The piano tradition that comes out of New Orleans is one of the most powerful streams of influence in all of American music. There’s something about the pumping bass lines and sprung boogie-woogie right hands of the players that come out of the city that speaks directly to the human spirit. Anyone who has ever heard it recognizes the true gumbo of New Orleans piano instantly.
On March 4, Arts & Lectures brings three of the greatest living exponents of New Orleans piano music to UCSB’s Campbell Hall for the Keys to New Orleans. The players are Jon Cleary, Henry Butler, and the immortal songwriter, bandleader, and record producer Allen Toussaint. Cleary is an Englishman who has worked with Bonnie Raitt and is known for the relentless funk he conjures from the keyboard. Butler is classically trained and jazz-influenced, but he has a style that is as earthy as any of the greats. Finally, Toussaint is a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with dozens of classic hit records to his credit. I spoke with Toussaint last week from his home in New Orleans.
Three pianists in one night, and all of you are from New Orleans. How does that work? It works very well because the other two gentlemen on this bill are troopers. Jon Cleary is actually not from New Orleans originally, but rather from England. He came to New Orleans and got stuck here, much to our benefit.
You were responsible for many great hit records in the golden age of the 45-rpm single. What was that like? When I was starting out, there were so many important things going on in music. Stax, Motown, and Atlantic’s rhythm and blues recordings-these were all getting going around the same time, in the early 1960s. It was very exciting to be producing records then, and very gratifying to have commercial success with some of them.
You have an encyclopedic knowledge of the various New Orleans piano styles. Could you say something about the origins and influences that go into your music? My playing and the piano styles of all the performers you will be hearing at the show, they come from the blending of many aspects. There are stride piano stylings in there, and junco blues, but there is also the influence of the brass band, which is a rambunctious kind of sound that carries with it the ambiance of the street parade. Professor Longhair has influenced everyone. He was especially tuned in to the early Latin things, like the rumba and the mambo. Latin music flowed through New Orleans from day one. ‘Fess had a great singing style too, a very idiosyncratic way with phrasing that I suppose came out of Louis Armstrong and the way that he sang.
How are things progressing with the restoration of New Orleans? Some of it has gone quick, but other parts are going more slowly. New Orleans is like a big garden of flowers, and the flowers will all come back, slowly but surely. The commercial sectors are already back, mostly, but for those of us who live there, for all the residential areas to return to their former beauty, we know that will take time.
What can we expect to hear from you on March 4? You’ll hear a lot of the famous songs I’ve written. This is a great time for me to be touring because I have a new CD that I am doing with producer Joe Henry, and I am very excited about that project. It will be a very intimate setting, with no ensemble larger than a quintet. Joe knows how to get the soul out, and that’s a good thing.
The Keys to New Orleans comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, March 4 at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.