One of New Orleans' flagship groups is captured live at the city's flagship event on The DUKES of Dixieland's rollicking new release, Live at 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Due out September 18, the album spotlights the versatility and range of the iconic band with a set of classic Crescent City R&B and Latin-tinged jazz, all performed with crack timing and boisterous spirit.
The repertoire may come as a surprise to those who haven't caught one of the band's renowned nightly performances on the Steamboat Natchez, their home base on the Mississippi River for more than twenty years. Best known for the traditional jazz sound implied by their name, the DUKES of Dixieland casts a wide net to present the stunning diversity and celebratory soul of New Orleans music.
On Live at 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, that "know it when you hear it" style is represented by hometown heroes like Louis Prima, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and Huey "Piano" Smith; as well as spiritual compatriots including Tom Waits and Jerry Lee Lewis. There are also several Duke Ellington pieces - which might seem to be an unlikely fit until you hear the ensemble's down-home, Latin Jazz reinventions of the legendary composer's work.
The band's R&B-focused set was recorded in front of a riotous crowd of thousands in the Jazz & Heritage Festival's Economy Hall Tent, named for the former home of an early twentieth century mutual aid and benefit society. Performing for the always-enthusiastic Jazz Fest crowd brings something special to the band's well-honed sound, according to trumpet player and bandleader Kevin Clark. "Playing for that crowd, you know that when they're applauding and into it, you're doing it right. We always get a good response out there, and when that many people scream and yell, it's inspiring and amps the band up even more. It captures that over-the-top New Orleans vibe."
Before they ever reached those Jazz Fest ears, however, these songs were audience-tested in front of local and international audiences. The DUKES play the dinner cruise on the Steamboat Natchez seven nights a week, 45 weeks a year - and on their "time off" play 30 dates a year with orchestras and at festivals and performing arts centers in the U.S. and abroad. "All the tunes that we do on the new album are songs that the guests that we play for every day enjoy listening to," Clark says. "You can see them light up when we play those particular songs; they're fan favorites. Maybe that's because they don't expect us to make a departure from traditional jazz, though everything we do keeps one foot planted in New Orleans music."
That term is surprisingly hard to define, even for a longtime resident like Clark. "I think all of New Orleans music has a certain feel, a grittiness, to it," he says. "It's 'dirt under your fingernails' music."
Made up of well-studied musicians with hundreds of songs in their repertoire and countless performances under their belt, the DUKES make it a point to balance their virtuosity with that grit, never losing sight of the elements that make the Big Easy special. "Every night I hear, 'This is what we came to New Orleans for,'" Clark says.
"There's something about every song that we do that makes it different than any other band. It's the difference between grabbing a po'boy and eating a fine meal at Commander's Palace."
The modern DUKES of Dixieland trace their history back 41 years, when trumpeter and cornetist Connie Jones left Pete Fountain's band to reform the band. They opened their own nightclub later that year in the French Quarter and have been a New Orleans institution ever since, taking up residency on the Steamboat Natchez in 1992. Clark, who had previously served a thirteen-year tenure in the band before leaving in 2002, returned to take the helm in 2010. He brought integral experience from playing at Disney World and booking shows for Toronto venues with him.
"The band has always had great players," Clark says, "but what I bring to the table is the conviction that people want to be entertained; they don't want a history lesson. We're like a show band that plays New Orleans music: everything's tight and there's no down time to explain what we're doing."
That attitude is well-represented on Live at 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which flows organically from opener "Mama Inez," through a trio of Duke Ellington compositions, to a mash-up of Louis Prima's iconic "Sing, Sing Sing," with his song from Disney's The Jungle Book, "I Wanna Be Like You." The set continues with Alan Broome's gravelly vocal on Tom Waits' "I Wish I Was in New Orleans," evoking both the songwriter and the city's musical godfather, Louis Armstrong.
Pianist/singer Joe Kennedy takes a killer turn on a medley of Jerry Lee Lewis tunes and returns to the spotlight for a run-through of New Orleans R&B favorites, including Dr. John's "Such a Night;" "Down Home Girl," originally recorded by New Orleans singer Alvin Robinson; Huey "Piano" Smith's oft-recorded "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu;" and Bobby Goldsboro's "Voodoo Woman." Allen Toussaint's familiar "Java" offers a taste of a more classic New Orleans sound.
"There's a lot of different music under the umbrella of New Orleans music," Clark sums up. "What we're trying to do is be that band. You want to hear Jelly Roll Morton? We'll play Jelly Roll Morton like you want it to be done. Want to hear Fats Domino? Louis Prima? The Meters? The Neville Brothers? I think the essence is versatility, presenting lots of different options for people with depth while remaining accessible and fun."