Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Take Me to the River New Orleans

Even without jazz, New Orleans would be one of most important musical cities. That might be a heavy statement, but it is backed up by the likes of the Neville Brothers, The Meters, Dumpstaphunk, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, and Dr. John. When you add jazz back in, forget about it. Martin Shore doesn’t forget about NOLA’s jazz roots, but he definitely emphasizes the funk and R&B when he takes his documentary franchise to our favorite city in Take Me to the River New Orleans, which opens this Friday in the Crescent City, itself.

Shore visits studios all over New Orleans, where he pairs up legendary musicians, with up-and-coming local artists. It is an approach we’ve seen many times before. Frankly, a lot of fans would rather just see Irma Thomas (on her own), who kicks off the film with Ledisi, performing her classic “Wish Someone Would Care.” We do not mean to insult Ledisi, but this kind of Tony Bennett
Duets project is getting to be a cliché.

It is way more interesting to hear a diverse group of New Orleans drummers: Shannon Powell, Herlin Riley, Alvin Ford Jr., Terence Higgins, and Stanton Moore, kvetch and jam on “Li’l Liza Jane,” because it is a real dialogue. Donald Harrison, Jr. represents the jazz tradition and helps explain the significance of the Mardi Gras Indians. He also jams hard on the “Saints” with his nephew Christian Scott and the Tipitina’s Interns. You can’t get much more New Orleans than that.

Shore visits Preservation Hall, but we do not really hear much from the current bands there. However, a number of brass bands perform and discuss the current funkier scene, including the New Breed, Rebirth, and the grandaddies of them all, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (who back Aaron Neville on a rousing “Stompin’ Ground”).

It is totally cool to see Walter “Wolfman” Washington included, jamming with Ani DiFranco on a real deal Cajun tune. The sessions involving rappers are a mixed bag, with the most successful being the Soul Rebels jamming with the late 5
th Ward Weebie on “504/Enjoy Yourself.” The tribute to Toussaint is a bit gimmicky, but somehow Snoop Dog and G-Eazy almost sound like they belong on “Yes We Can,” with the Meters, William Bell, and Big Sam Williams doing all the hard work of keeping things funky.

Yet, for NOLA music fans, the highlights are a Nevilles reunion, which was one of the final appearances for Art and Charles Neville (fittingly they performed their historic “Wild Tchoupitoulas”) and Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) and Davell Crawford performing “Jock-o-Mo” (please do not call it “Iko Iko”), composed by Crawford’s father, in what would be one of Rebennack’s final sessions. The Neville Brothers and Dr. John are not just New Orleans musical legends, they are American musical legends. Happily, Shore showcases them nicely.

Although briefly name-checked, the absence of the Marsalis family is a serious oversight. Regardless how you might feel about Wynton, his late father Ellis was a pillar of the city’s jazz community. Sadly, like far too many musicians documented in
TMTTR NOLA, he is no longer with us, so there will not be any chance of rectifying that omission unless Shore is sitting on some outtakes. Regardless, the film (narrated by John Goodman, like many NOLA docs before it) highlights some terrific artists and features some great music. Very highly recommended, Take Me to the River opens this Friday (4/22) in New Orleans, at the Broad Theater and the following Friday (4/29) in New York at the Alamo Drafthouse.