Live at Luthjen’s by Evan Christopher and David Torkanowsky
TRACKLIST & AUDIO
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JAZZ JOURNAL 12.10.2020
Evan Christopher & David Torkanowsky – Live at Luthjen’s
Excelling on clarinet from the age of 11, Evan Christopher went on to study music and graduated at the California State University, moving to New Orleans in the 90s for the first of his residential stays over the years. He studied early New Orleans jazz and the city’s broad ranging and cosmopolitan musical development which ensued, particularly the influence of native Creole traditions.
His own playing has absorbed the influence of classic Creole clarinet masters such as Noone, Simeon, Bigard and Bechet. However, whilst retaining firm Creole roots, and identifying with its rich legacy and expressive tonal vibrancy, he seeks to develop and extend the essentially New Orleans clarinet style into fresh, challenging and more varied present-day settings.
In his excellent “Django A La Creole” recordings he successfully applied a Creole-styled approach to gypsy swing, remembering Reinhardt’s post-Grappelli recordings with clarinettist Hubert Rostaing. Evan’s outlook is equally open-minded in this latest recording, which includes a late Fats Waller composition and a Billy Strayhorn special for Johnny Hodges, together with diversely styled originals.
The CD contains highlights from a live concert performance in duet with New Orleans pianist David Torkanowsky, recorded at Luthjen’s, site of an historic New Orleans dance hall. The clarinet playing is impressively expressive, ranging from nuanced sensitivity to piping, free-wheeling rhythmic drive, with supple and interesting phrasing, which is meaningful, rather than just decorative. His tone is full and warmly woody in classic Creole style, – possibly from the Albert simple system clarinet once spotted for him by Kenny Davern, a former mentor.
Pianist David Torkanowsky lays down ideal full and versatile backing, moving confidently between raunchy blues, funky rhythms and meditative, sophisticated balladry, and providing skilled, close rapport in the detailed arrangements. Sometimes layered, these feature shifting changes in tempo and rhythm, exploring a variety of interesting musical ideas, and giving some tracks the feel of a single unified continuous composition.
An outstanding and particularly interesting release, showing creative development flourishing from sound jazz roots.
LONDON JAZZ NEWS 25.09.2020
Evan Christopher & David Torkanowsky – Live at Luthjen’s
London-based guitarist Dave Kelbie has built an enviable three-way career as performer, promoter and record label proprietor. Perhaps his greatest success has come with clarinettist Evan Christopher as his companion in their popular touring band known as Django à La Creole. With Christopher, a persuasive advocate of the classic New Orleans Creole clarinet style associated with the likes of Louis Cottrell and Albert Nicholas, and Kelbie’s understanding of the role of rhythm guitar as exemplified in the recordings of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, their band makes for an enticing jazz experience.
Now comes this duo album, recorded as recently as 10 January 2020 in the venerable Luthjens Dance Hall in New Orleans, teaming Christopher with pianist David Torkanowsky, another Crescent City resident and a versatile performer himself. In that the co-principals seem to have issued this album under their own steam, Kelbie’s role is that of distributor, and doubtless, admirer, on this occasion. Luthjens has been re-purposed these days as the Marigny Recording Studio with this session one in a monthly series of live gigs presented there. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the in-the-moment quality of the recorded sound is singularly impressive, Christopher’s cavernous clarinet tone fairly leaping from the speakers as in the opening limpidly slow version of ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’, before he sets up a tango rhythm which his pianist friend embellishes cleverly.
While staying firmly within the city’s clarinet tradition, Christopher seems to have something of the late Kenny Davern’s desire to confound expectations in the way he approaches his art. He’ll chop and change the dynamics of a solo, smearing and stretching notes, dipping into the sotto voce register and concentrating on beauty before rearing up in hot fashion. He loves to under-blow, letting his instrument breathe for him, the sound like a whisper, as he hollows out a note, leaning back on the beat. Happily, none of this foxes Torkanowsky in any way at all. Billy Strayhorn’s ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’ calls for and receives just this kind of understated, heartfelt treatment, the clarinet almost ethereal in the thematic statements.
Christopher’s original ‘Sid’s Biz’ is a jauntier affair, with a ragtime feel, Torkanowsky echoing Mr Jelly Lord in his stomping accompaniment. Each piece, and there are ten, receives this kind of detailed attention, Christopher playing games with the direction of travel, his eager playmate up for everything. ‘Make Me A Pallet on The Floor’ is more sober, solid rhythmically, beautifully played by this pair and made me think of Morton’s early collaborations with his city’s clarinetists. The low register clarinet here is fervent, Christopher’s control of vibrato direct and emotional, peachy almost, yet another aspect of his virtuoso playing revealed in this close-up situation. Given its bare-bones presentation, it’s pleasing to record that this is an outstanding achievement: musically varied, Christopher free as a bird, with the quick-minded, highly eclectic Torkanowsky happy to play second fiddle until his turn comes to career around the keyboard à la Professor Longhair. The audience clearly loved it all – and so did I.
Wall Street JOURNAL 04.07.2020
Live at Luthjen’s’ by Evan Christopher and David Torkanowsky Review: Legacy of a Dance Hall
Recorded at a historic New Orleans venue, the clarinet-piano duo’s album approaches the city’s jazz traditions with equal parts reverence and invention.
Among the beer-parlor dance halls that once dotted New Orleans was one modest wood building with a tar-paper roof in the Faubourg Marigny, just outside the French Quarter, called Luthjen’s. Until it burned down in 1960, Luthjen’s hosted many beloved traditional jazz musicians. A second incarnation, a one-story brick building not far from the original, lasted until 1981. It reopened last year as a music studio and venue, hosting intimate concerts with food and drink that doubled as recording sessions.
