“PopSmart NOLA,” Ep. 24: Harlem String Quartet, David Kunian on Pete Fountain, and Jenna Guidry and Paul Sanchez

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For what by pure coincidence turned into “An All-Music Episode,” we welcomed a varied assortment of guests with local and national connections. First we welcomed the Harlem String Quartet, which performed at Loyola’s Roussel Hall to conclude the Friends of Music 2016-2017 series. We sat down to chat about that visit, as well as the diversity of this troupe, which you can see in their membership and in their musical selections.

Next we asked David Kunian, longtime WWOZ radio host and documentarian, and more recently, curator of Music for the New Orleans Jazz Museum, to ruminate on the recently opened exhibition of the late, great Pete Fountain — just in time for the French Quarter Festival. The result is a personal and professional recollection about Pete Fountain and his place in New Orleans music as well as his national imprint.

And finally we visited the home of 18-year-old singer-songwriter Jenna Guidry, a Houma native and New Orleans transplant who graduated from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and now at Loyola University. Guidry has released a four-song EP, “Back to Me,” produced by her friend, mentor and collaborator Paul Sanchez. They discussed their work together and performed “Precious” from the EP.

Below you’ll also find this week’s Relevant Link, which had to be cut from this week’s show due to time constraints.

SEGMENT ONE: Harlem String Quartet
Harlem Quartet advances diversity in classical music while engaging new audiences with varied repertoire that includes works by minority composers. Their mission to share their passion with a wider audience has taken them around the world; from a 2009 performance at The White House for President Obama and First Lady, Michelle Obama, to a highly successful tour of South Africa in 2012, and numerous venues in between. The musically versatile ensemble has performed with such distinguished performers as Itzhak Perlman, Ida Kavafian, Carter Brey, Fred Sherry, Misha Dicter, Jeremy Denk, and Paquito D’Rivera. Their most recent recording, Hot House, with jazz master Chick Corea and percussionist Gary Burton was a 2013 multi-Grammy Award winner.

For their performance tonight at Loyola’s Roussel Hall to conclude the Friends of Music’s 2016-2017 series, Harlem Quartet has a special program planned:

Concert Program

  • A. Mozart – String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major, Op. 27 “The Hunt”
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim arr. Dave Glenn – The Girl from Ipanema
  • Guido Gavilan – Cuarteto en Guaguancó
  • Edvard Grieg – String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 27

I sat down with the Quartet Thursday inside their rehearsal space near the Hall. I basically reserved one question each — so you’ll be hearing from cellist Felix Umansky, viola player Jaime Amador, and violinists Melissa White and Ilmar Gavilan. We discussed the Harlem Quartet’s eclectic musical approach that includes serious jazz influences, collaborating with legends such as Yitzhak Perlman, playing in the White House, and why diversity matters – not just in their musical lineup and their musical approach, but also in their outreach to audiences.

SEGMENT TWO: David Kunian
When Pete Fountain died Aug. 6, 2016, New Orleans lost more than one of the few traditional jazz musicians to chart a Top-40 hit. The city lost a beloved and colorful personality who, despite international fame, never lost his love of the Crescent City — perhaps best known to many through his whimsically named Carnival walking troupe. In tribute, the Louisiana State Museum’s New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U. S. Mint presents “Pete Fountain: A Life Half-Fast.” This modest exhibition, which includes posters, albums, doubloons and other artifacts, comes complete with a musical soundtrack pulled from recently digitized archival music.

The museum’s curator, David Kunian, has been playing and chronicling music for a quarter century, offered personal and professional thoughts on Pete Fountain from the perch of the museum’s performance space. Those thoughts started with Kunian’s first encounter with Pete Fountain’s museum upon his arrival to New Orleans back in 1992 as a white hipster looking for the city’s coolest music.

