“Let Them Talk” at French Quarter Festival: Freedom of speech, with a little action

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Roddie Romero with Michael Tisserand. (Screen shot from NOLA.com)

Too often moments like the “Let Them Talk” series at French Quarter Festival are pitched as a “break from the heat” to “get away from the madness” and relax while cooling off in air-conditioned rooms and relaxing to the jib-jab of Louisiana musicians. On the surface, it’s true, but as music festivals like FQF and Jazz Fest become increasingly crowded and often jammed with people who seem there more for the scene than the music, it’s also great to find a safe space for authentic music appreciation.

And yes, it’s a great place to be an egghead. Because in conversations hosted by WWNO’s Fred Kasten and others Saturday and Sunday (April 9-10) inside the Old U.S. Mint, musicians get a chance to offer the context behind their music, while giving these sweet little unplugged performances to keep the music flowing.

This experience is no better illustrated than when Roddie Romero of the Hub City All-Stars gave an interview to author Michael Tisserand (my former editor at Gambit Weekly) at the 2014 FQF — particularly when he explained his love of the Bobby Charles swamp-pop classic “I Hope.” Romero has an interesting life story, which includes a deep love of Charles’ music, and here performs and discusses an achingly beautiful song.

(Watch: Roddie Romero performs and discusses “I Hope”)

I had to rush away after the interview and was so mad I missed Romero’s subsequent performance with the Hub City All-Stars that I counted the days till their 2015 set, which was brilliant.

The same experience could be said for Kasten’s 2014 interview with cellist Helen Gillet, one of the best imports to the Crescent City over the past decade because of her unique blending of the cello into local music while exploring her Belgian roots, as she did in her interview:

Other important things learned in the talk: She’s a “huge” Prince fan and is looking forward to his Essence Music Festival set; her brother (a drummer) got her hooked on harder rock musicians, such as Faith No More, and she wound up digging everything from Poison and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Whitney Houston, Madonna and of course the Beatles. On the classical music side, she loves Shostakovich and Baroque music in general. “Old, old-school, classical roll of the cello, which is just no vibrato,” she said. “Nothing fancy, just holding down the bass lines.”

(Watch: Helen Gillet performs and discusses “Le Petit Royaume”)

Check out this year’s “Let Them Talk” lineup below. My must-attend interviews: Mason Ruffner, Ellis Marsalis, Eric Falls and of course “From Southern Nights to Hall-of-Fame Heights: Remembering Allen Toussaint.”


 Saturday, April 9, 2016

11:30 am – Ronnie Kole: Reflections on a Vintage Life – Piano-man extraordinaire, bandleader, and wine connoisseur Ronnie Kole has – in his nearly 70 years as a professional musician – performed for the Pope, six U.S. Presidents, at major festivals around the world, and for select audiences of oenophiles at some of the most elegant chateaux in France. Ronnie Kole also helped get Jazz Fest and French Quarter Festival started – and has worked tirelessly for numerous civic and charitable organizations throughout his career. For Let Them Talk he’ll discuss this storied life with interviewer Fred Kasten.

12:30 pm – Bourbon Street Blues: Mason Ruffner and the Blues Rockers – Guitar-slinger Mason Ruffner rolled into New Orleans from his native Fort Worth in the late 70s. He set up shop on Bourbon Street at Club 544 where his band the Blues Rockers did hundreds of shows, backing such blues legends as John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Memphis Slim and winning praise from visiting musical superstars like Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Carlos Santana. Today Mason Ruffner talks about a life of rockin’ the blues with interviewer Fred Kasten.

1:30 pm – The New Orleans Helsinki Connection: Katja Toivola – Trombonist Katja Toivola – a native of Helsinki, Finland – first visited New Orleans in 1995 and now splits time between her two “hometowns”. She leads bands in both cities, The Spirit of New Orleans in Helsinki, and the New Orleans Helsinki Connection in the Crescent City. Toivola also plays in husband Leroy Jones’ New Orleans’ Finest band, handles bass drum duties for the Hurricane Brass Band, and does acclaimed work as a graphic designer and photographer. She’ll talk about her multi-faceted career with interviewer Fred Kasten.

2:30 pm – NEA Jazz Master Ellis Marsalis – When the Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band played New Orleans back in the late 1940s Ellis Marsalis, then a fledgling tenor saxophonist, was there and decided, “that’s what I want to do.” He went on to put the tenor sax away and concentrate on piano. He became one of the cornerstones of modern jazz in New Orleans as a pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator. Four of his and wife Delores’ six sons: Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, also became innovative and accomplished contributors to modern music. For Let Them Talk, Ellis Marsalis will look back on his life in music and education – and ahead to his remaining musical ambitions – with interviewer Fred Kasten.