The first release to result from these sessions, in March, from pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Aurora Nealand, extended a playful yet searching collaboration that spans more than a decade. Now comes “Live at Luthjen’s” (Clarinet Road), from clarinetist Evan Christopher and pianist David Torkanowsky, a duo invested not only in each other’s music but also in how the legacies of spots like Luthjen’s resonate today.
In 1994, Mr. Christopher arrived in New Orleans from his native Long Beach, Calif., for a gig. He fell in love with the city, eventually settling there. Among the most accomplished and expressive clarinetists in any genre, he is singular for his rigorous and nuanced exploration of the clarinet style indigenous to his adopted hometown. Initially, this meant “taking lessons from ghosts,” as he once described his graduate-school research at Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archives—studying the lives and works of, among others, Louis “Big Eye” Nelson and George Lewis, both of whom performed at the original Luthjen’s.
Mr. Torkanowsky was born and raised in New Orleans. He was just 10 years old when pianist “Sweet” Emma Barrett, who also played at Luthjen’s, taught him “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” a song at least as old as jazz itself. Mr. Torkanowsky plays it here with elements of stride piano and early blues but also splashes of bebop harmony. Meanwhile, Mr. Christopher leans toward Lewis’s breathy, spiritually infused quaver, especially in his instrument’s upper register. Far from a period piece, the rendition sounds alive with fresh energy. On “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” the oft-played century-old popular song that opens the album, Mr. Torkanowsky throws in downward arpeggios that might befit another New Orleans hero, Allen Toussaint, and, soon after, quotes Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” In a city full of distinctive homegrown pianists with personalized approaches to their instrument, his presents perhaps the most balanced grasp of New Orleans traditions and modern jazz styles. He moves easily from Professor Longhair’s rollicking feel to more subtle polyrhythms befitting, say, Errol Garner, who gave him some early informal lessons.
Throughout this performance, Messrs. Christopher and Torkanowsky challenge each other boldly but also casually, as if in animated conversation. They’re reverent, and not. Did they include Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” because the original Luthjen’s had a sign instructing “No Jitterbugging”? In any case, that tune sways in ways that might have shocked the old dance-hall crowd.
For all their reworkings of familiar songs (the ache embedded within Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” is especially affecting), this is no repertory set. The most interesting tracks are original compositions. Mr. Christopher’s “Sid’s Biz,” a minor-key blues dedicated to the presence that looms above all New Orleans clarinetists, Sidney Bechet, hints at its namesake’s bravura choruses and walks through several moods: stately, insistent, freely flowing, declarative, wistful. His lovely “Valse Marignaise,” drawn from a “Faubourg Variations” suite, benefits from Mr. Torkanowsky’s elegant trills and tremolos as well as his own pure and transparent tone.
“Big Greaze,” co-written by Mr. Torkanowsky and Rick Margitza, honors New Orleans bassist George French, who was born into brass band tradition and played on “Handa Wanda, ” a 1970 single by the Wild Magnolias that combined funk rhythms with the chants and hand percussion of Mardi Gras Indians, another influential New Orleans cultural community. This version doesn’t open with shimmying snaredrum second-line parade beats, as on Mr. Torkanowsky’s 1988 album “Steppin’ Out,” but it’s just as funky. Near the end, as Mr. Torkanowsky’s piano repeats an emphatic figure, sounding somewhere between a jazz vamp and an Afro-Cuban montuno, Mr. Christopher’s clarinet floats figures that sound like Indian chants. The phrasing and inflection are correct, as is the requisite air of mystery.
This album is punctuated by audience applause, which highlights the fact that until clubs reopen, experiences like this can’t happen. Messrs. Christopher and Torkanowsky have continued to perform, streaming live online under the moniker “Art of the Duo 504.” Their repertoire and rapport keep growing. Caught here in January, before an uncertain future took hold, they negotiate a musical past and present with elegance and invention.
LARRY BLUMENFELD writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the journal.
BEBOP SPOKEN HERE 06.08.2020
Evan Christopher & David Torkanowsky – Live at Luthjen’s
Recorded live in New Orleans at what is described as “a historic venue” by a duo who pay homage without lip service to the music that began life Way Down Yonder in New Orleans which just happens to be the first track. Apart from the opening, out of tempo chorus, few would have recognised the tune so beloved of Dixie bands the world over which is no bad thing bringing, as it does, a refreshing vitality to the old warhorse.
Sid’s Biz is one of four Christopher originals. A medium tempo blues it made me realise what a beautiful round tone he gets from his Improved Albert System Selmer clarinet. Every note blown hits the inside of the instrument and comes out with a rare warmth that’s so fluid you can almost taste it.
Make me a Pallet on the Floor is one of those numbers that usually have the player inflicting a vocal chorus upon the listener. Not so, these two, they let the music speak for itself.
Rollin’ the Jernt is another original by Christopher with Torkanowsky pounding away like James P. Bass? Drums? Who needs ’em?
The pianist provided Melody For Jaco. It is quite emotional. Jitterbug Waltz gets the fingers working as it invariably does albeit with a rubato section by the pianist that made for a brief cooling off period.
Christopher’s Pouncing Around’s a foot-tapper and it wouldn’t surprise me if the more mobile members of the audience weren’t shaking it about a bit – I know I was!
Strayhorn’s A Flower is a Lovesome Thing was suitably melancholic. Torkanowsky’s Big Greaze wasn’t – it swung to such an extent it almost rocked!
Valse Marignaise from Christopher’s Faubourg Variations Suite brought this unpretentious, but immaculately presented, album to a close.
An absolute gem.
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