Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Tribeca ’22: Music Pictures: New Orleans

Even though it scattered New Orleans musicians, Katrina never the silenced the music. Jazz Fest continued on-schedule and the Frenchmen and Bourbon Street clubs were undamaged and reopened for business. However, Covid closed everything and canceled all the gigs, including Jazz Fest. At least documentary filmmakers appreciated what we were missing, because there has been a recent boomlet of NOLA music docs released in theaters or screening at festivals. This one is a welcomed addition. Ben Chace profiles four stylistically different—but not too disparate—veteran New Orleans musicians in Music Pictures: New Orleans, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Part one focuses on Irma Thomas, “The Soul Queen,” a highly fitting and logical place to start. Unlike Martin Shore’s
Take Me to the River New Orleans, which felt compelled to team Thomas up with a younger artist, Ledisi, Chace finds her sufficiently interesting on her own, because she is. However, he also gives a bit of time to her sidemen, particularly drummer Johnny Vidacovich, whom Thomas is happy to share the spotlight with. Hearing them put together a smoldering and swinging “My Love Is” is a treat.

Likewise, hearing Thomas casually land an a cappella “Our Day Will Come” and then carefully caress it while recording a lush studio arrangement will give you good chills. Honestly, watching
Music Pictures will make NOLA music fans realize she is even cooler than they understood.

Benny Jones Sr. is now the leader of the Treme Brass Band (who were regularly seen in HBO’s
Treme), but he was also a founder of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who really deserve a documentary of their own, for re-popularizing a funkifying the NOLA brass band tradition. NOLA brass bands have an infectious rhythmic drive and as a bass and snare drummer, Jones is one of the best putting the beat on the street. Of course, the entire band makes their groove swing, but vocalist/alto-player John “Prince” Gilbert gets the time to tell some of the band’s reminiscences, like when they opened for the Grateful Dead, in Oakland, on New Year’s Eve.

Little Freddie King probably lived the blues as much as anyone, if not more so. Yet, he survived to find fame in Europe and play regular gigs in New Orleans. He probably has the film’s most colorful anecdotes, but the important thing is he can still play—and he is a heck of a snappy dresser. It is definitely King’s segment, but his drummer-manager “Wacko” Wade Wright gets credit for handling all the business, as well as a lot of King’s personal, medical logistics.

Music Pictures concludes with New Orleans’ first family of modern jazz, the Marsalises, whom Shore dubiously ignored. It was a wise choice, considering Ellis Marsalis, the NOLA jazz patriarch, passed away due to Covid complications in 2020. Chace focuses on Marsalis’s first and only album length collaboration with his son Jason (brother of Wynton and Branford) on vibes (whereas on their previous recordings together, Jason had played drums).

One of the great things about this segment is it explains the complexity of modern jazz, specifically their arrangement of James Black’s “Magnolia Triangle,” while demonstrating its accessibility. They sound great (and remind us to be grateful we heard Ellis and Jason Marsalis at Snug Harbor in late 2019).

Music Pictures is superior to Take me to the River and Jazz Fest: a New Orleans Story, both of which had theatrical releases. Chace is more focused (more curated) and he more fully showcases the music. It swings and it has real soul. Very highly recommended, Music Pictures: New Orleans screens again tomorrow (6/15) and Saturday (6/18), as part of this year’s Tribeca.