Monday, June 13, 2011

episode 18: dynastic

One of the many things about New Orleans music that keeps it distinct is the long lineage of family dynasties - the Marsalises, the Lasties, the Andrews, the Nevilles - that perpetuate tradition with each new generation. Music is a family business for an elite group of New Orleanians, including the Batistes, with brothers David and Paul, sons Russell, Jonathan, and Jamal, and distant family ties to clarinetist Alvin and saxophonist Harold. There was a great scene in this week's Treme, when the aptly named Antoine Batiste confesses to Desiree that he "failed" his sons by not teaching them music and passing on the family legacy.

The other cultural dynasty on Treme is the Lambreauxs: Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert and his trumpet toting son Delmond. Their characters are loosely based on the Harrison family: chief Donald Sr. and son Donald Jr,  and also including wife Herreast, daughter Cherice Harrison Nelson, and grandsons Christian Scott and Brian Nelson. There is an amazing family biography that focuses on the patriarch, Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians, who was chief of the Guardians of the Flame tribe in the Downtown district. His son followed in the tradition as a child but Donald Jr. ultimately decided to pursue his father's other passion, modern jazz, picking up the saxophone and enrolling in New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) high school before launching a career in New York.

Donald Jr. and trumpeter Terence Blanchard made up the second round of Young Lions from New Orleans to make a splash in NYC , the first being from that other dynasty, the Marsalis brothers Branford and Wynton. Like Wynton, Donald was first spotted by Art Blakey and invited to join his Jazz Messengers, and he quickly established himself as a leading modern jazz saxophonist. But he kept feeling the pull of his hometown traditions, and in 1991 he recorded the masterpiece Indian Blues, an attempt to bridge the worlds he inhabited, combining a kicking jazz band (w/Cyrus Chestnut on piano, and Carl Allen on drums) with special guests including Dr. John, Mardi Gras Indian and percussionist Smiley Ricks, and, of course, Donald Sr. (Dr. John, who always had a foot in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition with songs like "Mama Roux", simply tears up the Indian chant "Ja-Ki-Mo-Fi-Na-Hay" on piano and vocals.)

Indian Blues is a whole lot like the CD project Delmond dreamed up on last night's episode. In one of those "only in New Orleans, only on Treme" moments of surrealism, Del sits at a bar with (the real) Donald Jr. and explains his idea of assembling a modern jazz combo to back his dad and his Mardi Gras Indian tribe singing chants. And Donald just sits there, taking it in as if his friend just invented sliced bread, never letting on that he had this idea 20 years ago!

The plot thickens when Del presents the idea to the chief, who gruffly surmises that the CD would be better if a Mardi Gras Indian were in charge:

Chief: "You're not part of the tradition... You haven't masked since you were 15."
Son: "Then I'll have to just get another chief to do the calls. Big Walter [Cook] or Monk Boudreaux.
Chief: "They're from Uptown... It won't sound right."

Nicely played Treme. I'm looking forward to next week, when the Chief heads into a NYC recording studio with his son, Dr. John, Ron Carter on bass, and others.

These were two of the plot lines from last night's show that jived with one another, providing the viewer with a sense of unity and coherence. The rest of this show - with its large ensemble cast made up of little scenes in little silos that only meet up at the occasional second line parade - seems very fragmented. I wonder if it has something to do with the rotating cast of screenwriters who parachute in to write a single episode. (By my count, 9 writers for 9 shows in Season 2).  The laundry list of plot lines these writers are handed at the start of their mission must be very, very long, and often the show seems to strain under the burden of so much heavy lifting. As the curtain draws, my family and friends have gotten into the habit of dreaming up which characters should be killed off first to lighten the load.

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