given long time status as an associate of George Wein, the force behind the 59 year monumental Newport Jazz Festival.
When Melnick learned of the soon-to-air HBO series, he and the producers agreed to merge concepts. Then, with participation by such artists as those you can hear here, these concerts kicked off. By now Melnick has sent out scores of musicians all over the U.S for gigs in different combinations, playing a variety of styles, but always New Orleans-based.
If you’ve seen the series, you know that the effects of Hurricane Katrina have a strong role in the stories. That tragedy plays no serious part in this melodic event. Besides, as Melnick points out, “There are so many cross-currents in New Orleans that people there will undoubtedly say to you, ‘Hey, man, there was life before Katrina. We don’t want to be defined by that.”
Why “Musical Majesty”? “There is a majestic, dynamic, incredible heartbeat of a city,” Melnick points out, “where musical artists are treated like royalty in a long reign of glory going back as far as King Oliver. And now we have Donald Harrison, known as ‘The King of Nouveau Swing.’” Add to that: Rex and his Queen preside over every Mardi Gras Ball.
You know, no doubt, that NOLA Mardi Gras revelers dress up the nines. And part of the Treme tradition involves very specific wardrobes worn by Mardi Gras Indians. They are not Native Americans, although the suits are influenced by indigenous ceremonial robes. There are tribes too. Harrison has long been the Big Chief of The Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans tribe. He may or may not turn up in Omaha thus costumed; suits like his can weigh up to a hundred pounds. Heavy luggage.
“I call it ‘Afro-New Orleans’ because it’s not pure African anymore,” he said in that Columbus, Missouri interview. Adding “ …and then you have all of the music of New Orleans which has influenced rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul and even hip-hop. It’s something that keeps informing New Orleans’ music and, conversely, keeps informing the world.”
Don’t think of this musical gathering as mainly dwelling on traditional jazz, popularly called “Dixieland.” There are, indeed, reflections of such roots in James “12” Andrews’ playing. Yet, he says that he swings the New Orleans tradition “in contemporary ways,” telling us that “12” is a nickname from his father for whom that was a lucky number.
Andrews started his trumpet playing in local marching bands. The Soul Rebels Brass band goes in that direction, but avers incorporating influences from outside the city plus “late- breaking” local styles, R&B, funk, hip-hop and rap.
Harrison has been along his own line of march. He created what he calls “Nouveau Swing” – merging jazz with much of the above along with soul and modern dance music. He came up with the CD Quantum Leap which, his website says, found musicians and critics agreeing “is a next step for jazz…opening up new areas for time, harmony, and melody.”
Leo Nocentelli made his name as part of The Meters blending funk, blues, and dance grooves. The Meters have had four consecutive hit singles: “Sophisticated Cissy,” “Cissy Strut,” “Ease Back,” and “Look a Py Py,” all reaching the Top 10 on R&B charts. And dig this: The Meters have just been nominated to enter the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
The guitarist has been on sessions with such diverse artists as Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Albert King and Sting and goes as far back in New Orleans to have had personal connections with Harrison, with whom he grew up. Calling the alto sax player “an extraordinary musician,” he says, on The Gibson website, “He’s very dear to me,” More recently those two had gigs together on a European tour. As for the Soul Rebels, Nocentelli dovetails there likewise; he’s written songs for them.
Nocentelli points out that The Meters have all kinds of musical affinities. “We are definitely directly connected to the New Orleans flavor with our new style of funk,” he told me. “My music spans a 50 year era and is still contributing to the spirit of music today.”
“There’s not too many places that you can say have their own music,” he commented on that website. “But you can say you’re going to play New Orleans music. When you say New Orleans music, you know what the person is talking about.”
And don’t forget Big Easy food and drink. You needn’t forget. A couple of dishes will be on the pre-concert menu at Zinc, Holland Center’s full service restaurant. Plus all house bars plan to offer “The Hurricane” a rum-based drink which way pre-dates Katrina.
Yes indeed, Crescent City vibrations will be all over the place. As Melnick said,“The whole point is to celebrate New Orleans.”
Omaha Performing Arts presents “A Night in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans” November 14 at Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas Street. 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30-$70. More info at 402.345,0606 or www.omahaperformingarts.org.