Musician’s musician? Underappreciated artist? Magnet for talented contemporaries? Stanton Moore is all of these things, and more. And so, even if his third album as a leader does not make him more of a household name, it certainly contributes to an already estimable and original body of work.
That his latest recording, the uncomplicatedly titled III, arrives little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina is both appropriate and inevitable: as much as any present-day musician, Moore is a product of and ambassador for the Big Easy. Born and bred in New Orleans, Moore cut his teeth in the early ‘90s funk band Galactic, and throughout that decade formed friendships and cultivated associations with kindred spirits in and outside of his hometown, which culminated in his first solo outing All Kooked Out!. The line-up on his even better second solo album, 2001’s Flyin’ the Koop, reads like a who’s who of many of the more cerebral jam-band jazzers of the new millennium: Skerik (sax player and sonic provocateur, who has played with seemingly everyone, from Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade to his own incredible band Critters Buggin’), Karl Denson (Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe), and Chris Wood (Medesk, Martin and Wood). At the same time, Moore joined forces with eight-string guitar wizard Charlie Hunter and, along with the peripatetic Skerik, formed the drolly named Garage a Trois, who have proceeded to casually dash off inspired albums, culminating in their latest, 2005’s tour de force Outre Mer.
Less than a month after Outre Mer, Hurricane Katrina hit, bringing New Orleans a one-two punch of Nature’s ire and governmental incompetence, and it is in the wake of this disaster that Moore assembled the band that recorded III. Moore was among the innumerable residents who experienced substantial property damage, but made his presence felt in Katrina’s aftermath, donating equipment and participating in a number of benefit concerts. Needless to say, his decision to record in the renowned Preservation Hall in New Orleans is a statement of both defiance and reverence.
Perhaps because of the self-induced pressure — or lack thereof — of making an album in the French Quarter, Moore has risen to the occasion and produced a very personal, yet engaging effort. As with every endeavor Moore oversees, there is an organic, almost effortless groove, and the funk flows freely. Much of the dirty authenticity this album achieves is attributable to organist Robert Walter (Greyboy Allstars), who composed half of the songs. And those (understandably) expecting to hear Charlie Hunter will be (pleasantly) surprised by the appearance of Will Bernard (T.J. Kirk). Luckily, Skerik lends his inimitable assistance and trombonist Mark Mullins (Bonerama) makes some stellar contributions. The first seven songs cruise along with confidence and a Big Easy élan, as if this group has played together for years. Early highlights include “Licorice”, which sounds like a greasier Medeski, Martin and Wood, with Bernard’s less-is-more soloing providing depth and edge. “Chilcock” is an irresistible jam straight outta J.B.’s territory, featuring some tasty trombone licks courtesy of Mullins. By the seventh track, “Maple Plank”, Bernard really starts to assert himself, and suddenly the thick and frothy organ is undercut with some barbed wire slide guitar while Moore pumps the engine like a cool conductor.
Thus far, the album has been a charged and exciting affair, but it is on the last three songs that the proceedings — thus far very solid — are elevated to something quite special. The trifecta of covers begins with a poignant rendition of Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Water from an Ancient Well”. The stirring restraint of this gorgeous composition is followed by an ominous take on “When the Levee Breaks”, a Delta blues song originally written in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (another remake of which consequently concludes the most popular album of a moderately well-known rock band). A song that at once recalls a recent catastrophe and portends a larger one (which, of course, came to pass), the message is no longer a warning so much as a tribute to powerless voices that should not be silenced. Moore’s snare and the somber organ turn this into a sort of military-style waltz, a properly elegiac treatment of this long-predicted, and arguably preventable tragedy, while Bernard’s sinister slide provides indignant commentary on the sorry state of affairs. And, finally, the “mini-suite” culminates with the spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved”, an appropriately serene declaration that manages to be both triumphant and redemptory. To be certain, this is superlative music performed by artists at the top of their games, and while that is more than enough, some albums simply cannot be separated from the context of their creation. That Stanton Moore chose these last three songs and recorded on the soil that made him a native son only augments this soulful encomium for the city he works in, and for.