SEGMENT THREE: Jenna Guidry and Paul Sanchez
Welcome back to “PopSmart NOLA.” I’m your host, David Lee Simmons. Our next guests are a study in contrasts. Our first guest, singer-songwriter Jenna Guidy, already has a decade of musical experience under her belt at the ripe old age of 18. Her friend, mentor and collaborator, Paul Sanchez, already was a couple years removed from his 16-year-run with Cowboy Mouth, in pursuit of his own solo efforts. Their friendship, sparked by a Facebook message, has helped Guidry along an already impressive career path.

I first came across Jenna Guidry when she performed with Michael Cerveris at his appearance at NOCCA, where Guidry was then a junior. Now the Houma native has graduated and is studying music at Loyola, and already having performed at Buffa’s, with Sanchez at her side. Last week marked the release of her four-song EP, “Back to Me,” which was produced by Sanchez. I visited with Guidry and Sanchez at her home in Lakeview, with her mother nearby as we chatted about her nearly decade-long career, what “Back to Me” means to her, and the challenges of being a young female artist in an often unforgiving music business and world. And we even took a moment to listen to a song.

SEGMENT FOUR: Relevant Link
For our Relevant Link this week, I wanted to revisit a post on NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune last week that raised the question, “Does New Orleans have too many festivals?” In some ways, it’s a trick question, right? I mean, New Orleans and Louisiana already were synonymous with festivals, and since Katrina there’s been a boom in festivals and most of them have welcomed packed crowds. Maybe too crowded, yes, but you can’t argue their success.

Nor can you argue, necessarily, with how they help hard-working musicians. In the article, musicians made the point that it’s the spring festival season that has become their most consistent financial pipeline, and are far more reliable income stream than regular club bookings.

And for the most part, fans of festivals were pretty vocal in their support in the comments section of the article. For many, it’s a no-brainer. But while those who loved festivals LOVE festivals, there was an undercurrent of opposition to so much fun. It should be noted that the attendant poll showed 47 percent in support of festivals, while 34 percent “absolutely” thought there were too many — and, interestingly, 16.5 percent chose “Maybe”, apparently agreeing with that choice’s caveat: “ I like the old standards, but these new kids on the block are too much. See y’all at Creole Tomato Fest!”

Some of the complaints about so many festivals were not too surprising — they’re too crowded, food and ticket prices are high and sometimes the portions are small, the festivals are becoming so narrow in focus they minimize the idea of cultural celebration. But one comment caught my eye: “Feel like New Orleans keeps partying as the ship is sinking. We have a deteriorating wetlands problem with water lapping at the Levees. Band plays on, people keep partying. Dont look behind the wall. Most of the festivals will disappear when next hurricane hits and half the non-locals move home or to Portland.” It taps into a notion, as one other commenter put, that we’re embracing Rome’s “bread and circus” mentality of amusing ourselves to death in light of grave concerns facing the city.

That’s all to say, as with so much about New Orleans, maybe all things in moderation?

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With “Piety,” Michael Cerveris finds his way home to New Orleans

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INFO:
Michael Cerveris and friends perform “Piety”
Friday, April 29, 8 p.m.
The Theatre at St. Claude
Tickets: $20

When Michael Cerveris went into the studio to create the 2004 album, “Dog Eared,” he did so with what felt like a who’s who of ’90s rockers, including members of Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices and Teenage Fanclub along for the ride. Twelve years on, Cerveris — once again taking a break from what has become a stellar Broadway career — is back with another moving collaborative effort.

But this time, the all-stars are from New Orleans, which Cerveris increasingly has embraced as his home even while continuing his Tony Award-winning work in “Fun Home.” The result is “Piety,” which features contributions from several of the New Orleans musicians who helped collaborate on the Katrina musical-in-progress “Nine Lives.”

When he made “Dog Eared,” he recalled, songs were recorded as musicians were available, “making this sonic house where all these people came to hang out.

