'Treme,' Ep. 13: All Politics Is Local

May 9, 2011

Spoiler alert: There are three break-ins during the latest episode of Treme. There's the looting that happened at Janette's old place, the bust of Sonny's apartment and, of course, the sexual assault on LaDonna. (What a performance from Khandi Alexander!)

It seems like the writers behind the show are attempting to weave the surge of (violent) crime in late-2006 New Orleans into the fabric of the show's narrative. But this episode in particular seems to concentrate on impact of such things on the financially unstable people, especially freelancers, who work in service industries — a huge part of the New Orleans economy. Janette won't get anywhere fast with her crazy chef boss. LaDonna can't run her bar. Sonny can't work without an instrument; the life of the musician is further highlighted when Antoine won't even interview for a steady teaching job. And the Nelson Hidalgo storyline highlights how the rich get richer, while subcontractors like Riley (and Chief Lambreaux, for that matter) see relatively little trickle down.

With me once again to make the commentary much more palatable is Josh Jackson of WBGO. Here's our weekly e-mail discussion of the music of this episode.

Patrick Jarenwattananon: We kick off the episode with Annie playing a (poorly-attended) duet gig with the pianist David Torkanowsky. I know we heard some of his music in season one. Can you tell me a bit more about him?

Josh Jackson: David Torkanowsky is a pianist, producer and Thursday afternoon blues host on WWOZ. His father, Werner, was a classical conductor. Tork is part of New Orleans' longstanding modern jazz group, Astral Project. They're good. Tork also recently performed with original Meters funk brothers George Porter and Zigaboo Modeliste at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Their band name is Fleur Debris — he has a way with words too.)

Every musician takes the functional gig. While the music is wallpaper for folks checking out pictures at an exhibition, David and Annie use the opportunity to work on the standard, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," and "Snooks 2-Step" for bluesman Snooks Eaglin. Tork also plays "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" on that scene's out-cue.

PJ: Antoine's Soul Apostles are off to a ... sputtering start, somewhat predictably (and comically). Turns out being a bandleader — compared to being hired as a sideman — isn't quite so easy after all, brah. Though they sound pretty good with Wanda Rouzan sitting in.

JJ: I get the feeling this band will see a lot of itinerant apostles. So far, we've got Raymond Weber on drums, Thaddeus Richard on keys, Cornell Williams on bass and some good horn players. Antoine Batiste is learning his new leadership role on the fly. Arrangements: Who needs 'em? Everyone, that's who.

That said, I think the Soul Apostles will get it together. I'm digging the potential set list so far: Allen Toussaint's "Sneakin' Sally Thru the Alley," James Brown and the Famous Flames' cover of "Think," Solomon Burke's "Got to Get You Off of My Mind," and Joe Tex. Very funky. Is Sonny up for the challenge?

PJ: We get a lot of trad jazz, it seems, at the Spotted Cat. When Sonny comes by, the New Orleans Cottonmouth Kings are playing. I gather from that band's Facebook page that it's made up of former members of the now-defunct New Orleans Jazz Vipers, who we met in season one.

JJ: Yes, they're an offshoot of the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, who played in the second episode of Treme. They kept the serpentine nomenclature. Dig that bass sax! That's Tom Saunders, and he's an encyclopedia of traditional New Orleans music. They're playing "Delta Bound."

PJ: Speaking of Facebook pages, I noted how someone tells Delmond that he needs to get up to snuff on his social media and direct-to-fan marketing (i.e. having a website at all). The lack of online activity for jazz, especially today's jazz, is one of the reasons this blog began. And then again, as his agent tells him, there's a very strong possibility that modern jazz will only sell so much no matter how it's marketed. Pushing only 2,300 copies as a "post-modern Coltrane" in 2006 sounds fairly accurate.

JJ: Jazz gets a bum rap for not keeping some currency, and there's a grain of truth in that charge. We've all done a very good job talking and writing about the past — and the history of the music deserves due reverance. What we've had less success with is showing the uninitiated that jazz has maintained relevancy much more than some folks might realize. I've seen much more online activity in the last three years, yet there is no organizing principle connecting all of these nodes. We'll get there.

