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Jazz, bluegrass legends entertain McCain crowd

By Gary Clift

The absolutely final item in the ’13-’14 McCain Auditorium season at K-State was last Tuesday night’s American Legacies show. A good-sized crowd turned out during finals week to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Del McCoury Band, and different combinations of elements of the two.

PHJB has been to McCain before, even fairly recently—I’m pretty sure drummer Little Joe Lastie was here for that, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that trombonist Freddie Lonzo and pianist Rickie Monie were also on the stage that night.

And, then, the auditorium has hosted some great bluegrass shows before, including a late Bill Monroe evening and an Earl Scruggs Family show that was recorded and released as an LP.

But putting New Orleans jazz and bluegrass together—this was a new concept. This 18-song, roughly two-hour show explored some of the possibilities of the fusion.

There are several ways in which the two varieties of American music are similar, including their reliance on individual and often improvised instrumental solos.

The natural soloists in PHJB were Lonzo, saxophonist and singer Clint Maedgen, fan favorite Charlie Gabriel on clarinet (frequently trading licks with McCoury’s fiddler, Jason Carter), and band leader Mark Braud, a trumpeter who has it all—he can play, he can sing, and he has a pleasant stage presence. Strolling around behind the band and adding colorful blats was sousaphone player Ronell Johnson.

Daddy Del, a singer and guitarist, and upright bassist Alan Bartram provided support for McCoury soloists Carter and the two McCoury brothers, mandolin picker Ronnie and unconventional stylist Rob, the banjo player. When the two bands were on stage together—and they were for perhaps a quarter of the concert—the song (usually), singer, and basic rhythm came from one group or the other, but the solos could come from one of the string players and from the French Quarter outfit’s members.

So the McCourys could do an old country song or something newer of their own and then we would get a clarinet and fiddle duo, a banjo solo, and maybe a mandolin one. PHJB could do something in a “Bill Bailey” form and, in the middle of it, there might be a trumpet solo, a mandolin one, and then a big rolling quintet final chorus.

This worked pretty well, and the well-dressed soloists (and vocalists) were all talented and musical. The funny thing about it was that most everybody who wasn’t playing on any particular song usually left the stage for that number. This meant the McCoury band entered the stage four or five times during the two hour show. Usually PHJB soloists walked over to the McCoury side of the stage when they were going to play solos on bluegrass numbers.

I’m not sure the musical highlights of the evening were the collaborations, though they tended to be interesting and natural seeming. The McCourys’ “Streets of Baltimore” and the two numbers they performed using Braud’s trumpet (“Baby cut your toenails/You’re tearing the sheets”) were fine.

PHJB’s “That’s It,” a number recalling the ability of trad jazz to find ways to renew itself, was the big hit of the evening, and we enjoyed the Nola pop songs on which Gabriel sang lead, and loved the Tijuana Brass sound of the horn rhythm part late in the second of them. Oh, and it was nice to hear “Basin Street Blues” for the first time in years. Perhaps ironically it was the McCourys who played “Limehouse Blues.”

The crowd loved Lastie’s solo, a press roll with kick drum accents. Monie’s silver touch always impresses me, and he was in good form for this show.

The only really odd thing about Legacies was the body language. The McCourys, who are going to be upright and, because of single mic technique tradition, tightly packed, seemed amused by their PHJB leadership but not fully confident of what was coming next.

Heck, anybody in the house could have told them what was coming. More good music. And, as if it were an encore for the McCain series season, we got “When the Saints Come Marching In” the very last thing. You know, you’ve got to pay extra to get that played at the Preservation Hall.

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