3:30 pm – From Radiators to Living Rumors: Camile Baudoin – For over 33 years powerhouse guitarist Camile Baudoin teamed with fellow guitar-slinger Dave Malone to deliver the legendary Radiators band’s trademark twin-guitar excursions. Since the Radiators essentially disbanded in 2011 (they still do a few reunion performances each year) Camile Baudoin has continued to work with Malone in Raw Oyster Cult and lead his own band, The Living Rumors. For Let Them Talk, Camile Baudoin looks back on nearly four decades on the New Orleans music scene with New Orleans Advocate music writer Keith Spera.

4:30 pm – Song for My Fathers and Beyond: Tommy Sancton – Novelist, journalist, memoirist, and clarinetist Tommy Sancton’s acclaimed 2006 memoir Song for My Fathers documented his apprenticeship with clarinet great George Lewis and other New Orleans jazz pioneers. Sancton returned to New Orleans in 2007 after many years abroad – mostly in Paris – and reestablished himself as a top-notch clarinetist and bandleader on the New Orleans scene. For Let Them Talk, Tommy Sancton discusses his parallel careers in writing and music with interviewer Fred Kasten.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

11:30 am – Miss River: Sarah Quintana – New Orleans singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sarah Quintana – has a background rich in jazz, folk, and popular music. She studied jazz at NOCCA with Kidd Jordan, Davey Mooney and Hank Mackie. In 2008 she began making trips to France (she also studied French at NOCCA) where she now spends considerable time working with saxophonist Raphael Imbert and his band. Quintana’s widely acclaimed 2015 release Miss River pays homage to the strength – and fragility – of Louisiana’s traditions and environment. For Let Them Talk she’ll discuss her twin careers in New Orleans and France with interviewer Fred Kasten.

12:30 pm – The Long and Winding Road: Bennie Pete and the Hot 8 Brass Band – In 1996 sousaphonist Bennie Pete brought together players from two former Fortier High School student bands – the High Steppers and Looney Tunes Brass Bands – to form the Hot 8 Brass Band. Over their 20 years together the Hot 8 has been hammered by tragedy, blessed by triumphs, and sustained by talent, resilience, and hard work. For Let Them Talk, Bennie Pete discusses the difficulties and rewards of leading a 21st Century brass band in New Orleans with author and Tulane University Associate Professor of Music Matt Sakakeeny.

1:30 pm – Saxophones of Ascension – Louisiana’s Ascension Parish has provided the world with at least two outstanding jazz saxophonists: Donaldsonville’s Plas Johnson (who created that irresistible tenor solo on Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther Theme) and Gonzales’ Grammy-winning Derek Douget. Douget is a long-standing member of the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, leader of his own bands, and current program coordinator for the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music programs operated by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation, Inc. For Let Them Talk he’ll discuss growing up in the “Jambalaya Capital of the World” (Gonzales) and his two decades plus on the jazz scene in New Orleans with interviewer Fred Kasten.

2:30 – From Southern Nights to Hall-of-Fame Heights: Remembering Allen Toussaint – When Allen Toussaint passed away in November 2015 while on tour in Spain, he left behind a Hall-of-Fame (Rock and Roll and Songwriters among others) legacy as a songwriter, producer, arranger, performer – and especially since Katrina – stalwart and effective advocate for New Orleans – as well as a man of infinite grace and style. For Let Them Talk, Grammy-winning record producer Scott Billington and an all-star panel – including another Grammy-winner – the great Irma Thomas; award-winning music journalist and biographer Ben Sandmel; bassist Roland Guerin – a long-time member of Allen Toussaint’s band; and Reginald Toussaint, who managed and performed with his father for over 25 yrs, will share Allen Toussaint stories and memories.

3:30 pm – Tighten Up: From Archie Bell to Astral Project – New Orleans Sax Ace Tony Dagradi – Saxophonist, composer and educator Tony Dagradi grew up in New Jersey, studied music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, then hit the road with Archie Bell and the Drells. That tour came through New Orleans and ended in Houston. Dagradi doubled back to New Orleans and has been here ever since. He founded Astral Project in 1978, and 38 years later they are still performing at a very high level. For Let Them Talk Tony Dagradi talks about a wide range of his musical interests and pursuits with interviewer Fred Kasten.

4:30 – Big Time Talent, Big Time Voice: The Steady Rise of Erica Falls – New Orleans vocalist Erica Falls is comfortable performing a wide range of genres – including rhythm and blues, soul, funk and jazz. She’s invested the last 20 years in demonstrating that talent by performing with such great artists as Joe Sample, Dr. John, Sting, Irma Thomas, Joss Stone and Gatemouth Brown – and increasingly in recent years fronting her own band – as she’ll do on the Tropical Isle Hand Grenade Stage at FQF. For Let Them Talk Erica Falls discusses her life in music with interviewer Fred Kasten.