Monday the nominees for The Grammys were announced and we were pleased to discover that we'd written about two of them.
The nominations for the Grammys were announced on Monday, and South Louisiana was lightly represented. Terence Blanchard's E-Collective was nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for Breathless, and Jon Cleary and The Revelers were nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album for Go-Go Juice and Get Ready respectively.
In the last year, we covered two of the Grammy noninees--Blanchard and The Revelers. Blanchard spoke about the social context for Breathless, which took its name from the "I Can't Breathe" meme that emerged after the New York police choked Eric Garner to death.
“It’s frustrating when you walk into a room and you can tell that some people have made decisions about you without ever talking to you. When you get a chance to talk to those people, you realize you’re working at a deficit at the beginning of the conversation. It’s fascinating to talk to people and you can see the moment when their mind changes about you.”
Hearing Blanchard tell these stories is sobering because in many ways he is what white America seems to want African Americans to be. He’s mature. He’s intellectually and artistically serious. He’s successful and accomplished. He’s professional. He’s reserved. He’s a family man. He has ambition, and he has a sense of humor. Breathless’ theme aside, he’s not particularly outspoken. When he perceives racism and bigotry, he’s not misconstruing a less inflammatory bias. It’s hard to imagine bigotry directed at him as a class thing, a hood thing, or anything other than a black thing.
Blanchard doesn’t consider Breathless to a political album, but he doesn’t see any of his albums, including 2007 A Tale of God’s Will (Requiem for Katrina), as political.
“A lot of people tell me they are,” he says. “I think of it as a social statement. This is album is a reaction to my environment, just like my other albums.”
Breathless begins with a version of “Compared to What,” the Civil Rights-era jazz-funk tune first recorded by Roberta Flack in 1968 but popularized by Les McCann and Eddie Harris in 1971. Blanchard cut it for a film soundtrack, and when the filmmakers went with a different version, he kept this arrangement and pulled it out for the sessions.
“It’s this false notion of what we call freedom we have in this country,” Blanchard says. “Try to keep it real compared to what? What are you talking about? The land of the free and the home of the brave? That doesn’t truly exist for everybody. Look at the economic structure of this country. Look at what happens to big corporations versus little businessmen. It’s a farce. The older I get, I get tired of this stuff. Stop lying.”
To update it, he had to think first about grooves that are relevant today, particularly to young people, and then about how to represent the thoughts in the song. The McCann and Harris version tries to rally listeners by being better than those holding them back—more soulful, more talented, and more insightful as they see through the bullshit with bitter wit. Blanchard focuses on the song’s rage, and that more than 40 years later people still see through the same lies, encounter the same dead ends, and realize that progress is out of their hands.
“That’s why it’s uptempo,” he says. “That’s why it has the grooves that it has. That’s why I put the organ in there in certain spots. That’s why my trumpet is wailing.”
We covered swamp pop band The Revelers when they were scheduled to play Jazz Fest:
The Revelers will play Jazz Fest’s Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage at 11:15 a.m. Friday, and in ways they’re the most conventional of the three bands. The band arose from the ashes of The now-defunct Red Stick Ramblers, and it has chosen to make swamp pop its hallmark—a sound nowhere nearly as deeply rooted as Cajun or zydeco, but its Fats Domino-at-the-fais do do—as more than one Lafayette musician has described it to me—is hardly au courant. But they don’t pick up the legacy from such artists as Warren Storm and Don Rich who have been carrying the swamp pop torch. Instead, they’ve tried to go back and approach the sound the way its originators did. “We play French music, then we start getting more into R&B and rock ’n’ roll,” Justus says. “‘Let the Good Times Roll’ [from Play the Swamp Pop Classics, Vol. 1], I know that from Bobby Bland, B.B. King and Clifton [Chenier]. I think the original intent of swamp pop is that we’re trying to play rock ’n’ roll and R&B, but we came from a French background. It’s like the spirit of swamp pop.”
That spirit is fundamentally rock ’n’ roll as it is about self-expression first, with loyalty to culture and tradition a distant second. Most of the songs on their new Get Ready album are in English because that’s the language most of the songwriters are most comfortable in. Blake Miller contributed four songs written in Cajun French because that’s the language in which he’s most musically fluent.
“French is right there with English as his first language,” Justus says. “He didn’t listen to English music growing up. None. I sing Cajun songs, but I don’t feel comfortable writing Cajun songs; he can sing English songs but doesn’t feel comfortable writing in English. I think he tried once but wasn’t feeling it.”
Throughout Get Ready, The Revelers conjure up a honky tonk that never existed. Miller’s “Pus Whiskey (No More Whiskey)” is a drinking song that sits comfortably next to Justus’ “Single Jeans” about a woman whose pants say as much as the look in her eye does. “Play it Straight” lays out the sort of wisdom honky tonk specializes in, courtesy of Feufollet’s Kelli Jones-Savoy, and Eric Frey’s “In the Proof” namechecks Wall Street and the dirty nature of business en route to a tear-in-the-beer ballad.
The hybrid sounds on the album and Play the Swamp Pop Classics, Vol. 1 is intentional, and one of the things Justus takes pride in. “We’re a hybrid of R&B and everything about southwest Louisiana,” he says, and his models are Santana and particularly the Texas rock-country freak hero Doug Sahm and the Tex-Mex hybrid he played in late in his career, The Texas Tornadoes.
“I love Doug Sahm,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as like Doug Sahm because that’s arrogant to say, but I play blues-based guitar, some fiddle. I sing a lot of English songs and play with this accordion player and do a lot of different kinds of projects aside from this group.” Sahm’s influence is largely conceptual, but Blake Miller’s accordion on “In the Proof” owes more to Texas Tornado Flaco Jimenez than anyone from Louisiana.
Here's a complete list of the nominees with Louisiana ties. The Grammys telecast will take place February 15, 2016.