This record was conceived somewhere between Southside Chicago’s Velvet Lounge and New York’s Visions Festival, where the open-to-the world connectivity of the creative jazz world stands in stark contrast to the isolated New Orleans club scene. And who better to bridge this gap than Hamid Drake, resident of Chicago but a true artist of the world. Of course Hamid is hardly a stranger even in New Orleans, having appeared here with Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann, William Parker, the Mandingo Griot Society, and Kidd Jordan . Even before arriving in New Orleans 15 years ago, Rob Wagner was aware of Hamid from his college days in Chicago at DePaul, where he studied composition, and his college nights at the Velvet Lounge jam sessions. I first suggested Hamid to Rob when his drummer of the time split to trek across the globe just before we could record his second cd with his trio. Four years (and two cds later) we finally had the session scheduled for the first week of September, 2005 . . . in New Orleans.
While in exile in Chicago and New York I tracked down Hamid, who was committed to rescheduling . . . in Chicago. But when I returned to New Orleans in October, I realized that not only we could record here, but we must. The one hole Hamid had in his overfilled schedule was the first week of December. Piety Street Recording was already booked for an Elvis Costello/Allen Toussaint session, so ace recording engineer Mark Bingham set up shop in Cafe Brasil. Rob, Hamid, and Nobu all arrived back in New Orleans for the first time since Katrina just in time for a Monday night show at d.b.a., which until the storm had presented Rob’s Trio every Monday for five years. With barely time to take in the devastation, we started recording the next afternoon.
With considerable acoustic treatment Cafe Brasil provided a suitable stand-in for the studio. Symbolically, it was an even better choice. Ade, Cafe Brasil’s crazy-as-a-fox proprietor, is a lynchpin figure in New Orleans’ vibrant live music culture, especially for the Frenchmen Street scene that sits in stark contrast to both the tawdriness of Bourbon Street and to the heavy-handed “N’Awlinsness” of some of the more famous clubs. Café Brasil is all about the music as it is, not as the culture vultures and tourist industry would have it. Everyone has played there at one time or another–from Harry Connick, Jr. to Kidd Jordan. Almost every type of music that is performed in New Orleans has graced its stage from rap to string quartets. The past few years Ade was only opening erratically, perhaps losing faith in live music even as more and more entrepreneurs rushed in to exploit the scene he nurtured. But after Katrina, Café Brasil was one of the first places to reopen, and it again became a gathering place. Café Brasil epitomizes the New Orleans that Valid Records attempts to present, one where improvisation is a way of life, not a market category.
Rob Wagner's own musical development is indelibly tied to Cafe Brasil, where he has appeared incalculable times with the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, progressive funk bands Iris May Tango and Galactic, Latin bands Mas Mamones and Los Vecenos, Alianza Flamenca, and the Naked Orchestra, as well as a long stretch of one-off creative musical assemblages and jazz jam sessions. Besides the obvious eclecticism (typical and necessary for most working musicians in New Orleans) what links these disparate forms of “musicking” is the opportunity for improvisation within a framework of socially functional music. In New Orleans, you can get away with many things if you keep the people moving. Even at his most expressive, Wagner is always grooving while drawing on his whole world of musical experiences. It is hard to imagine a more sympathetic drummer for him than Hamid Drake, the master of finding the groove in freedom and freedom in the groove.
Bassist Nobu Ozaki arrived in New Orleans from Japan seven years ago as a drummer, but when a band leader offered to hire him if he got a bass, he began playing hundreds of dates a year, adding his tremendous ears and musical facility to trad gigs, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, and all sorts of creative projects. Now he holds down a gig at the Ritz-Carlton with trumpeter/singer Jeremy Davenport, but he too is up for (and to) anything he can schedule.
The year and a half since these sessions has laid a veneer of normality over the predictable layers of bureaucratic ineptitude and corporate greed stifling New Orleans' revival. For all the return of tourists to Bourbon Street and music in the clubs there remains a staggering human cost. A dire crisis of affordable housing prevents half of the pre-storm population from returning. Many musicians still drive in from Houston every week or fly in from New York and L.A. every month to make their gigs, and uncertainty, like the Gulf waters, can’t be kept out by the suspect levees. But for me, this recording will remain a of reminder of that cold, gray December when despair and hope were served with equal measure, and these three masterful musicians returned to explore the possibilities.
Benjamin Lyons, New Orleans April 2007