Saturday, October 20, 2012

Trem-aniac alert! The latest episode in my continuing obsession-hobby, decoding the fictive narratives running thru the HBO series "Treme" determining their factual basis and tracking down pertinent artifacts has led me to Donald Harrison Jr.s '92 release "Indian Blues."

Lemme start by admitting that the decoding process is not awfully tough - every Monday morning Dave Walker of the Times Picayune posts his "Treme Explained" column which does all that, often with pertinent weblinks to restaurant webpages, Amazon downloads, Google maps etc. And NPR and HBO regularly post exegeses as well:;

Typically I only have time to check out Walker's column which has lotsa interesting info listed but it's not always complete so there's still detective work to be done.

Sometime during the first season, the segments capturing Mardi Gras Indian chanting and performance really hit me hard and set me on a quest for anything on record. I realized that I already had the Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchapitoulis albums and started listening to those. The latter features the wiry minimalist funk of The Meters backing up their uncle, George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry and his gang's chanting - honestly ace stuff. The former features more densely-packed arrangement by another batch of top NOLA players including guitarist Snooks Eaglin, Willie Tee on keys and "Uganda" Roberts (who'd been personally mentored by Professor Longhair in his youth) on percussion - vocals by Bo Dollis and co. with a special guest performance by Monk Boudreaux; for my tastes, the backing musicians lay it on a bit too thick and florid to thrill, but it's solid enough.

What I was really jonesing for was just unaccompanied chanting and that proved harder to find especially online where most of releases you'll find have little or no description by editors or consumers. Eventually Keith Spera at the Times Picayune tipped me to The Indians of the Nation release which gathered a number of Big Chiefs together to perform the standard repertoire in the traditional manner - group chanting accompanied by a variety of hand percussion - this is something ya hadda buy from the Louisiana Music Factory; wasn't anywhere else online at the time. This one's totally killer. I also stumbled across "Lightning & Thunder" by The Golden Eageles featuring Monk Boudreaux - download or manufacture upon demand only at Amazon - another great find in this vein.

In the midst of my searching I came across saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr.s "Indian Blues" and noted that while it had a couple examples of unaccompanied Indian chanting, other tracks were jazz instruments -- not what I was looking for at the time.

One of the main plot lines in season two of "Treme" is Delmond Lambreaux's gradual rapproachment with New Orleans in general and its unusual musical culture - one that puts a premium on maintaining historical perspectives, preserving age-old traditions and keeping them alive and vital. And where in most places around the country this would be the mission of academia and intellectuals, here it's part of street level culture: in New Orleans a place in a school marching band bestows equal or higher street cred than than membership in a gang. Kinda mind blowing.

Eventually Delmond has an epiphany while second lining behind his father's Indian gangThe Guardians Of The Flame while marching down Claiborne Ave. under the I-10 (of course one of the great crimes committed against African American society in New Orleans was civil authorities routing the elevated interstate right down the major commercial street of the Treme neighborhood -- just imagine the main drag in your home town, lined with grocery, hardware, clothes stores, lawyers offices, restaurants, clubs suddenly having an interstate plopped down, obliterating it). As Delmond grooves along to the polyrthymic percussion and tribal chanting he suddenly passes a boombox blasting some fiery post-bop jazz and it all lines up in his head. His mission becomes to make a recording that marries Indian chants by his father, Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, jazz instrumental backings, laced with tribal beats. He starts by enlisting one Donald Harrison Jr. who, playing himself in the series, has a formidable past credits and critical acclaim aplenty who accompanies him to talk Dr. John into taking part, eventually rounding out the recording line up with legendary bassist Ron Carter, Uganda Roberts on percussion (some other drummer too whose name escapes me right now) and his father on vocals. Towards the end of the season we see them in the studio recording "Hu-Ta-Nay," a glorious melange of street-wise polyrhthms, call and response chanting and sweet jazz blowing.

As season three starts, we find Delmond at a NYC record release party for the finished product and folks looking at the cover art - (they never show it in close up so I could be wrong) one Indian in full finery, looking "pretty" as can be joined by a second in regular street clothes. And the sleeve art looks familiar. Next day, I go take a peak at Donald Harrison's catalogue on Amazon and find "Indian Blues" - Donald in fully Indian finery. I investigate further - lead off track is "Hu-Ta-Nay." Featured players include Dr. John. Hmmmm. I started sampling tracks and "Hu-Ta-Nay" mixes chants, jazz, New Orleans R&B and Indian percussion. Others are indeed unaccompanied Indian chants, still others seem like straight ahead jazz. So I break down and order it.

When it arrives I peruse the cover. "Donald Harrison Jr. with Dr. John" "Mardi Gras Indians The Guardians of the Flame." I look inside - chants by Donald Harrison Sr. who leads The Guardians of The Flame. Yeah. Hard not to admit that this is the inspiration for this particular narrative line in "Treme"! And in typical freaky "Treme" style, they have the real-life inspiration participate in the fictionalized telling (as with Rogan Davis, who's the basis for the DJ Davis character appearing as keyboardist in the latter's fictional brass band/funk/hip hop fusion outfit).


Well, rather than a straightforward consistent fusion of constituent styles it's a mixture: several numbers serve up unaccompanied Mardi Gras Indian performance; others are pretty straight ahead classic modern jazz with a number of them based in or at least starting out by stating melodies from traditional Indian chants or R&B interpretations thereon - and some of these do include an undercurrent of Indian-style percussion to boot; then there's admixtures of R&B and jazz (a comfy fit since so much classic New Orleans R&B was performed by the jazz players outta David Bartholemew's band). And finally you've got numbers like "Hu-ta-nay" (this version actually is playing at the record release party according to "Treme Explained"), that bring all these influences together.

For my purposes right now, I woulda hoped for an album that featured the fusion of all the constituent elements from start to finish. But I do appreciate and enjoy the educational impact of having the different genres laid out side by side, then seeing the effects of mixing these two styles in this song, those two in that song as well as the full on fusions -- it does encourage ya to see how nfluences progress genres over the years, then double back, overlap, grow fruitful and multiply. A nice symbol of the ongoing functioning of music in New Orleans in the last century or so.