New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is Charting a Path Forward

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Drummer Adonis Rose has big plans for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s next chapter.

(Photo: Katie Sikora)

Drummer Adonis Rose, a founding member of the Grammy-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, had his work cut out for him when he became the group’s artistic director in 2016.

A dark cloud hung over NOJO after Rose’s predecessor, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, was indicted in 2017 on federal charges of money laundering and wire fraud along with NOJO CEO Ronald Markham. The trial, which has been postponed several times, now is scheduled for September. But Rose’s preternaturally sunny disposition prevailed later that year, and NOJO followed with several successful concerts. And now, there’s the newly issued, joyous comeback album, Songs: The Music Of Allen Toussaint.

The late and much beloved Toussaint, an r&b pioneer who died in 2015, became an international ambassador for New Orleans music and seemed like an obvious choice for the reboot. But Songs wasn’t Rose’s original concept.

“We were coming up on the tricentennial of New Orleans, so I wanted to do something to commemorate that,” Rose said. But Grammy-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who on the new album puts her own distinctive spin on Irma Thomas’ hit version of Toussaint’s “It’s Raining,” had a better idea.

“[Dee Dee] said, ‘I’ve never heard a jazz orchestra perform Allen Toussaint’s music,’” Rose recalled. That spark ignited Songs, a long-overdue tribute. Though Toussaint worked with others on some of his own big-band arrangements, they never saw the light of day. Rose opted not to use those on Songs “because I wanted it to come from me,” he said. But Rose wasn’t surprised that no other jazz orchestra previously had mined the Toussaint songbook.

“I really don’t think an orchestra in L.A. or New York would be as invested in doing the music of Allen Toussaint,” Rose said. “We were the people to do that, because we’re all from New Orleans, and it’s part of our mission to preserve New Orleans music.”

From the infectious street beats that introduce NOJO’s second-line take on “Southern Nights,” Songs is as New Orleans as it gets. And though Rose chose many of Toussaint’s biggest hits from his wide-ranging catalog, he refracted Songs through NOJO’s prism while largely remaining true to the spirit of each piece.

Some tracks, like “Ruler Of My Heart,” sung by NOJO house vocalist Nayo Jones, hew fairly close to the original. Others reinvent Toussaint’s songs in fresh and surprising ways: “Working In The Coal Mine” becomes a burning instrumental. But Songs also invokes Toussaint’s personal history with two originals that spring directly from his old Uptown turf. Trumpeter Leon Brown takes listeners on a late-night stroll down “Zimple Street,” while percussionist-vocalist Gerald French conjures the mesmerizing chants of Mardi Gras Indians with Rose (bass drum) and Alexey Marti (congas) on “Gert Town.”

Now, NOJO is taking Toussaint’s music to the world, including dates at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend and Jazz at Lincoln Center (Dec. 13–14). But the new album is just the beginning of NOJO’s next chapter.

“I’m already thinking about the next project,” said Rose, who plans to issue a new recording each year. “I want to go in the studio this summer to do a musical-cultural exchange between Brazil and New Orleans. Maybe take some of their music and put some New Orleans flair on it.”

Though he wants to imprint NOJO with his own personality, Rose remains laser-focused on the organization’s original mission: preserving New Orleans music and educating people about it. “It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than anyone in this whole organization,” Rose said. “When I think about the transition [from the Mayfield era], I think about the mission and I think about growth. What can we do now, going forward, that we haven’t done before?” DB



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October 2019
Poncho Sanchez
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