Musicians have more opportunities than ever to create their own realities, but building, keeping and growing an audience is hard work. You need to use everything in your media toolkit, on top of making music that people want to hear. Otherwise, you're famous only to jazz people.

PJ: Ok, I just want to mention this quotation before moving on. Delmond: "It's gon' be one big obituary. Jazz died at 115 or whatever-it-is. Cause of death: Nobody gave a [expletive]."

JJ: Nobody knows they should give a ___. When you're heavily involved in anything, you can easily get tunnel vision. Why isn't the rest of the world capitulating to your unique and personal vision? For starters, people lead busy lives. You have to give them a reason to spend their money on you, and a lot of jazz ain't cheap.

Despite the reports, I do not believe that the jazz audience is diminishing. It isn't fully engaged, and that's something different. We too rarely meet the audience on its turf.

PJ: It's also worth noting that Delmond's band when he leads that tepidly-received gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center includes the pianist Jonathan Batiste, another New Orleans export who is fluent in a modern idiom. His career is on the up and up, yes?

JJ: Jonathan is a special musician. That's Joe Saylor on drums, another excellent young player. Both of them attended Juilliard. The band is cooking on Nicholas Payton's "Concentric Circles," the song played on WWOZ in the previous episode.

PJ: Moving on, I like how the trombone player in the hotel where Nelson is hitting on ladies/cutting subcontracting deals with Riley is playing "Mack The Knife" — a bit of a murder ballad about a debonair criminal. (And Louis Armstrong's version plays at the end of the episode too.) Who's that trombone player?

JJ: That trombonist is the very excellent Lucien Barbarin. He's been in Harry Connick Jr.'s big band since forever, and he plays Preservation Hall sometimes. He comes from one of the most distinguished names in New Orleans jazz.

Isidore Barbarin was in the Onward Brass band, one of the early brass groups playing this music before it had a four letter name. His son, Paul Barbarin, was an influential drummer and bandleader. His grandson, Danny Barker, is another revered figure in New Orleans music.

PJ: In general, I appreciate how lyrical content of the background music is often a foreshadowing — like how we get Allen Toussaint's "On Your Way Down" before LaDonna gets robbed and raped. Or how they play Ornette Coleman after Delmond plays a sparsely attended gig at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at JALC — weird modern jazz! Any other background music work like that for you?

JJ: Davis is listening to R&B legend Chris Kenner (of "Land of 1000 Dances" fame) sing "Sick and Tired," which just about sums up how a lot of citizens feel about the state of affairs during the reconstruction post-Katrina.

PJ: There's one more live music scene to cover, but I think one or two things need explaining. Nelson unsuccessfully tries to gladhand Councilman Oliver Thomas, and Sophia is about to start an internship with him. What may not be immediately grasped is that Thomas was sentenced to federal prison for bribery charges in late 2007. Kudos to him for retelling the pre-history of all that in person.

JJ: All politics is local!

PJ: Also, who is this recovery czar Edward Blakely? What's the Road Home program Chief Lambreaux talks about? And was there really this much crime in New Orleans in late 2006?

JJ: Edward Blakely was appointed by former mayor Ray Nagin to administer the recovery process. I'm not entirely sure what he actually did, but one thing he succeeded at was pissing off a lot of people from New Orleans. Blakey made some very disparaging remarks about the future of the city after he left his post. He made a few hundred thousand dollars during his tenure as czar. "Last of the Romanovs," as Sophia pointedly says.

The Road Home program was a well-intentioned program to assist New Orleanians in their rebuilding efforts — to cover the gap left by insurance companies who found reasons not to compensate their policyholders. Road Home disbursed a lot of funds, ultimately, but it was not an easy process. There are many horror stories about the complicated and overwhelmingly bureaucratic process. There were some positive outcomes for a lot of people who had no other options, however.

Yes, crime was especially bad at this time. When you see billboards in your city that say THOU SHALL NOT KILL, there's obviously a pathological disregard for the value of human life.

PJ: Finally, we end on Steve Earle's busking version of "Tipitina," the Professor Longhair classic. (He's in character as "Harley," but same difference.) He also plays a tune called "Hometown Blues."

JJ: Harley is a one-man Greek chorus. He's also a handy guy to have around if you need a guitar. Copyright 2011 WBGO-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbgo.org.