Over the course of his 20-year career, drummer Stanton Moore has become known as one of the premier funk musicians of his generation. On his latest album, Conversations, he moves in a slightly different direction, returning to his roots while reinventing his trademark sound. The result is a lively and combustible jazz piano trio outing that reveals unexpected new dimensions to Moore’s always-engaging virtuosity.
Anyone who’s ever heard the interplay between the drummer and his band-mates in the Stanton Moore Trio, Galactic, Garage a Trois or Dragon Smoke is no doubt aware of his intense improvisational chops. But with Conversations, Moore unveils his profound sense of swing and the fluency of his jazz vocabulary in its purest form for the first time. “I’ve played a lot of jazz in New Orleans through the years, but it’s not something that the general public has ever seen me do or is even aware of,” Moore says.
Having delved deep into the styles of pioneering drummers like Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, and Zigaboo Modeliste for his multimedia 2010 project Groove Alchemy, Moore decided to explore his straight-ahead jazz influences with a similar focus. “Jazz has been part of my development and a deep love of mine for a long time. Everything I do funk and groove-wise is informed by what I’ve learned playing and studying jazz. I had put myself through what was basically a doctoral program on funk drumming, and I wanted to do the same thing with my jazz playing.”
Moore sent himself back to the jazz woodshed, taking lessons with veteran drummer Kenny Washington and spending time with Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra co-leader Jeff Hamilton, Moore’s partner in the Crescent Cymbal Company. He refined his brush playing by studying the work of Philly Joe Jones— evidenced by his brushwork on “Tchefunkta,” a slinkier transformation of the tune that opens his 1998 solo debut, All Kooked Out!
The New Orleans native called on a pair of veterans from that city’s vibrant, deeply rooted jazz scene to form his new trio. Pianist David Torkanowksy and bassist James Singleton have both played with saxophonist Tony Dagradi’s long-running band Astral Project alongside Moore’s mentor, drummer Johnny Vidacovich. Singleton has also worked with the likes of James Booker, Professor Longhair, Aaron Neville, Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, Harry Connick Jr. and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Torkanowsky’s credits include work with The Meters, Maceo Parker, Dianne Reeves, Dr. John, Boz Scaggs, George Duke, Kirk Whalum, James Moody and Chuck Berry.
Moore chose Torkanowsky and Singleton for their unparalleled musicianship, versatility, compatibility, and long history together. What he realized only after the fact is that his newly-assembled trio was already a Grammy Award-winning group: they had worked together as the rhythm section for Irma Thomas’ After the Rain, which was named the Best Contemporary Blues Album of 2007. “I always love playing with Stanton,” Singleton says, “and when he got me back together with Tork it became pure inspiration. We all share such deep bonds within very specific musical languages, and the energy keeps growing.”
The connection shared by the three New Orleanians, Moore says, “brings a deep sense of groove and pocket and a whole batch of ideas and cultural influences that I can reference and these guys know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s the Mardi Gras Indian thing, the brass band thing, the James Black thing. It’s hard to find a group of guys who are not only aware of all those influences, but are equally happy playing in any of those genres.”
The NOLA bond becomes even stronger through Moore’s choice of material. All but one of the album’s eleven tracks were written by a New Orleans composer, including the legendary drummer James Black, Tony Dagradi, Steve Masakowski, Evan Christopher, and all three members of the trio. The sole exception is Herbie Hancock, whose “Driftin'” is given a stride piano intro by Torkanowsky that makes it feel right at home in this company.
“Some of these tunes are New Orleans standards or tunes that David and Jim have played a lot together over the years. I wanted to create an outlet for the jazz side of my playing, but I didn’t want to do jazz standards that everyone else has done. So we developed a repertoire of tunes that were more in our wheelhouse.”
That material was honed over more than a year and a half of Tuesday-night performances at Snug Harbor, the renowned New Orleans’ jazz venue on Frenchman Street. The deep chemistry forged over the course of that residency is in ample evidence throughout the aptly-named Conversations, from the graceful but roiling opener “Lauren Z” to the wistful ballad “Waltz for All Souls,” from the Bill Evans-inspired elegance of Steve Masakowski’s “The Chase” to the deceptively complex celebration of the New Orleans standard “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line.”
