The Bay Area has harbored a deep love for New Orleans music for more than seven decades, from the vogue for traditional jazz that defined the scene in the 1940s through regular visits by contemporary combos like the Rebirth Brass Band and Galactic. Some of the greatest Crescent City players settled here (see: Modeliste, Zigaboo) and our region has long been enriched by waves of African Americans from Louisiana initially settled drawn to the East Bay drawn by work in the World War II shipyards.
But pianist, cornetist, guitarist, vocalist and bandleader Macy Blackman, who celebrates the release of his new album with the Mighty Fines, Shoorah Shoorah: The Songs of Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint at the Back Room on Sunday, doesn’t need any elaborate explanations for the Bay Area’s abiding passion for New Orleans grooves. “There’s no place in the US where people wouldn’t like this,” he says. “But it’s true that the Bay Area is real attuned to the arts.”
Listening to Shoorah Shoorah, it’s easy to see Blackman’s point. He plays rollicking, good-time music and his band brings together some of the Bay Area’s finest players, including tenor saxophonist/vocalist Nancy Wright, baritone saxophonist Ken “Snakebite” Jacobs, bassist Bing Nathan, and drummer Larry Vann (who played with New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas when she lived in the East Bay four decades ago).
The album draws primarily on classic Toussaint songs associated with Thomas, like “Lipstick Traces,” “Ruler of My Heart” and “Take A Look,” “which is really Nancy’s masterpiece,” Blackman says. “I wanted all the songs to be different. There’s no blues. The closest thing to a blues is ‘Hittin’ On Nothing.’ There were some pieces I’d never heard before, like ‘Shoorah Shoorah, and others I knew we had to include. The first one, ‘Working in the Coal Mine,’ is based Allen’s arrangement not Lee Dorsey’s.”
Blackman absorbed the intricacies of New Orleans beats and an extensive repertoire of Crescent City R&B directly from drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams, who along with Earl Palmer defined the classic New Orleans R&B sound of the 1950s and ‘60s. They met in the 1978 and formed a fast friendship, playing music together until the drummer’s death in 1986.
Nancy Wright recently got a dose of New Orleans directly from the source after heading to Jazz Fest last year, and ended up landing impromptu gigs with Marcia Ball and Elvin Bishop. The trip was prompted by her dejection over Toussaint’s death in the fall of 2015. “I was thanking God such a beautiful artist existed, and I stayed upset,” she says. “I cleared a month on my schedule just to go be in New Orleans and try to find whatever work I can.”
Already one of the most sought after blues saxophonists in Northern California (she’s up for a Blues Music Award for best instrumentalist), Wright returned to Oakland sounding more soulful than ever. She recently released her third album as a leader, Playdate, a talent-packed project with a succession of guest stars, including her former employers Elvin Bishop and Joe Louis Walker, powerhouse vocalists Wee Willie Walker, Frank Bey, and Terrie Odabi, and guitarslingers Tommy Castro, Mighty Mike Schermer, and Chris Cain (whom she’ll be joining at Biscuits & Blues on April 4).
With Toussaint’s death and Irma Thomas’s late career resurgence, the time seems ripe for Shoorah Shoorah. Over the past decade, she’s released a series of sensational albums, starting with 2006’s anguished but unbowed response to Hurricane Katrina After the Rain, which earned her a belated first Grammy. She followed up with the winning concept album Simply Grand (both on Rounder), a stripped down project pairing her with a succession of master pianists like Dr. John, Jon Cleary, Davel Crawford and Marcia Ball.
Thomas’s ties to the Bay Area run deep. When work dried up back home and she had to get a day job at Montgomery Ward in the early 1970s, she kept getting calls for gigs in California. With four children to feed she figured it made sense to relocate, and ended up moving to Oakland in the spring of 1972. She landed a regular gig at the Off Plaza Lounge, often working with organist Chester Thompson (until he joined Tower of Power). She sang with the Dynamic Four, the Uptights and other top Bay Area R&B outfits while holding onto her day job until she moved back to Louisiana in 1976.
For Blackman, who’s steeped in a century of New Orleans sounds, celebrating Toussaint and Thomas is an ideal assignment for the Mighty Fines. The band is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and has earned a dedicated following among savvy listeners and dancers. They return to San Francisco’s Balancoire Night Club for a swing dance night on March 29.
Recommended gig: Melanie O’Reilly
The Irish-born Berkeley jazz singer Melanie O’Reilly plays the second concert in the Third Sunday Concert Series at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church this weekend. Joined by the redoubtable Frank Martin on piano, bass expert Fred Randolph, and special guest Jane Lenoir on flute, the concert runs 4-6 p.m.