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A Sunday revival: The return of jazz in the evening

23rd May 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

New Orleans boasts a history of early Sunday evening jazz gigs. Some might still fondly remember when drummer Smokey Johnson would hold court at Gerry’s club off of St. Bernard Avenue and all the cats making the scene.

Maybe this became a tradition in the city because the lively folks here just weren’t ready to see a weekend come to a close. For working people — those having to get up to face “Blue Monday” — early music sets meant still hitting the sack at a reasonable hour.

Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club, 1931 St. Claude Avenue, revitalizes the Sunday evening jazz tradition by presenting the outstanding saxophonist Aaron Fletcher who starts blowing at 6 p.m.

“It’s perfect that day because people aren’t really looking to do anything too late — they can go to church, do something in the day and it doesn’t get in the way,” says Fletcher who leads his quintet. “We really try to make it a point to start at six,” he adds, “because we don’t want to give people the impression we’re not going to start until 7 o’clock.”

Fletcher, 31, is a Louisiana native who began his musical experience in the church and upon graduating from the New Orleans Center for the Creative (NOCCA) joined Gram­my-winning trumpeter Ter­ence Blanchard’s band. He’s heard on Blanchard’s fine 2000 album Wandering Moon on which he plays straight-ahead, hard-bopping jazz, a style with which he is, perhaps, most associated. At Sweet Lor­raine’s, Fletcher, who spent seven years in Los Angeles and returned to New Orleans in June 2010, offers a mixed bag of genres and material.

“It’s definitely smoother than what you’ve heard me play,” he says with a laugh.

On this gig, Fletcher and his group – bassist Donald Ramsey, keyboardist Kendrick Marshall, drummer Jamal Batiste and guitarist Jake Larson — work on original material and pop and rhythm and blues covers such as Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” Grover Washington’s “Winelight” and Floetry’s “Say Yes.”

“We’re employing the same techniques that some jazz greats did with the popular music of their day,” Fletcher explains. “It is not as smooth as some people might expect. When you say smooth, people think the improvisation is taken away from them. That’s not the case.”

When Fletcher left New Orleans for Los Angeles in 2002, he did so thinking he had a better shot at playing the instrumental R&B and smoother music there. “That was the hub,” he explains. He found that L.A. was more of a touring and recording city meaning, he says, there really wasn’t a playing scene there. “People don’t really go out to listen to music.

“The thing about L.A. is that your success is contingent on your affiliation not your merit. Even­tually, that will take away from your focus because instead of concentrating on your development, you have to spend time cultivating relationships in order to keep working. At a certain point, I had to ask myself what makes me happy. I realized what I started doing in L.A., I could do here.”

Fletcher, an imaginative, soulful player, remains a strength in the straight-up, modern jazz field. As he did at Jazz Festival, this Thursday, May 26, 2011 he’ll join keyboardist David Torkanowsky, who this night will man the big B-3 organ, at the Prime Example, 1909 North Broad Street, for two sets at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

“It’s always an adventure playing with Tork — to say the least,” Fletcher offers, again with a laugh. “There’s really no relaxing; you have to stay on your toes when you play with Tork.”

For the Prime Example date, the repertoire relies heavily on material from the pens of some of New Orleans most noted players and composers such as the drummer James Black and saxophonists Alvin “Red” Tyler and Tony Dagradi with some jazz standards mixed in. “This show is about musical versatility. Tork is one of those guys who can do everything.”

Fletcher reflects on his Jazz Fest set with the pianist that included drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and bassist George Porter saying: “You see what makes these guys so special when you get to the basics and you play music. Those guys were strictly about how they felt and how they articulated it. That’s what made it fun for me.”

Three nights a week, Fletcher takes his alto to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to perform with trumpeter/vo­calist Jeremy Davenport, an artist he admires very much not only as a musician but for his vision. “It’s a very traditional approach but it still embodies the same musical philosophy which is great because it allows me to actually experience playing more straight ahead from a musical aspect. I think what young cats don’t know and old cats might forget is that it still has to be music.”

“Everything is working hand in hand,” Fletcher says of leading his own group and working with Davenport and Torkanowsky. “I know it’s a cliché, but it keeps it real. Now I realize that the source of what I do is here. It’s probably the most musical city in the world. At Jazz Fest time, you could probably put an instrument in your hand and it would play itself. It’s that musical. I need that to stimulate my creativity.

Fletcher, who describes himself as a health nut and workout fiend since he was a teenager, finds that those disciplines translate into his music career.

“If you look good, you feel good, if you feel good you play good, if you sound good people have a good time so it’s all connected.”

This article was originally published in the May 23, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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