“Improvised music should be conversational,” Moore says. “If one guy’s holding the floor, you don’t want to start speaking over him; you want to listen, you want to interject, you might want to convey another idea related to what he’s saying, but the same rules for good conversation apply to making good music. The music on this album is conversational, and all the tunes are coming from friends who we’ve had musical conversations with over the years.”
Everybody knows about New Orleans’ rich musical tradition – but an even more deeply rooted tradition in the Crescent City is one of perpetual reinvention. It’s a city that’s been reborn countless times over the course of its multi-cultural history, a legacy vibrantly reflected in its music.
With the release of their debut album, Dogs, in 2016, the Nolatet – vibraphonist Mike Dillon, pianist Brian Haas, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich – added their own new twist to the New Orleans tradition. Now the quartet returns with their much-anticipated follow-up, No Revenge Necessary, which takes the music through as many winding turns and colorful pathways as a Second Line parade route.
“Dogs was beginner’s luck,” says Singleton. “We had just started as a band, and we managed to somehow pull together a cohesive program. To me that small miracle was a good omen for the future.”
That omen proves true in myriad ways on No Revenge Necessary, released via Royal Potato Family, which finds the band getting alternately (and often simultaneously) funky and ferocious, playful and profound, high-spirited and movingly solemn, irreverent, iconoclastic, and tapped into the bloodline that flows through the veins of every New Orleans musician.
After criss-crossing the country together touring behind Dogs Haas says, “we can take bigger musical risks in the studio and not fall on our butts. The more you play improvised music with the same line-up the luckier you can get as a band. This new album is WAY rowdier and riskier.” As Dillon adds, “a year of touring and festivals has made this band of unique improvisers stand on an island beyond the normal jazz arms race.”
While Dogs was the first time these four came together as a unit, there was plenty of history already shared between them. Singleton and Vidacovich can boast more than four decades of playing together, during which they’ve established themselves as New Orleans’ most revered rhythm section. Dillon and Haas have crossed paths endlessly along the routes of their relentless touring schedules with bands like Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Garage a Trois, Critters Buggin and the Dead Kenny Gs.
“The wealth of music experience amongst ourselves is why Nolatet has its own voice,” says Haas. “After a few years you don’t learn the other person’s music – you learn the other person!”
That knowledge pays off in a sonic portrait like “Lanky, Stanky Maestro,” which Haas wrote in honor of Vidacovich and which evokes an explosive barrage of rakish outbursts from the drummer. Singleton calls it “pure slop/funk/mid-city/spaghetti- eatin’ grease” – and he’d know better than anyone. He continues that the “constant counterpoint conversation (including and especially the kit) is a contemporary flowering of the polyphony present in New Orleans music from 100 ears and years ago. That’s how we are able to reflect the complexities of adult lives with relatively simple materials.”
On the wildly spiraling “Bluebelly,”Singleton tips his hat to the more (post) modern sounds that he was confronted with through bandmate Dillon’s work in Garage a Trois alongside drummer Stanton Moore and saxophonist Skerik. Haas’ tumultuous “Homer and Debbie”was penned as an ode to two of his five dogs, and more expansively about life and death, youth and old age. Dillon’s “Elegant Miss J” commemorates a lost love and the pitfalls that follow when romance meets a life on the road. Landscape was also an inspiration for Haas, who wrote the imposing “Gracemont” under the sway of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains and the down-home “Pecos Wilderness”while musing on the terrain near his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Then there are the inevitable passions that arise from a world in turmoil and the rebirth that (hopefully) can rise from it, as has happened time and again in New Orleans’ beleaguered past. Singleton’s “Dike Finger” is his response to Hurricane Katrina, erupting in anger and then giving way to optimism and solidarity. Haas’ title track “No Revenge Necessary” casts both a more intimate and a much wider net, sparked by the end of a relationship, but expanding to encompass the divisive times in which we all find ourselves these days.
“For me the over-riding theme moving forward is forgiveness,” Singleton sums up. “Hopefully the strength of the music can serve as a reminder of the possibility of growth and healing through forgiving.”