Putumayo Presents New Orleans isn’t too dreadful a selection of New Orleans music, though some choices could have been improved upon and to call the notes informative would be a lie. Their author is described as a musicologist, but I’d never have known. The set is said to be ‘enhanced’, but the clip video footage is quite simply a sort of New Orleans City Tourist Board presentation: sunset, dining tables, parasols (some carried by members of the token marching band), and handy contact details. You could perhaps get something similar online. Similar details are printed in the CD booklet, along with a recipe, © 1984, for Seafood Gumbo. However, dates and personnel details for the music are—deplorably—missing.
There’s a Kermit Ruffins title here, a kind of anthology of influences and of anything that ought to have been on this disc: brass band beginnings, bluesy tenor and piano in the Professor Longhair fashion. The Verve catalogue is sampled for “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” from the album by Doc Cheatham and the very young Nicholas Payton. Doc would be somewhere around 90 at the time, and sings and plays trumpet as well as ever. He was born in Nashville in 1905, and between playing in Chicago and touring as a young man in the 1920s, he was able to hear and take extensive notes on older New Orleans trumpet styles not recorded on disc - and long swirled away on the whirligig of waste. In Chicago Doc also knew young Louis Armstrong. Old Louis is featured on a “Tin Roof Blues” from, I’d guess, c.1970. The footnotes cite a sampler disc it was included on, no date or source or personnel. (Pshaw!) Nicholas Payton, incidentally, shows his prodigious chops in bringing the track with Cheatham to a climax. Doc was a great soloist and especially good at building things up for another player.
Louis Prima’s “Basin Street Blues” is from maybe the 1950s, when he was a Ruffins predecessor but used an R&B sort of tenor player. His early records have good things on them, but the short duration of the track here is even more regrettable given its ear-opening demonstration of what a remarkable trumpeter Prima could be.
Wendell Brunious is another trumpeter of real class, as this site’s review of a CD by the Preservation Hall 4 with Duke Dejan insists. Bloody silly of Preservation Hall recordings to have allowed the inclusion here of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, which is probably the least interesting title on that CD. I already thought poorly of them for that CD’s stingily short playing time, and how do they expect to sell it if they give tracks away that don’t even commend it. Harold Dejan—who does receive a little note among the shoddy paragraphs here—doesn’t in fact appear on the track in question. I think Don Vappie’s the singer. The photo shows a quartet, but with John Brunious, father of Wendell, holding the trumpet. It’s Wendell on the title, you know!
Topsy Chapman is indeed a decent vaudeville-blues singer in the old vein, but who’s in her band here? (Check Error! Reference source not found. for the very nice growl trumpeter). There is next to no information about Kevin Clark, who is white and not a native and seems at least to live in Canada. His “The Devil Done Got Me Blues” has a nice clarinettist, in a Rebirth band style of performance with the bass guitarist doing tuba-like things.
Dr. John was an obvious choice. Doubling up on Louis Prima’s “Basin Street Blues” with the same title from Dr. John’s Goin’ Back to New Orleans album was quite badly obvious. The vocal is cowboy and the band accompaniment big and stock and not all that N.O. Dr. John’s sometime sideman Deacon John is featured from a CD entitled Deacon John’s Jump Blues, singing a “Going Back to New Orleans” which suggests he might have been away from the place for a long time and hasn’t made much headway homeward from a pretty well generalised pre-R&B style.
Much, much more interesting are the two contributions from Dr. Michael White, on which he plays clarinet very well indeed. All that work with Trumpet Kid Marsalis paid off instrumentally. In a very tight little band well up to the standard of, say, Tiny Parham, or another group Doc Cheatham heard in 1920s Chicago, White alone is credited. His “Give it Up” is subtitled “(Gypsy Second Line)”, and he is quoted as saying he was influenced by Gypsy and Klezmer music in composing this. Fortunately he did not go over to Klezmer clarinetism. Some insensitive German would-be New Orleans-ish bands blunder into decent Klezmer on some of their repertoire, slipping between idioms. This neat little band from a 2004 Basin Street Records CD just seems like its 1924 Chicago antecedents to have picked up a fairly generalised exotic tinge of a sort once common. This is maybe the neatest performance of the sort in recent years (decades?).
We do have a little musicology after all, where the notes to the last track report that, “in New Orleans jazz, the lines of the individual voices remain distinct, stacking into a dense polyphonic whole rather than blending into a single sound”. Perhaps this ascent from tourist brochure platitude was inspired by the religious focus of the track: “Bye & Bye/Saints”. You can guess from the photograph that Stafford, who also sings, is the trumpeter.
I shouldn’t be too severe. The major exception to the “no personnel listed” rule might be the identification of Dr. John as pianist on Deacon John’s title, a fact actually of little or no interest. The omissions are serious. Some people ought to be mentioned, though Kevin Clark might be pleased that any curiosity about him would demand that his website be checked. Dizzy Gillespie used to say to the audience, ‘I’d now like to introduce the band’, and proceed to pretend to tell the pianist the tenor’s name, and vice versa. And when the whole band had shaken hands they sat down and played something else. The notes for Putumayo Presents New Orleans are no more informative and less funny, for how’s a guy to listen out for somebody whose name nobody told him?