John Royen- Swinging Hard at the Spotted Cat
For most people, jazz in New Orleans means the French Quarter. While there are still a few venues remaining for jazz, there is much more to be found outside the Quarter. Pass over the Esplanade, its northeast boundary lined with classic Creole architecture, and one enters the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Walk a few blocks down Frenchmen Street and you’ll find perhaps the greatest concentration of live music venues anywhere, many featuring jazz and related music. Every Wednesday pianist John Royen holds forth with The Orleans Six at the Spotted Cat Music Club. Essentially a bar with mostly SRO, it is an ideal venue for the traditional jazz and blues musics it features. Paintings of the likes of Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Uncle Lionel Batiste, and Willie the lion Smith by artist Bedonna Wakeman adorn the walls. An open area allows a few dancers to relieve the rhythmic itch everyone else in the place is clearly looking to scratch.
Two things are striking about the place- the many young people who wander in and then hang around to hear old music, and the varied instrumentation of many of the bands that play there. It is partly a function of frequent “sitting in,” but also the aesthetic of the musicians. At any time you might find a bass saxophone, violin, steel guitar, washboard and, as musicians stop buy, assorted instrument doublings. It’s exciting and you feel this is what live jazz was truly meant to be.
Royen’s band includes regulars Benji O’Hanon drums, James Singleton on upright bass, Bruce Brachman on clarinet, Marla Dixon trumpet and vocals, and Rich Trolson trombone. On this night (9/5/12), Doug Fincke sat in on second trombone. On the first two numbers of the third set heard by this observer, Colin Meyer stepped up as a third trombone. Leader Royen is a true master of traditional jazz piano. Like his mentor the great Don Ewell, Royen has fully integrated the essence of the originators of piano jazz.. He knows the licks and the vocabulary, but most importantly plays the rhythmic nuances essential to these styles. While expertly using familiar material makes his playing authentic, he is also original in the way he deploys it. And of course he swings like heck.
They began this final set with an upbeat “I’ve Found A New Baby.” Royen began with an intro reminiscent of Willie the lion Smith followed by solos from all three trombones, and then each of the other musicians. The second tune required a caution from Royen to fasten our seatbelts as the “trombone choir” launched into “Ory’s Creole Trombone.” Royen’s Mortonesque solo complemented well the wall of sound produced by three tailgaiting bones. James P. Johnson’s “Old Fashioned Love” followed with Royen hinting at the more sparse style Johnson adopted during the 1940s. Trumpeter Marla Dixon stepped up with a plunger mutted growling solo followed by an equally earthy vocal. No torch singing here. She belted the tune more akin to the great blues and vaudeville shouters of the early 1920s. New Orleans own Lizzie Miles comes to mind.
“I Can’t Escape From You” and a rousing “Chinatown, My Chinatown” closed out the evening. Fine solos by Brachman on clarinet and Trolson on trombone, with Dixon’s earthy vocals and Royen’s solos melding stride, blues, rocking octaves and chording drove things home. The piano was miced, thankfully. If you want the full sensory experience of traditional jazz, don’t miss John Royen and The Orleans 6 at the Spotted Cat Music Club, 623 Frenchman Street in New Orleans. Live audio and video streaming is available on Playjones.com, TAB live venue.