To save the New Orleans clarinet tradition, Evan Christopher is coaxing it into the 21st century, resuscitating it with new ideas and fresh contexts while eloquently speaking the language of Sidney Bechet and Barney Bigard. If there are also intimations of free jazz, reggae, even rock 'n' roll, perhaps that's not surprising from a native Southern Californian who can conjure a piercing wail from his instrument roughly analogous to an electric guitar, and bound around the bandstand with a rock star's charisma.
"I call it contemporary early jazz," he explained by phone from New Orleans in May, just before leaving for the UK and a busy schedule that's kept him mostly out of the country leading up to the premiere of his new composition, "Treat It Gentle Suite," with the Minnesota Orchestra and a jazz band Friday.
So how does Christopher, 40, a virtuoso clarinetist and music scholar who considers one of the Crescent City's definitive sounds an endangered species create "contemporary early jazz," something that could be construed as an oxymoron?
"The contrived way would be things like: I'll make sure that there are icons of modernity represented in my repertoire: Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix. But the more organic way is just that at the end of the day, it's 2010 and I'm being as true to my own voice as I can. I want people to know about Sidney Bechet, but I'm not playing anything he ever did note for note."
Christopher's own inimitable style has become known to Twin Cities audiences through his show-stopping solos with Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra as well as several appearances at the Dakota Jazz Club. Although not a New Orleans native, he quickly became one of the premier players of and advocates for traditional jazz. As a California kid he played sax and clarinet, but ended up with more opportunities to play the latter, including a substitute gig at Disneyland where he happened to hear a recording of Kid Ory clarinetist Joe Darensbourg. It piqued his interest: "I didn't know a clarinet could do that."
Subsequent discoveries of other NOLA clarinet masters and an eye-opening trip down yonder sealed the deal. Christopher has now been a New Orleanian for a decade and a half. He had a brief sojourn to play with Jim Cullen's trad band in San Antonio, then left again for France, admittedly in disgust, after getting flooded out of his house following Hurricane Katrina.
'Gentle' on his mind
Mayfield lured him back to Louisiana with a featured role in his Jazz Orchestra. It was during one of that band's visits upriver that conversations about a long-simmering Christopher idea led to a Minnesota Orchestra commission to write the "Treat It Gentle Suite," whose title is borrowed from the autobiography of Bechet, the iconic Creole clarinetist and saxophonist.
It was inspired by Christopher's determination to keep the music alive.
"I became more aggressive about defending a certain style and language of the clarinet that originated in New Orleans," he said. "I say defend because there's not very many people doing it. When I moved here from California in 1994, the last of what I consider the true Creole New Orleans clarinet players [Willie Humphrey] had passed away just months before. So there was nobody for me to study the New Orleans style of clarinet with.
"Now it's 15 years later and I don't see any of the young kids really dealing with the instrument in the New Orleans context. There's an underground subculture that's adopted some of the traditional stuff. But it's not really moving forward and the subculture is exactly that, not all that connected to the community. One of the ways I thought it would be fun to expand the awareness and enthusiasm for it was to play it in the context of an orchestra, try to create a serious work for it.
"More specifically, I'm dealing with the language of the clarinet as it evolved in New Orleans. Some of that language comes from individual musicians like Sidney Bechet, and George Lewis and Barney Bigard, Omer Simeon and all these cats; Johnny Dodds. It's like an ethnic style to me, like the Greek clarinet tradition. But it's homegrown right here, and it's got elements that are Caribbean, that are derived from vocal music, that come from the relationship with early bands before jazz that were orchestras and included violin."
In May, Christopher was frantically finishing up the score so he could turn it over to David Frost, an Ohioan with "serious orchestrating chops." He was also completing the lineup of jazz musicians for the performance.
"I knew right from the beginning that I'd have to have a jazz band embedded in the orchestra, because the vocabulary for the instrument wasn't derived by clarinetists independently; it was derived from their role within the jazz ensemble," he said.
The band will be a hybrid from opposite ends of the river: New Orleanians Mayfield on trumpet, Don Vappie on banjo and Shannon Powell on drums, plus Minnesotans Gus Sandberg (sax) and Andrew Gillespie (percussion) of the Jack Brass Band, and trombonist Matthew Hanzelka and sousaphonist Erik Jacobsen of Mama Digdown's Brass Band.
As for the clarinetist and composer, Christopher hopes his piece will be a significant addition to the sparse literature created most successfully by guys named Ellington and Stravinsky.
"I'm doing my best not to make it a 'pops' offering, in the sense that a lot of times when you combine jazz and the orchestra, you get a texture that's kind of banal, where the orchestra is just playing weird little background figures behind jazz. I'm trying to make it much more of a dialogue between the orchestra and the band.
"If the only thing people walk away saying is, 'I didn't know the clarinet could do that,' then I've succeeded. If I create a little more curiosity or awareness of the tradition that specifically developed in New Orleans, then I've also done my job."