The 2014 edition of the SXSW Festival showcased so much talent that it is hard to choose the standouts. Now we’re well into music festival season with the New Orleans Jazz Fest just concluded.
Music, as all of the arts, is a rough business. For every band that “makes” it with a modicum of fame, there are hundreds just as talented that operate just below the surface of popular culture. Having spent significant parts of my life in and around New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other cities in the United States, for me it is those performers–just a step away from recognition–that stitch together the strands in the fabric of civilization. For it is these people who live for the art, for the love of the thing.
Having been a jazz enthusiast for virtually my entire life, I have listened to, watched, and met performers of the art of that uniquely American form of improvisational music dedicate themselves to excellence in their craft. Most of them are unknown to the great majority of the populace and their recordings have been heard by very few that have been fortunate enough to have had that opportunity. Yet they press on.
One day I met a saxophone player who was the featured musical artist at a poetry slam that combined poetry readings with improvisational jazz. During the break we talked about The Music and he told me about a time when he had the opportunity to play with the great Art Blakey at Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio. “I played the best music of my life in that set,” he said. “But then Rudy looked over at us and he realized that the recording equipment had malfunctioned and hadn’t recorded anything.” Though I was a stranger–a mere fan listening to the story of a malfunction many years removed–I felt distress for the man before me at hearing his story. “Weren’t you disheartened?” I asked. He smiled then. “No, because we weren’t doing it for the recording. We were doing it for the thing. When you do it for the recording, for others to hear you, then that’s just ego and that ain’t nothin’.”
I realized then that he was right, and that his admonition that when you pursue “just ego…that ain’t nothing” applied to other pursuits and not just to music.
Since that day when I walk down Frenchman Street in NOLA and come upon a group of young people in an ad hoc brass band I know–I feel–that they are doing it for “the thing.” When I go to Nashville and come upon artists plying their music at the local bar and at the street corners I know they are doing it for “the thing.” Walking down Venice Beach, in the clubs of San Francisco, in the neighborhoods of Philly, the boardwalk on the Jersey shore, outside Santa Fe with the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance, remembering the Hoboken of my youth, and the music I heard in Spanish Harlem and in the Cuban section of Miami, on the old Steel Pier in Atlantic City, in the jazz bars of Manhattan (or what’s left of them), I heard that same thing–that voice, that joy, that playfulness, that anger, that sadness, that blues, recording who and what we are; recording the human experience and human emotion in all of its hues in ways that only music can accomplish: “the thing.” Then, given this knowledge, when you find those artists that combine the heady admixture of originality, genuineness, and musicality, it is a transcendent experience.
All of this is simply preface to three very different talents that I’ve come upon and who stick in that part of my mind that says: “here is something.”
The first is Humming House and, full disclosure, I came upon them via WordPress when they responded to one of my previous musical posts. So I decided to check them out. What I found was a group of talented performers communicating absolute joy through their music. Working out of Nashville, Humming House is one of those bands that seem to open for every first rate act and whose music can be heard in many mediums while never quite breaking through. Their genre is American roots, folk, country and pop. They performed in Austin and the following is a SXSW Showcasing Video.
The next band also turned some heads at SXSW and the following video is from the Jam in the Van franchise. They are a rock and dirty blues outfit from San Diego, California consisting of two members: Celest “CC” Spina on drums, and Anthony “Tony” Catalano on guitar. On the following song “Superblues,” Catalano’s vocals are electric with Spina propelling the music forward using an idiosyncratic drumming style that still manages to work.
Finally, the last artist is from the U.K. but was mentioned as the standout first timer to the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Her name is Laura Mvula. Her voice is an impressive instrument that she manipulates to remind one of singers as different as Nina Simone and Sade. The performance that follows from a U.K. music program is simply electric.