'Treme,' Ep. 16: A Village On An Island

Jun 1, 2011

I think I'm starting to figure this place out. It's a village — a village on an island. Everyone's connected. They may love each other, they may hate each other, but they're all related. ... It's all connected somehow. And I'm this close to seeing how it all hooks up.
--Nelson Hidalgo

The New Orleans of Treme has often felt like a small town, where many characters wear multiple hats, and six degrees of separation feel more like one or two. But this season, that quality has been heightened ever so slightly.

Perhaps it was just the juxtaposition in this episode of Davis' raucous rehearsal and his irritated neighbors next door, but it feels like many different characters are intersecting now. It didn't take long for Nelson to make very important political contacts. Batiste is now teaching in the schools, and hiring all different types of musicians. Janette and Delmond are now friends. Toni Bernette and Lieutenant Colson are possibly becoming more than friends. And everybody who seems to care about the city sees music in clubs and dances in second lines.

About that music: Here's our (belated, sorry) rundown of this week's performances, with Josh Jackson of WBGO. Our full archive, too.

Patrick Jarenwattananon: As jazz people, I bet we both immediately identified Louis Armstrong's solo on "West End Blues," as hummed by the dream-state reincarnation of Creighton. Then Antoine Batiste brings that recording to his class.

Josh Jackson: It's been almost 83 years since that recording was made, and I'm not sure that anyone has surpassed it. What really makes it great for me is the fact that it's just another day at the recording studio for Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. I won't spend much time elaborating on the trumpet cadenza, the totally hip vocal or the equally impressive solo chorus from pianist Earl Hines. Let's just call it what it is: music for the ages.

PJ: Batiste brings up this big point about cultural inheritance: "That's jazz, and we invented it." I know that now, I would have loved to have had that in my upbringing — but perhaps 13-year-old self would be less enthusiastic, as I think the show makes clear with the two student marching bands.

JJ: That moment with Antoine and the band kids should be part of every music curriculum. If one kid from every class understood the importance of Louis Armstrong, the world would be a much better place.

PJ: This week in cameos: Henry Butler! We first see him jamming with the Soul Apostles on the classic "See See Rider" at the (late) venue Donna's, and later leading his own band (and even singing a little) at the Howlin' Wolf. We've had a lot of great New Orleans pianists in this show, and from what I know of Henry's music, he very much belongs to that lineage.

JJ: He's singing "Mama Roux" at Howlin' Wolf. Henry Butler is a classic case of eclecticism. He's the very definition of a New Orleans master musician: He can play many styles of music very well. That's a real strength, yes? Henry made some great straight ahead jazz records, and they are all out of print.

After Katrina, Henry took the vagabond route. He settled in Boulder, Colo. for a while. When I spoke to him last year, he was living in Brooklyn. If Henry Butler is playing anywhere near you, check him out. For those who cannot, The Library of Congress has an excellent podcast on iTunes U, you dig?

PJ: In other news, Sonny gets fired for continual lateness, and Antoine appoints a straw boss for his band. It's hard being a bandleader — especially when you get called to work with Henry Butler, and miss your own gig!

JJ: Sonny just learned a valuable lesson from the old school: Always be on time. That message fits into more than one context. I remember seeing New Orleans drummer Bob French fire a young trumpeter at a gig once. The message was clear — playing music is a job. You better have the same work ethic as any other profession. If you want respect, command it. We'll see how Antoine handles having a straw boss. So far, he's losing money.

PJ: Speaking of piano lineage, series regular Tom McDermott has written a song based on something that Henry Butler once played. We see him play it with Annie and Evan Christopher — a clarinetist who I know can play all sorts of classic New Orleans jazz. (The script writers make a special point to mention the Latin American element of their music.)

JJ: That may be a nod to Jelly Roll Morton, and there's plenty of truth in it. When you listen to older dance music, like habaneras and contradanzas, you can hear the same clave that informs the bamboula parade beat behind so much New Orleans music. McDermott wrote "Heavy Henry" years ago. You can hear Tom and Evan perform it on their recent (and highly recommended) recording on Threadhead Records, Almost Native: Songs from New Orleans and Beyond. Hear it on Bandcamp.

We also hear Scott Joplin's "Heliotrope Bouquet." During the performance, Evan Christopher reminds us of Tony Parenti, a virtoso clarinet player from New Orleans who played a lot of ragtime and early swing music. If you can find it, there's a Jazzology recording called Ragpickers that features both Parenti and Evan Christopher recordings. So maybe he wasn't the first person to make the comparison. If you'd like to hear more from Tom McDermott and Evan Christopher, here's their Danza Quartet New Year's Eve set from Donna's. That was fun.

PJ: Meanwhile, Annie is still frustrated with how slow her progress is going with her songwriting. After she and Harley/Steve Earle catch John Hiatt coming through town, they marvel at the song "Feels Like Rain" — a song 20 years old, but still with resonance in the present day.

JJ: Good songs always transcend a time and a place. Keep on going. That's about all I can say.

PJ: You know who else is trying his hand at songwriting — in a different way — is this rapper Lil Calliope (played by an actual New Orleans rapper named Ace B). Davis has him thinking politically — a la Public Enemy, The Clash, Woody Guthrie — and the result is a lament about the Road Home program, in the style of "bounce funk rap with a brass band twist." I get the sense the protege is going to outstrip the mentor though.

JJ: David Simon commissioned this new song from Davis Rogan, the real life character behind the fictional character DJ Davis. Rogan is the pianist in the band, making it a vortex of inside jokedom. A good band nonetheless: Kirk Joseph on tuba, Brice Miller is the trumpet player, Tyrus Chapman on trombone, with drummer Andre Bohren and rapper Ace B.

PJ: To close out this episode, we get a second line, led out by the Pigeon Town steppers. That must mean it's Carnival season, and once again, the Rebirth Brass Band is the accompaniment.

JJ: Joe Henry and the Pigeon Town Steppers emerge from Leroy's Place, and Rebirth blasts "Take It to the Streets," one of their anthems. Once again, the culture brings these characters together in an unlikely setting anywhere outside of New Orleans. David Simon drives the message home again. There's nothing like a good parade to bury conflict, even if it's only temporary. The more permanent solution is always lurking. As Leadbelly says, "Six feet of dirt puts us all on the same side."

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