“This is the New Orleans version of the same thing,” Cerveris said of the album, which includes such “Nine Lives” collaborators as Shamarr Allen, Paul Sanchez and Alex McMurray. “It’s true of how I like to work in theater, too. I sit and write songs in my apartment or house, and then record something, and my ideas only get me so far. I like handing it over to people and say, ‘Here’s the core, and respond to it in terms of what you hear. Play me what you hear when I play this for you.’

“I’m always excited to hear that (result), and that might spark an idea with me.”

Cerveris recently announced that he will reunite with many of the musicians for a live performance April 29 at The Theatre at St. Claude, co-owned by another “Nine Lives” collaborator, playwright Jim Fitzmorris. Expected to re-join Cerveris: Anders Osborne, Mia Borders, Paul Sanchez, Shamarr Allen, Alex McMurray, Rod Hodges (the Iguanas), Linzay Young (Red Stick Ramblers) and old friend Kimberly Kaye, who also performs with Cerveris in their Americana band Loose Cattle. (She also worked on the latest script for “Nine Lives.”)

(Read more: Michael Cerveris at the Broadway @ NOCCA series)

“Piety” is an evocative, ruminative work that, not unlike “Dog Eared,” feels like a departure from the rock ’n’ roll creations that helped make Cerveris a rising musical-theater, whether in “Tommy” or “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Instead, we hear echoes of Louisiana folklore in “Evangeline,” an eight-minute, acoustic opus flush with fiddle, banjo and even accordion that seem to float on air as Cerveris recalls Longfellow’s famed poem:

Knew so little when she learned of heartache /
Looking for him by another name /
All the ones that never were her Gabriel /
Making sure she never was the same

There’s also the restless spirit in “Crescent” and the closing “Phoenix,” a song of rebirth that can’t help but make one think of Hurricane Katrina even when it’s never explicitly mentioned, with former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason underscoring the closing words, “Wise up / Rise up / Rise and shine.”

The subtle stars of “Piety” might be the backing female vocals. With Cerveris content to underplay his own vocals, practically breathing his lines at times, a chorus rises underneath him, led by Kimberly Kaye and Kendall Meade and including “The Gospel Queens”: Edna M. Johnson, Bobbie Grant and Judy Gibbs.

Cerveris says he struggled at first to put a label on the musical style he was going for here, starting with the term chamber folk, “but that didn’t work.” Instead, he said, imagine “If Nick Drake and Elliott Smith made a record down South, this is what it would be.”

(Read more: John Swenson’s review of “Piety” for OffBeat)

If anything, as the title might suggest, “Piety” feels like an elegy to Piety Street Recording and its owner, Mark Bingham — the album’s legendary producer.

It’s also where they recorded the music for “Nine Lives,” and where Bingham prodded him for original material that he might have for a solo record. From there, the collaboration, years in the making, progressed. At that point, Cerveris noted, there was no inkling that Piety might close, which it since has — leaving behind a legacy of great recordings.

“I’ve been in some other great studios, but there are very few studios that had the soul that Piety Street did,” Cerveris said. “It seemed like a magical place from the time I got there. Mark spent equal time making sure the food was proceeding well on the stove at the same time that stuff was going down on tape. I found that significant and meaningful.

“I just love the place so much and wanted the album to be a footnote in the history of the place.”

He expressed the same love for Bingham behind the sound board: “He’s pretty ego-less as a producer. He’s more interested in the music than putting his own stamp on it. He really listens. He’ll offer his opinion, but also will listen to yours.”

While it was years in the making, “Piety” in Cerveris’ mind seems to have arrived at the right time. When he started making the record, he noted, he wasn’t as invested in his new home like he is these days. Now he owns a home in Treme and practically commutes from New York City whenever he can find a break from “Fun Home.

“My commit to the place is more solid and evident to people,” he said. “It’s being received as the New Orleans record that it is even though it’s not a traditional New Orleans record, but it’s representative of a broad vision of the city and the music scene, and certainly includes so many people from the music scene.”